Best Practices in Public Relations

August 25th, 2013 - Posted in 2013, Dimensions by Emily Schuster

We asked public relations (PR) professionals from science centers and museums around the world to send us their best practices, guidelines, practical tips, and pieces of advice. Here’s what they told us. (This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the September/October 2013 issue of Dimensions magazine.)

Thanksgiving Point is currently in the process of raising the remaining funding needed for the Museum of Natural Curiosity—Utah’s newest children’s museum, opening in 2014. A year out from opening, Thanksgiving Point launched a PR campaign to raise awareness for the new museum and to spread the message of its fundraising needs. Based off this specific campaign, below are our top three tips in PR efforts for museums that are looking to raise awareness:

• Take the risk to execute outside-the-box ideas. What would you think if you saw a submarine wreck in your local community’s pond? With Thanksgiving Point’s RUcurious2.org campaign, we aimed to evoke curiosity to promote awareness for the Museum of Natural Curiosity. Instead of just telling people about the new museum, we created a unique, memorable way of launching the message to the public. We all hear the phrase “think outside the box,” but we tend to stop at the thinking stage and don’t move on to actually executing these ideas. Take risks to do something out of the ordinary. Creative new ideas can be intimidating to pull off, but if strategically planned, they can create a lot of buzz.

• Reach out to the media to launch your message. For the campaign launch, media were notified through email and Twitter about the mysterious submarine wreck in the local pond. We strategically placed the submarine (actually a kinetic sculpture by local artist Andrew Smith) on April Fool’s Day 2013 to make it a timely news piece. Since this happened early in the morning, word spread quickly, and the news stations were talking about it all day—all trying to figure out how the submarine got there and why it was there. Before the evening news, we notified them that it was a promotion for the Museum of Natural Curiosity. They continued to report on it with the reveal. Remember, media will only report something that is timely, newsworthy, and applicable to their community audience. Make sure your PR campaign matches those requirements.

• Support creativity with traditional tactics. Creative tactics still need to be supported by traditional marketing and PR tactics such as direct mail pieces, websites, press releases, billboards, newsletters, and more. With our RUcurious2.org campaign, we made sure all our traditional tactics were consistent with our creative messaging. Don’t forget to hit all your avenues when creating your PR campaign.

Britnee Johnston, communications manager
Thanksgiving Point, Lehi, Utah

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has been gratified by the dramatic increase in attendance that followed the opening of our new wing, the Nature Research Center, in 2012, making us the most visited cultural attraction in the state. Those numbers, however, did not spike simply because of what we did. We were meeting a growing demand to engage science and the natural world, a demand elevated by our location in a region thick with university and private research institutions, such as organizations in the Research Triangle Park. The public has responded to the new opportunities we provide to get close to research and collections through multiple kinds of experiences.

We organized a 24-hour grand opening for the Nature Research Center with a festival atmosphere that included a parade, exhibitors, food, outdoor musicians, a ceremony with celebrity speakers, and continual programming. The marathon event drew more than 70,000 visitors and widespread news coverage that contributed significantly to continued strong attendance. In addition, our grand opening advertising campaign, which included Emmy Award–winning TV commercials, centered around intriguing questions answered by scientific research, such as, “Spider silk is five times stronger than steel. How do we know?” The messages reinforced the thematic foundation of the Nature Research Center—How we know—and its connection to the main building of the museum—What we know.

Here are a few lessons we’ve learned:

• Identify, engage, and cultivate the online community that likely is already built or is building around your institution—e.g. mom blogs, astronomy club Twitter accounts—and leverage them as broadcasters to larger audiences. To truly engage with your communities, you need to listen intently and then respond quickly.

• Launch contests, including scavenger hunts, science trivia contests, and Facebook caption contests. Folks love to be involved in what’s going on at the museum rather than having it presented to them. Follow these and other PR efforts with measurement. Collect data and use a scientific method to nimbly change direction based on real information.

• Engage TV partners—they are essential. Don’t just contact them when you need them to run a story. Conspire with them to have live weather broadcasts at the museum or ask their science reporter to speak at a Science Café event.

• Adapt. A good communications strategy is alive and changing! No more dusty documents that are created and then forgotten.

Mark Johnson, director of external affairs
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh

Discovery Place, Inc., owns and operates four museums and, yes, has just one five-person team that handles marketing, PR, advertising, communications, and partnerships for all four museums. Managing details, keeping up with the workload, and having support aren’t just necessary to make everything operate smoothly—they are critical. When it comes to PR, the stakes are always high, especially when our museums are front-page news, and that’s when we rely on our best practices. Here are the practices that I have found that work well for us:

• Make friends. Whether they are members of the media, bloggers, peers at other arts organizations, politicians, or folks in the business world, you never know when and where your network will step in to be an enormous benefit to your museum. When Discovery Place opened its newest museum (Discovery Place KIDS–Rockingham) in February, we had never worked with the media market in that area before. Because Rockingham is in a rural community, it is also located between larger markets such as Charlotte, Raleigh, Florence, and Myrtle Beach. A large piece of our PR strategy for this museum has relied on making friends—community leaders, visitors, local parent groups, and more—who can help guide us in the right direction when it comes to decision-making and bringing in new visitors. This tactic has proven imperative and has not only resulted in a loyal fan base that has spread on its own fuel, but has also enabled us to take advantage of our new friends’ connections in neighboring communities. Be sure to reciprocate when your friends do you favors!

• Stay up to date on trends, especially in PR and social media. You don’t need to be an expert, but you do need to be aware. I subscribe to the free Ragan Communications and Social Media Today newsletters, which deliver the latest communications and social media news to my inbox. I also try to have a personal presence on most social media sites so that I better understand them and can use that knowledge for Discovery Place. In addition, I have a solid group of Twitter friends in the Charlotte area, and we all make efforts to share and educate one another on the latest and greatest in the social media world, no matter where we work.

• Get to know your fans and followers. Like your network, you never know who they are and how they can help your institution. Listen to what they have to say and respond on a regular basis.

Logan Stewart, manager of marketing and public relations
Discovery Place, Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina

PR activities related to the promotion of science differ greatly when looked from the perspectives of developed countries and developing ones.

At the beginning of the century, due to overall social and economic crises in Serbia and in the Western Balkans in general, there were almost no organizations or media in Serbia that promoted science. Therefore, I would like to focus my discussion on establishing the function of PR in science in emerging societies, rather than on practical tips for an event.

In 2010, the Serbian government made a strategic decision to establish the Center for the Promotion of Science (CPN), which would help the promotion and development of the scientific culture in Serbia. In order to emerge from the scene and create successful PR campaigns, the CPN had to create networks of knowledge providers, communicators, and users.

• The knowledge providers’ network consisted of established and emerging scientists from Serbia, the region, and the world. The CPN’s activities serve as a tool for these scientists not only to present their ideas, but also to exchange with or learn from their fellows. This network is as important for every PR campaign as relationships with the media because, most of the time, it’s not the CPN’s media team who communicates with society, but the scientists themselves.

• The communicators’ network, or the network of journalists, previously did not exist and had to be created by the CPN through a number of colloquia and seminars on science journalism. The PR campaigns for scientific events were structured around news-ready press releases, which were usually prepared by the CPN’s media team to be immediately published. Once the network was created, the success of the PR campaigns also lay in the fact that the media network was patiently nurtured, using good timing without overloading the network.

• The network of users is equally important, especially when it comes to possible cooperation with scientific and educational institutions and organizations. While it may look like users are simple consumers, they are actually an important link in the chain of the science promotion. If the network is used interactively, a huge portion of the ideas on how to promote science will come from the users themselves.

Without a single penny invested in the media campaign, Days of Future: Robotics, one of the biggest events organized in a series of actions by the CPN, attracted more than 150,000 visitors and had a media value of public visibility of €630,000 (USD 833,175).

Marija Nikolic, media consultant
Center for the Promotion of Science, Belgrade, Serbia

The New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) is located in New York City, the media capital of the world. This presents many opportunities, but also a major challenge: how to get press coverage with so much competition for people’s attention.

One of the best ways we’ve found is to respect each reporter. Here are some key points when working with reporters:

• Meet a reporter’s deadline. A reporter’s deadline is your deadline. If a reporter calls, ask about her deadline and make sure you get back to her before that deadline. Respond even if it’s to say that you won’t be able to help out on this particular story. Meeting a reporter’s deadline shows her that you take her work seriously and that she can count on you. Plus, if she knows you’re responsive, then she’s more likely to contact you for future stories.

• Don’t bother a reporter on deadline. With newsrooms slashing staff, reporters are under more stress now than ever before. If you know that a reporter is on deadline, don’t add to her frustration by pitching a story. A reporter who writes a weekly column that runs on Wednesdays is probably rewriting and editing that column on Tuesday. You’ll receive a more favorable response if you call on Wednesday after her column has been published. If the reporter works for a daily newspaper, TV station, or radio program, call her a few times each day until she answers her phone. Then make a note of when you reached her so you will know the best time to call in the future.

• Remind reporters of your great work. No matter how important your program is to the community, don’t assume that reporters know about it. Send them information on a regular basis—at least once a month. This keeps your programs in their consciousness. For large events, inform them early. For instance, every month, NYSCI sends a three-month event listing to a core list of reporters. Instead of waiting until July to let reporters know about World Maker Faire, a two-day festival in September, we’ve been including information about the event in our emails since March.

Reporters play an important role in our communities. Give them the respect they deserve, and they will appreciate your professionalism. Perhaps they’ll even reward you with positive press coverage!

Mary Record, director of communications
New York Hall of Science, Queens

Here are three of our best practices for new exhibition launches and other events.

• As part of our strategy to provide usable content to media, we produce short promotional “sizzle reels” (less than two minutes duration) featuring an overview of an exhibition and interviews with curators or other experts. It is distributed at the media preview or launch. Sometimes the footage is shot during the members’ preview a few days before the media preview, which allows us to get clips with visitor comments before the exhibition is open to the public. We make the video available on our website, ftp site, and through Canada News Wire, which allows bloggers and web editors to upload the video to their channels. The video features the speakers telling the story and does not require voiceover, which facilitates further editing by media if needed. It then goes on to become a record of the exhibition and, in the case of in-house designed exhibitions, can also be used by International Sales as a promotional tool.

• As we organized a blogger event related to the exhibition Game On 2.0, we conducted extensive research to find some of the most influential video gaming bloggers and aficionados in our area. To give added value to the event, we held a panel discussion about the role of video games in our society, featuring spokespeople from the academic, design, and industry sectors. The bloggers were able to experience the exhibition with like-minded colleagues and approach it from a more adult perspective. Close to 100 people attended this event, generating multiple blog posts and many social media comments. There has been a marked increase in adult visitors to the science center since this exhibition was launched. Word-of-blog and social media have had an influence in increasing attendance in this demographic. The feedback we have received from the exhibition’s creators at the Barbican, London, has been hugely positive. They have never had such a well-attended preview and were impressed by the results.

• At the Ontario Science Centre, providing expert spokespeople for media is an essential strategy to encourage coverage of new or permanent exhibitions. We media-train designated spokespeople who will be available for interviews for the extent of the exhibition’s run. We develop key messages and run thorough scenarios that simulate interviews, with a focus on television. The spokespeople are briefed on the current media landscape in Toronto, and are then asked questions relevant to the material they are speaking to. We include challenging questions that we anticipate might be posed by more inquisitive reporters. The video is reviewed and the process repeated to make the spokespeople more comfortable with appearing on camera. They learn to stick to the key messages and handle any controversial questions diplomatically as representatives of the Ontario Science Centre.

Christine Crosbie, media relations officer
Ontario Science Centre, Toronto

Special thanks to Saint Louis Science Center’s Science Beyond the Boundaries network for its help with this article. For more information on the network, email Jennifer Jovanovic or stop by the GRANDSTAND booth (#420/422) in the Exhibit Hall at the 2013 ASTC Annual Conference in Albuquerque in October.

About the image: Thanksgiving Point placed a mysterious submarine wreck in a local pond as a promotion for the new Museum of Natural Curiosity. Screen shot courtesy KSL 5

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