Help Desk is an arts-advice column that demystifies practices for artists, writers, curators, collectors, patrons, and the general public. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving. Help Desk is co-sponsored by KQED.org.
What’s the best way to write a press release so that my show gets reviewed?
If you poke around on the internet, you’ll find that there’s a lot of information out there about how to write a press release. In fact, there is so much information on the subject that I recommend you start with a broad search to familiarize yourself with the fundamentals, which are too numerous (and somewhat boring) to cover in this column. Go do that now, and I’ll wait here.
You’re back! You probably noticed that much of what you’ve gleaned from the web about press releases is still written as though you’re going to print one, stick it in an envelope, and mail it; bear in mind that tips such as “to ensure readability, your press release should be typed, double-spaced, on white letterhead” are a little outdated. There’s nothing wrong with an e-mailed press release, and that’s what I recommend.
Now that you’ve researched the basics and committed to the e-mail format, we can move on to the strategies that will actually get your press release read (you can follow the links back to the original sites):
“Get right to the point in the first paragraph. Because reporters are busy people, you must assume that they will only read the first sentence and then scan the rest—and even that’s a generous assumption. Get the message of your press release out quickly. Every important point should be addressed in the first few sentences. The subsequent paragraphs should be for supporting information.”
“Don’t embellish or hype the information. Remember, you are not writing the article, you are merely presenting the information and showing why it is relevant to that publication in hopes that they will write about it.”
“Your goal is to communicate your news using everyday language, so avoid overusing technical jargon. Not everyone understands your industry terminology as well as you do. Excess jargon will confuse your reader and may be enough for a journalist to pass over your release for one that is easier to understand.”
I also talked to Mark Taylor, who is my editor at KQED and the senior interactive producer for arts and culture there as well as the editor of KQED’s daily Arts & Culture blog. I asked him what he usually pays attention to, and this is what he told me:
“I receive about fifty press releases a day.* Most have subject lines like ‘Press Opportunity.’ I’m press, so I open it, but I wish people would say what the subject of the document actually is. Why I should open your e-mail? I would like to see something like, ‘Artist Soandso solo show at Gallery X, June 11–July 24.’”
Some of Mr. Taylor’s wisdom contradicts what you’ll find on many of the sites that give advice on writing press releases; that’s because the tips on many sites are targeted to non-arts businesses. These sites may encourage you to start your release with a rhetorical question or an anecdote, but Mr. Taylor insists: “I need information over clever attention grabbers. I don’t need a weird, ‘catchy’ headline, I need facts—the who, what, when, and where instead of ‘Have you ever thought about stars?’ or ‘Everyone loves lollipops!’”**
“Tell me what are you promoting, when it is, and where it is happening. In the case of visual art, tell me what the artist does. At lot of times I’ll get a release that says, ‘Soandso is having a show at Gallery X.’ And this is followed by a history of Soandso’s exhibitions, but what I want to know is what is this a show of? This is your opportunity to describe it.” Likewise, if you’re going to include information about your education, awards, or the history of the gallery, write a brief summary and put it farther down on the page. “I think press release writers add a lot of extra information because some journalists write stories from press releases. I understand that, but I’m not that kind of an assignment editor and we don’t do that at KQED. If you’re going to include a lot of information, I would prefer that it be farther down the e-mail.”
Your images are important, too. Make sure you’re including images that represent your work to its best advantage and aren’t too big to open quickly. If you format your e-mail with the images embedded, you might also want to attach them separately in case the image doesn’t properly open within the e-mail. Don’t assume that the recipient is using the same internet browser or e-mail reader as you—theirs might withhold an embedded image (Gmail does this).
Should you send a generic press release or one that is more targeted to specific people? “The personalized, ‘Hey Mark, I want to bring this show to your attention’-type press release can work if you’re good at it, but it can also backfire. The personal approach only works if you’re genuinely being personal. You have to know what the person does and what he or she is interested in.”
Of course, there are no guarantees in life, and I can’t assure you that your show will be reviewed. However, if you take these suggestions to heart, your press release is more likely to be read, and that’s the first step toward getting a show reviewed. Some last tips: if you get really stuck, find a press release that you like and use its format as a guide for your own. And before you hit “send,” make sure your spelling and grammar are flawless; if you have a hard time spotting errors, give it to a sharp-eyed friend or try reading the release out loud.
Good luck! I’ll leave you with my favorite example, an informative, witty, and well-played release from a show at Jack Shainman Gallery in 2012:
*Mark has worked at KQED for thirteen years; a conservative estimate will tell you that he’s read at least thirty-two thousand press releases.
**Now that I’m the managing editor of this site and newly on the receiving end of a slew of press releases, I concur. The “catchy” headline and rhetorical-question strategy is not intriguing; it is annoying.