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  • Writer's pictureHeidi Schlag

Unlocking press coverage for museums: Strategies from a communication pro

Updated: Jun 1




You’ve probably had someone in your museum say it: “We should get an article on the front page of the newspaper!” Although it isn’t as easy as they make it sound, press coverage is an effective way to spread the word about your museum’s mission, events, and activities. And no, it doesn’t need to be a front page spread to be effective.

 

I have worked both as a Director of Communications and Marketing, where one of my responsibilities was to obtain press coverage for my organization, and also as a journalist, where I write about museums for both digital and print publications. I can tell you that press coverage – often called “earned media” in the marketing/communications world – is one of the best ways to stay relevant and visible in your community. And best of all? It’s free.

 

Here are my tips on getting press coverage about your museum, drawn from my experience on both sides of the operation.

 

Research your media landscape

The first step to gaining media coverage is to familiarize yourself with the media outlets in your area. This may include local newspapers, radio shows, podcasts, blogs, magazines, and television stations. For each publication, you want to identify the reporter(s) who are most likely to be interested in your stories. This could include entertainment, community, science, or news reporters, among others. And of course, many smaller media outlets may be one-person shops.

 

I maintained a media list spreadsheet with relevant contact information along with the topics each reporter typically covered. This made it very easy for me to build a contact list each time I had news to share.

 

Cultivate relationships

Gone are the days when you can send a generic press release to a list of reporters and get instant coverage. Today, there are many fewer journalists, and they are being inundated with pitches. If they don’t recognize your name, it is unlikely they will open your email or take your call. Attend press events, set up coffee meetings, and engage with journalists on social media. As you get to know each other, you will be able to provide each other with mutually beneficial content.

 

Tell compelling stories

In our rapid-fire media landscape, the fact that you are opening a new exhibit or hosting a fundraising event is not going to be enough to gain you coverage. Journalists are looking for stories. Luckily, museums are rich in stories! When you send a pitch to a journalist, tell them the STORY your exhibit is presenting. What people are included? What is the background of that artifact on display? Why are those stories relevant to the journalists’ readers?

 

Offer exclusive access

Once you have begun a relationship with a journalist, invite them to an exclusive preview or behind-the-scenes tour. Not only does this help to familiarize them with your mission and exhibitions, but exclusive content makes their stories richer.

 

Leverage your web presence

As a journalist myself, the first thing I do when I am assigned a story about a museum is check out their website and social media. I’m looking for contact information, an overview of what the museum offers, and any interesting events or stories I can feature. Take a critical look at your online presence and be sure you are providing these details. Consider creating a “media area” on your website where you list story ideas and provide photos that a journalist can grab.

 

Be responsive

To me, this one is the key. Even if you do all of the above, if you aren’t responsive to press inquiries, it is all for naught. I can’t tell you how many times I have sent a request to a museum about a story I was writing and never received a response. I know museum staff are busy, and press requests may not seem very important. But press coverage is FREE ADVERTISING. If someone emailed you offering free advertising, you’d respond, right?!

 

Here are my tips to help your museum staff handle reporters:


1.     Be clear on your website who reporters should contact. Do you want requests to go through an Executive Director or communications staffer? Provide their phone number and email address.


2.     If you are using a generic info@ email address, be sure you have assigned someone to check it daily and forward messages to appropriate staffers.


3.     Create talking points and media handouts about your organization and your exhibits. Make this a routine anytime you launch anything new. You should also identify a few photographs that are free of copywrite issues for journalists to publish. That way, when you receive a press request, you can quickly send these materials. These resources are gold to a journalist, making their jobs much easier. And if you make their jobs easy, they are much more likely to come back to you again and again.


4.     Be cognizant of their deadlines. Journalists work under all kinds of deadlines – some have weeks to write a story and others have two hours. When I was a media contact, I would handle media requests immediately, and my first question was always “What is your deadline?” That helped me to plan how much help I could realistically give the reporter, considering the other obligations I had.


5.     Say thank you! Reporters rarely hear anything back on their stories unless they got something wrong. I always made a point of thanking each reporter who covered my organization. It all goes back to building those relationships. If you become known as easy to work with, pleasant, and helpful, you will always have reporters wanting to cover you!

 

Do you have questions about the earned media process? Drop them in the comments below, and I will address them!

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