Elizabeth Burke Dain is no stranger to the Chicago art world. Since 1985, she has been crafting the messages of arts organizations around the city.
She started her professional career at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1985 in the Asian art galleries, eventually migrating into the role of Manager of Rights and Reproductions. In 1989, she co-founded the Wicker Park arts festival Around the Coyote, known for showcasing emerging artists. Since then, she has gone on to run her own events/PR business and become the Media Relations Associate at Columbia College Chicago. After six years of ensuring the college’s messaging came out on top, she decided to focus full-time on her arts PR business, Function. CAR Visual Arts Researcher Alicia Eler interviewed Elizabeth about the importance of PR and media relations to gain a behind-the-scenes look at what the communications world is really like.
Chicago Artists’ Resource: What drew you to arts PR?
EBD: I got into PR after being hired as a media relations officer at Columbia College Chicago. I worked there for six years and found a kinship with the curators, artists, faculty and administration. Since I was already a ravenous reader of cultural media—especially art publications—my constituents appreciated my knowledge and awareness of the up-to-the-minute trends in contemporary art. I was asked to sit on most of the curatorial boards within the college gallery system and to advise on how exhibitions could be perceived from a media relations perspective. I developed professional relationships with reporters all over the city and on a national scale. As a result of my dedication to my role and deep interest in contemporary art, I was able to regularly get reviews and stories placed. These placements helped to position the galleries at Columbia College as an important local and national voice in Chicago’s art community.
CAR: Why would an organization want to work with a PR consultant?
EBD: PR is the strategic crafting of your brand story. It's the focused examination of your interactions, programs and community engagement that, when combined, determine what and how people talk about you. Publicity is the act of getting ink. Publicity is getting unpaid media to pay attention, write you up, point to you, run a picture, make a commotion.
The work I do is primarily with galleries and organizations. When an organization asks me to publicize an exhibition, it is important that I know the most current version of their brand story so that anything I write or relate about them furthers their vision of themselves with the public.
A few questions I will ask an organization are: How does the public benefit from your organization? What’s in it for them? What is the call to action for the public? A great story always has a great character; through whose eyes should your story be told?
Another part of being a publicist is creating awareness about any changes that have taken place within an organization. When an organization wants to re-brand themselves, or change the story that is already known about them, I will write a pitch for journalists, editors or producers to entice them to pursue that story for their publication or network.
The pitch, like an elevator speech, is important because you want the press to endorse your brand or exhibition as being worthy of taking up space in their publication. The pitch has to be “news” and it has to have a good hook. There is nothing worse than trying to tell a journalist who is short on time a story that is too complicated to explain. Getting your story out there to writers and journalists—even if they don’t pick it up—is brand building. Writers will remember you. They like it when story ideas are sent to them. They need good stories, and publicists always have a story.
Crisis communications also plays a major role in PR. After running after the press to get stories placed, a crisis is a moment when the press comes to you whether you like it or not. However, a crisis gives you a great opportunity to define your brand.
CAR: Talk about a “crisis communications” situation that you’ve encountered during your career as an arts PR consultant.
EBD: I once was publicizing an exhibition of political art from an area of the world where there is a great deal violence between warring factions. This exhibition included artists from one part of this volatile area and represented the only the views of one side of this debate. Upon hearing that the curatorial board had approved the exhibition, I alerted my boss that this show might cause some tension. He was not very concerned.
I sent out a gallery listing for this exhibition six weeks in advance. In response to my listing, National Public Radio called and asked to do an in-depth story. As soon as the board of trustees caught wind that NPR wanted to do a feature story, they got scared. They feared that donors to the institution who might be opposed to the politics of the exhibition would pull their funding. At this point the show could not be cancelled since that would invite accusations of censorship and violations of freedom of speech.
To prepare ourselves for the potential for negative attention, I prepared a statement outlining how “this institution welcomes all voices and opinions as part of its mission. It does not exclude one political view over another.” Several organizations who opposed the views and opinions of these artists were contacted to appear on an exhibition panel discussion in order to include their side of the argument. These organizations declined to participate, but they appreciated being asked. In the end the press could not claim that this institution was favoring the politics of one side over the other. The NPR story ran with little fanfare and the public gained a better understanding of the institution’s mission and brand.
CAR: Can you describe typical high-pressure scenarios of the job and how you resolved them?
EBD: A client was very anxious to get a feature story for a major photography exhibition they felt was a defining moment for them and their brand. They had already sent out a press release, but they weren't getting enough stories placed.
The exhibition was excellently curated, but it was highly conceptual and made up of many components and moving parts. In other words, it did not have an easily defined hook. In an attempt to craft a simpler and more concise pitch, I broke the exhibition components down into a variety of stories ranging from how an artist can act as an innovation consultant (business hook) to a re-visioning of a historic Chicago photographic exhibition from the ‘80s (Chicago history hook).
I called WTTW, which produces a series about Chicago from the ‘70s and ‘80s called “Remembering Chicago.” After getting tossed around from news desk to news desk, I found a producer who was documenting Chicago for the 1986-1996 segment. My client’s photo exhibition was perfect. The producer used the content of this photographic collection as the cornerstone of her entire project.
Mostly, my job is about digging until I get to the right person. There is often no straight line between pitching a story and getting a placement. Reporters leave or they get reassigned to a new beat and it is my job to find the person who replaced them. Or, I have to find new publications, blogs, producers, editors, stringers, correspondents and freelancers. Fitting the right story with the right publication or reporter requires an understanding of what makes something newsworthy. The old news adage “if it bleeds it leads” is quite often true, but it has always been my belief that a good story will always find its way into something. My boss at Columbia College used to say that advertising is the 'pay' part of marketing while PR is the "pray" part.
Elizabeth Burke-Dain is a professional PR consultant who specializes in bringing local and national attention to the visual arts. During her 20-year-plus career, she founded the Around the Coyote Festival, worked in multiple roles at the Art Institute of Chicago and served as the Media Relations Associate at Columbia College Chicago. She currently operates her own arts PR consulting firm, Function. Clients include the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Galleries, Chicago Artists' Coalition and Cultural Media, Inc. To learn more about Elizabeth Burke Dain, visit her LinkedIn profile or or contact her directly.