Career pathways: Press Officer

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Q. Who are you?
I’m Eleanor Macnair. I’m one of the two press officers here at the National Portrait Gallery.
Q. What does your job involve?
Basically, me and my colleague Neil do the press for six major exhibitions a year, probably about twenty displays which are smaller than whole exhibitions. They can be anything from three paintings to about twenty, thirty photographs. We also do the press for new acquisitions so new works that we buy for the gallery, and commissions, so for example we recently commissioned a portrait of Princes William and Harry which is a painted portrait by Nicki Phillips, so obviously we do the press coverage of those as well and then various news stories that come up around the gallery, for example some of our curators recently found a hidden snake in a portrait of Elizabeth I, so we aim to get news coverage of the project they’ve been doing around our Tudor portraits. So everyday is different, you’ll be working on about six, seven different projects everyday and sometimes you’re working up to two years in advance so everyday is very different.
Q. Which departments do you work with?
In the press office we work very closely with lots of the departments, which is quite unusual for the gallery. The curator we work very closely with them, talking through the exhibitions and the various stories, and for them it’s sometimes interesting to hear what we think and what makes the strongest story. PR and Marketing department sit in an office very closely together so we all know what’s going on. Typically, one of us press officers will be working on an exhibition, and the exhibition will also be allotted to one of the marketeers, and we will deal directly with them, and decide on the ten or twelve generic images, we let them know when out big exclusives, when our big stories are coming out, so they can feed that. They’re working a lot more now with Facebook and Twitter, they can flag up all that coverage as well.
Q. What skills do you need?
On top of the strategic stuff we’ve also got people calling up, asking things, reading about things we’re actually not so prepared for. We’ve got to be reactive as well as proactive with it all, you never know what’s going to come in. So you’ve got to try and know as much about an exhibition. You have to think of the questions that the journalists will ask, and get those answers in advance, which isn’t always possible, but it’s about thinking very carefully about what people want to know.
Q. Copyright issues
One thing we have to be careful of is a copyright of the images. Lots of the images we work with for the displays are from our permanent collection, the copyright belongs to us. But for a lot of major exhibitions, they’ll be loans, all the artists will still be alive, the works will still be in copyright. So we’ve got to make sure the artist is happy for us to use the images in conjunction with the exhibition, which means when we send them out, we’ve got to make sure that press don’t database them and use them in future to illustrate other stories, they must only only be used specifically for our exhibition and direct publicity for this. Very often people will come along into press views, take a picture, and then they’ll keep it on their database. Lots of photo agencies do that, so it’s about keeping an eye on that, trying to get them to sign agreements to say they won’t so that, but it’s a balance, though, because you can’t be too controlled, you’ve got to somehow trust people, otherwise you won’t let a photographer into the gallery at all.
Q. What’s good about your job?
I’ve done a couple of different PR jobs and one of them was for an agency where, in an agency environment, people are very often doing PR for things they don’t believe in, or aren’t that interesting, and they’ve really got to push and rely on their contact to be able to get their story any coverage. We’re lucky enough here that there’s such a scope, a diversity about what’s on show, what goes on show, and the stories that somebody’s always going to be interested, and so we don’t have to take people out for champagne, basically, you can just talk to people about the work, and usually it’s within their interests and excites them.
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