Public Relations for Dummies

My friend and former roommate Will was always teasing me about my collection of those yellow "For Dummies" books. "Have you drawn anything lately?" He would ask, grinning. "Hey - have you trained for your marathon this week?" No, Will. I have not drawn anything (except my Draw Something doodles, and those are not helped by that damn book) and I certainly haven't run any marathons. However, I do like learning new things, which is why I am prone to keep buying those books. And one of these days I'm going to learn how to write in HTML, I swear.  


But in the meantime, one of the books I wished those Dummies people would write was the one about PR in the classical music industry. Instead of being one of those people that is convinced that PR is ruining the industry by foisting less talented but more beautiful people onto audiences, I think it can be used very creatively to bring in new audiences and to promote talented but under exposed artists . Plus, I'm always having some "great idea!!!!" but when using myself as a guinea pig, have had some mixed results. 

Some years ago, I had this burning desire to appear in Opera News Magazine. It just seemed like that was the big thing that happened to you when you were a young singer, and I wanted them to feature me in their "Sound Bites" section where they profile a singer at the beginning(ish) stages of their career. But I wanted to try to think of some angle that would make me stand out and appeal to them, and I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. My best friend Georgia and I had been singing together since we were freshmen in college, when I was a mezzo and she was a soprano. We then swapped voice types for the rest of college, and ended up swapping back in grad school (precipiated by the fact that I heard her singing Chi il bel sogno one day in our living room when she was supposedely a mezzo and I was supposedly a soprano, and I knew that she shouldn't be able to decrescendo the high C that well, especially when I definitely couldn't). We had the same voice teacher all through college, moved to NY together and were roommates, had the same agent, and had even managed to sing opposite each other at the Caramoor Festival, at NYCO, and at Lake George Opera. I thought we had a cute story, and that it would be neat if we appeared together as the "Sound Bite." I wrote up a little article, had my agents pitch it to Opera News, and they were interested! They said they just needed to hear recordings of both of us to approve us for the magazine. 

Our agent sent what they had - for her, it was a professionally made recording of her singing La Sonnambula amazingly, and for me it was a mini disc recording my dad made from the 4th row when I sang Cenerentola. After they had listened to the recordings, they called our agent and said they wanted to proceed - but just with Georgia. Her initial reaction was that she would refuse the article because she felt terrible, but I forced her to do it - I wanted at least one of us to benefit from the whole ordeal! 

I was excited that my idea had, to some degree worked - it had gotten Georgia in front of Opera News, and had gotten them to pay attention to her. I was also, however, obviously crestfallen that they hadn't chosen me. But it taught me a few important lessons about creating your own PR;

1. The idea is important, but so is the execution. If you have an idea to get someone's attention, don't follow it up with a shoddy product (in this case, it was a non-professional recording of me).

2. Journalism is based on subjective judgement, and you have to be able to accept rejection if you're willing to put yourself out there. I really took it to heart when they "rejected" me, but in the end it didn't hurt my career that I wasn't in there - it was just one article. I should have used that enthusiasm to pursue other ideas, but instead, it really soured me towards thinking about PR for awhile. 

What has changed in PR in recent years is that artists actually have many more options and much more control over their ability to put themselves in front of people in a variety of ways. Not only can we create websites and write blogs, but we can create fan pages on Facebook and amass great followings on Twitter. I had actually resisted joining Twitter until about three quarters of the way through the Spring For Music competition. I was wondering aloud on facebook how some of the other competitors were able to get the word out and gain votes in the first couple of rounds, and someone in the professional PR industry who I had come to know mentioned that some of the bloggers were popular on Twitter. I felt like a real old lady when I first made a few steps towards setting up my Twitter account, but luckily, I had the help of both my tech savvy boyfriend Michael, and the PR professional I mentioned above, Maura Lafferty. 

Maura is a San Francisco based freelance publicity consultant for artists and arts organzations. I came to know her because she had appeared as a guest on the OperaNow! podcast, and I had already grilled her in that setting about PR within the classical music industry. And when it came to Twitter, she proved that she really knew her stuff - getting me set up with all the proper contacts within the music industry and helping me understand the etiquette of professional Twitterism. I asked her this week to answer a few PR questions for those of you artists who might like some advice on where to get started with your own PR and when a publicist might be able to help you. Here's what she said:

JR: What are a few PR essentials that artists and classical musicians can start thinking about for themselves? What is the best way to use social media (Facebook, twitter) for publicity?

ML:PR and marketing is about building relationships through telling compelling stories. The most important thing that artists can do is determine what makes them special, and figure out who that appeals to (this is what we mean when we talk about “target audience”). Social media is great for lowering how much work and resources it takes to make this happen – the free tools and information available online mean that anyone can build relationships, given some time, careful research, and a clear sense of the story they’re trying to tell. Bonus points if the story is culturally relevant and/or plays up familiar points of entry that will allow new audiences to connect.

JR: When is it time to seek the help of a professional publicist? How are independent publicists paid - by the hour, by the month, or based on how many sources they can get you in? Can you give us some ballpark figures?

ML:Publicists offer a variety of services, and the most important thing is to be clear about what you want when you hire someone. Services like consulting (advice on a project, list-building, etc) are more likely to be billed on an hourly rate, and more comprehensive projects (promoting a show, raising a specific artist or company’s profile, etc) are more likely to be billed on a retainer (monthly or project fee). Hourly fees tend to be more expensive than committing to a retainer or project fee, because the work is more difficult for the publicist, and less reliable. Pricing is generally determined by the current market, how much work the consultant currently has on his/her plate, and the quality of the service & results you can expect.

Performance-based pricing is difficult for PR or marketing consultants, just as it is for an artist. Placing stories is an inexact science, and results are dependent on a variety of factors, from the quality of the product, to the writers’ interests and how their schedule aligns with the production schedule, to how closely and authentically the project ties into to current media trends and stories.

A colleague provided this list of questions for clients to answer before starting a new project, which I think is a really valuable exercise for artists and administrators to be able to answer, as not articulating the answers to these upfront usually leads to problems on a project:

     What are we trying to do?

    Who’s our competition?

    To whom are we talking?

    What do we want to tell them?

    What do we want them to think about/do?

    What do they currently think about us?

    What is critical to our success?

    What are you concerned about?

    What is working currently?

    What do we do better than anyone else?

    How will we know we’ve been successful?

JR: What are some mistakes you see musicians and artists make in regards to their own PR - either things they do themselves or things they do with the help of a publicist?

ML:PR is just personal conversations played out in a grand arena – people join in because they’re intrigued by what’s being said, feel important, have an opinion to share, or want to be part of something larger than themselves. The same best practices apply to PR as you would treat any other relationship – with a friend, colleague, conductor, spouse, roommate, etc.

Most people who make PR blunders are the ones who do something that would be unacceptable in a personal relationship – making it about their ego and getting into some kind of fight, pulling a stunt that is considered out of line with the image we associate them with and therefore expect them to portray, or otherwise upsetting the balance between their personal desires and the expectations of stakeholders, whose trust is key to maintaining the relationships (donors, journalists, colleagues, etc). When it takes place in a public arena, the effect is magnified, and the power of the internet is the increased speed by which everyone is inter-connected, so each decision becomes more important. What we call “blunders” are decisions artists make that will generate a negative result which we can all collectively anticipate.


So there you go. Some valuable information for artists about the role PR can play in our industry. Special thanks to Maura for her help with Twitter and for taking the time to answer these questions. You can find her on Twitter @MLaffs (she has over 3000 followers!!) and her personal website is Now go out and get yourself noticed!

Oh - and you can find me on twitter @jjennymr - Maura would kick my butt if I forgot to mention that after all that work she did on my behalf! 

*edit - I realized after reading this that it looks like Maura is my official publicist and I have retained her, which is not the case. I have never had the occasion to retain a professional publicist - Maura helped me with twitter, and you all with these answers, purely out of the kindness of her heart.