What's my line?
In the RIBA's book Media Matters (2000), designed to explain to architects how to take advantage of media opportunities, it informed the eager reader that 'we cannot answer questions from architects themselves.' Not the sort of response a hard-pressed, or maybe publicity-hungry architect wants to hear. As we all know, when a client wants an answer, architects tend to jump through hoops to give it to them. Why then don't PR people do the same for architects when they shout 'jump!' Well, it seems that architects very often do not really know what publicity they want or, more probably, they know what they think they want but then they have not got the first idea how to get it. The AJ bin is littered with ham-fisted promotional Powerpoints and photocopies of hand-shaking, sod-cutting, toothy-grinned photographs of 'me and the mayor (I'm the one on the right)'.
As Media Matters says: 'Are you looking to get more clients? If so, it's probably not worth pursuing a youth radio station!' In an era of reality TV media savviness, the mere fact that the RIBA has to pose things in this simplistic way suggests that either it is patronising its members or many architects' media strategies are hopelessly at sea.
This AJ series of 'What's My Line' articles has been written to point out that there are actually people out there with expertise in a range of useful skills, that architects would do well to better use. After all, the architects' thirst for media attention has created a market for someone to help them slake it. Step in the PR agent.
As far as Giovanna Forte, head of Forte Communications, is concerned, PR is about raising a company or an individual architect's profile and not necessarily about publicising a particular building or design proposal for the sake of it. Just because you have something to show does not necessarily mean that it is the most profitable use of precious media exposure. 'This, ' she says, 'is one of the hardest things for architects to understand. Many of them insist that their new scheme gets publicity without really knowing why - to what end, to what benefit.' Press releases must be the result of a PR strategy based on more than simple gratuitous self-publicity, she argues. In their professional role, architects recognise that their contractual obligation to the client is often to act as the voice of reason; as a restraining influence on unfair demands and expectations;
and to insist on third- party help when the brief exceeds their professional capacity to perform reasonably and diligently. The PR is similarly engaged.
Their role is to moderate arrogant excesses and to liaise with the press in a mediated way that many architects simply don't understand. So what is the PR agent's secret?
Forte is the daughter of a successful first generation Italian immigrant ice cream parlour owner. After leaving a 'good convent boarding school', she first trained as a secretary in Cambridge where the course tutor told her that the course would not make her into a mere secretary, but 'into the type of person without whom companies would fold.' After all, she said, 'the word 'secretary' contains the word 'secret', and once qualified students would be privy to the secrets of the company structure''. This sense of duty, she says, appealed to her and has infused her relationship with clients' confidences ever since. The secretarial training at that given time, gave her, she says, 'integrity' and the ability to be 'strategic with information'.
After this, she temped in London, for a series of media managers at Thames Television, moving on to help behind the scenes on programmes such as TV Eye, but finally quit when reaching the glass ceiling, which used to be considerably lower than it is these days. Almost by accident, she moved on to be a PA in a company running exhibitions, and dealt with media promotions, then moved to a partnership running shows overseas - introducing the first direct mail to ex-pats on the Costa del Sol, she proudly boasts. But after a couple of years, the birth of her first child and the impact of the recession, she set up her own company, handling visitor promotions and winning a long-term tender to provide, inter alia, all the BBC exhibitions for programmes such as The Clothes Show and Gardeners' World.
At a British Embassy soirÚe at the time, she met its commercial attachÚ and complained that its publicity booklet, Quality Britain, only contained one example from one modern British designer. The following day, so the story goes, she received a call from the DTI asking her to 'take modern UK design to Japan'. She hastily coordinated a group of young designers with Terence Conran at the head (having to ring Richard Branson directly to negotiate a certain luvvie arrangement for Conran to get privileged flight status) and it was in the process of organising this trip that Forte really became interested in architecture and interiors.
Now that she is firmly ensconced in that world, Forte is committed to making her clients realise the facts of life. While good fortune may smile on some, most successful promotions come from a business approach to networking and constant availability. Her phone, she says, is always on, although she admits that she doesn't always answer the call. I am assured that she will always get back to you.
The first thing that needs to be done is for the client and her to work out a PR strategy, and to assess it as part of the overall structure plan of the office. Typically, Forte will ask where the practice wants to be in two, three and five years. A hackneyed question, maybe, but one that succeeds in putting the client architect on the spot. Many have not thought it through; a few don't see PR as being connected with a business strategy.
The PR message, she argues, has to be crafted to suit the aspiration and the philosophy of the practice.
A question that she wants to know of all clients, though, is what is interesting in their business strategy portfolio and what has modern currency? 'A good PR should always ride the wave of public concerns and perceptions and, by so doing, will try and tease out what it is in the client's work that best contributes to the wider public debate or what keys into the moment, ' says Forte.
Unfortunately, it may not be what the architect wants to promote; it may be finding intellectual capital within the office, an individual or an idea rather than the latest CGI. She is adamant that often the best way to promote the company is not to be seen to promote it, which means that often the physical architectural output of a practice itself is not necessarily the most important thing (although she would not be able to promote a company producing what she thought was 'bad' architecture. ) She relays the story of one nameless high-profile architect who rang her at 10pm on a Friday evening to shout at her that even though an article had been placed in the nationals, his name had not been mentioned. Trying to convince him that he was being promoted by association didn't calm things down. She resigned his commission on the Monday.
Ultimately, Forte wants to create and support opinion formers, rather than commentators; those who can deal with questions, have definite opinions and can speak clearly and eloquently. In the past, she has sent clients away for voice training and speech coaching. 'It is really important for my clients to understand, ' she says, 'that dealing with the media is not a game.' She trains architects in what to look out for; what to avoid if confronted by a journalist. She advises extreme caution when architects are asked to comment on the record.
Things can go horribly wrong, she says, if architects do not take it seriously. In some instances, if getting professional help in learning how to enunciate views in a clear concise ways will help, ' then architects should not dismiss it. Architects should realise that promotional work is not just about counting column inches of coverage, but could equally be about being invited to speak at a conference, contribute to a book, or even appear on TV. Having a great portfolio of work is slightly undermined if you don't express yourself, forget to explain your design objectives or you are of unkempt appearance. Although it did not seem to affect Antonio Gaudý too badly.
Forte is very clear on her professionalism. She gets clients through word of mouth only. Admitting that in lean times she might accept a less than credible client, in general, she has to like and believe in a client's product. 'When a journalist looks at a building that you're promoting and says, 'What's so good about that?' ultimately, you have to have an honest answer.'