Career spotlight: Arts publicist

Gaining publicity for your work is about more than getting bums on seats. Here, three established publicists talk about the skills required to be an effective publicist.
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It takes talent, insight and perseverance to create a great work of art. Similarly, it requires a particular set of skills to encourage complete strangers to hand over cash to come and see that work.

Whether you’re an artist mounting an important solo exhibition, a theatre company staging a new production, or an author releasing a book into the world, finding the right person to help publicise your work (ideally someone whose professional relationships with broadcasters and journalists are already well established, so they can convince them that your story out of dozens of others is the one worth talking about) can make all the difference between a work gaining traction versus going unnoticed.

For anyone considering moving into a career as an arts publicists, having a passion for the arts is a valuable first step.

‘My move into arts publicity was the logical blending of my parallel “lives” as a journalist and performer,’ said Sydney-based Geoff Sirmai, director of Sirmai Arts Marketing.

‘I’d been a stage and screen actor and musician from childhood and after finishing university with post-graduate qualifications in both Australian Drama and Music, my working career headed into journalism and ultimately roles as media spokesperson for the Australian Consumers’ Association (Choice Magazine) and then the Department of Health. I wrote for major metro newspapers and magazines and produced, presented and reported on TV and radio.

‘When my professional and family goals necessitated a change to the freelance lifestyle, it seemed logical to combine my passion for and familiarity in all areas of the arts with my wide networks and high profile in the media.’

John Michael Swinbank, director of Perth’s JMS Public Relations, had a similar career trajectory.

‘I suppose I started out in this profession when I realised that everything is “public relations”. I was actually very preoccupied with being a performer and creating opportunities for myself. I had a lot of stars in my eyes but at some fundamental pragmatic level, I realised that in order to perform I had to have an audience. I set about drumming up a reliable audience for my work. Until one day, a major arts company rang me up and asked if I would do for them what I did for myself. I was very, very surprised,’ Swinbank explained.

Read: 10 tips for arts publicists

Conversely, Tatia Sloley, the co-founder of Melbourne-based company TS Publicity, fell into the field almost by accident.

‘I had just completed a degree in Writing and Editing and was hoping to get a job in book publishing,’ she explained. ‘A friend who had been working with Meredith King at King & Associates was leaving the company and put me forward as her replacement. At the time, I really had no idea what publicity was, but I loved the arts, so decided to give it a try as an interim job. That was 21 years ago. Meredith was an incredible mentor and I was thrown straight into publicising the madness that is the Melbourne Comedy Festival. That Festival is still a much-loved client to this day.’

Learning on the job

While some tertiary courses can assist the would-be publicist, nothing prepares you better than hands-on experience in the field, Sloley continued.

‘Many staff who have come through TS Publicity over the years have completed the popular Bachelor of Communication Public Relations degree at RMIT and I’ve no doubt the course assists students in developing some of the skills required, such as writing media releases and PR campaign plans. But nothing can really prepare you for the cut and thrust of day to day PR – it takes a lot of on the job training and experience before you can automatically respond to each component of a publicity campaign,’ Sloley explained.

Sirmai similarly recommends the benefits of practical experience: ‘While communication degrees and courses do cover publicity (often as a subset of “marketing” – which is qualitively different!), there’s no substitute for experience in both media and the arts. In my case, I like to describe it as “knowing the media from both sides of the microphone/keyboard/camera… and the performing arts from both sides of the footlights”!’ he said.

A day in the life

It’s hard to describe a typical working day for an arts publicist, given the diverse demands on their time. As Swinbank puts it: ‘There is nothing typical about a working day in PR. It does start with an engagement with what is going on in the world and then slowly contracts to the clients’ world. The rest of the day can be a juggling act of priorities, a wild ride of emotions, and an intensity of focus on the solution.’

Sloley distinguishes between two main types of working days, each of which holds many surprises and challenges.

‘There are days of preparation, planning, pitching and reporting – mainly in the office, on the phone, on email, meeting with staff and clients. And days that include events or the culmination of a campaign. These usually start early in the morning and finish late in the day, are filled with media calls, interviews, artist liaison, performances, and are frantic, high pressure, exhausting, rewarding and completely fabulous,’ she explained.

Read: Facebook is not publicity

As with any modern job, emails are a big part of the workload, said Sirmai.

‘There’s invariably a flood of emails to respond to the moment I fire up the laptop. These could be from artists and producers sending through information and photos or from media responding to my “pitches”. If it’s the former I’ll need to check the quality and accuracy of the material; if the latter, I’ll need to choose the best material to send and then liaise between journalist and artist for interviews. This will continue throughout the day – and often into the night… media and artists tend to keep quite different hours: being available 24/7 (with a cheery countenance!) is part of the job,’ he said.

‘I might spend some of the day meeting with clients, preparing or distributing media publicity kits. There could be some time updating my contacts list (one of the publicist’s most important resources) and some media monitoring and scanning/downloading of articles for reporting to clients. The evening could include some “meet and greet” duties with reviewers and other VIP invitees at a client show’s opening night – plus a little “schmoozing”!’

Practical advice

Looking back at their careers, what advice would our established arts publicists give their younger selves – or anyone else just starting out in publicity?

Sirmai said: I’d always advise newcomers to be sure they have the passion for the job and appreciate their role is to be the “matchmaker” between artists and their audience – via the media. If you do it well, it will appear seamless and your own role will seem invisible! Everyone should win: the show wins coverage, the media get great stories for their readers, viewers and listeners… and audiences discover – and buy tickets to – superb art.’

Sloley stressed the importance of a passion for the arts. ‘Something very obvious that probably applies to most careers or industries – you really need to love the arts. If you’re not thrilled when you finally get to experience that theatre production or festival or exhibition that you have spent weeks (sometimes months) publicising, then why do it? I laughed and cried at Heart is a Wasteland at Malthouse Theatre last night – what a great way to spend an evening!’ she said.

Swinbank added: ‘You may not realise the power of the public relations, yet. PR is a dark art, desired by many, practised by few. What you see is not often seen by others. Only another PR will understand what you do. Be proud. Believe.’

The changing media landscape

The rapidly changing media landscape is already impacting on the careers of journalists, editors, freelancers and other members of the media. Not surprisingly, publicists are also feeling the impact, Sloley explained.

‘I was looking at an old media report recently – it contained newspaper clippings on the opening of a theatre production about 10 years ago – and there were so many newspapers and magazines that covered arts events back then,’ she said.

‘We’ve already altered our approach to reflect these changes, and focus so much more on digital media outlets and social media, and identify appealing angles for general news in addition to arts coverage. I think all of our clients, and the arts industry in general, are aware of the shifting media landscape and are adjusting their approaches and expectations as well.’

Swinbank said our current era of accelerated communications has increased the need for more artful PR. ‘The principals have not changed. The landscape has. And the unmediated playground of social media presents challenges – and opportunities,’ he explained.

Sirmai agrees. ‘Just as the performing arts continue to reinvent themselves, to create innovative work and attract audiences, so there will always be means to tell their stories and spread the word. Whether this is through print or electronic variations of traditional media (with editors and journalists as intermediaries) or self-published sites, blogs or social-media inspired groups and subscriber lists, keeping pace is just part of the job of being the switched-on “matchmaker”,’ he said. 

‘Ultimately publicity will always have a quite different weight and reach from advertising and marketing (where the artist is still transparently blowing their own trumpet – however tunefully!). Likewise social media, which will always depend on the limits of the users’ networks. Nothing reaches new audience like media publicity – long may it live!’

Previous articles in this series:

Career spotlight: Art therapist
Career spotlight: Burlesque performer 
Career spotlight: Conservator
Career spotlight: Contemporary jeweller

Career spotlight: Costume designer

Career spotlight: Floral artist
Career spotlight: Playwright
Career Spotlight: Puppeteer
Career spotlight: Stage manager

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts