Publicity and Benefit

‘Publicity and Benefit’? Gosh. I must admit that’s a bit Delphic, even for me. It’s the sort of title I’d expect in an academic journal: sonorous, a hint of gravitas – and sod-all meaning. But actually this blog post will be about two things: publicity/PR/media attention, and who benefits from such increased popular attention.

All publicity has to be managed, but I hope not in the over-spun way that characterises the Westminster Village. One of the minor appeals of archaeology to the public has always been our slightly amateur communication skills. We tend to have untended hair and sometimes patches of mud on our knees and even faces. If we allowed spin-doctors into our profession we’d either be scrubbed squeaky clean, or would appear before the cameras looking like we’d just crawled out of a First World War mud-filled dug-out. Lesson one: spin doctors and PR advisors cannot convey Truth, because it’s fundamentally inimical to everything their profession stands for. This means that the archaeologists with the story to convey to the public must retain complete control over the content of their stories. By all means, be prepared to accept advice on how to present or pitch your message (as sometimes we can all slip into verbosity and jargon, especially when a bit wired-up), but never allow them to so much as tweak the message itself. That guru of the media, Marshall McLuhan, was 100% wrong when he declared that ‘the medium is the message’. It’s the message, not the medium that’s the message, not the medium that’s the message, not the medium that’s the message (repeat ad infinitum).

So, in case you missed it, you and your work or project won’t benefit from any publicity if you hand the content over to local authority spin-doctors, corporate PR Departments or television producers. You MUST retain control. So tell them as little as you can in advance. By all means hint darkly at your discovery’s importance and significance – that’s fine – but don’t give them too much detail. If revelations are going to be made, you should be the one, or ones, that do it. Then, with luck, you and your project should get most of the credit. If like me, your work hasn’t been too severely affected by the powerful PR departments that are becoming such a feature of the modern corporate world, then you must give serious consideration to who will benefit from any publicity. And it won’t always be the particular body who has enabled or sponsored your work. Yes, you must always look after the interests of your principal funders, but do, please, remember that archaeology is important in its own right and that future projects will be needed if our subject is to continue advancing. That will only happen if we can retain the public’s support and interest in the subject.

I have always regarded the team I work with as my first priority. Without them, the project wouldn’t exist. So do try to ensure that they get the chance to talk or write about their work. I know it’s still quite trendy to present ‘integrated’ reports, where the various specialists’ contributions are blended into a seamless narrative that may (or more often may not) summarise their views correctly, but surely it’s much better to include extracts and quotations, wherever possible? These are intelligent people and they’re quite capable of writing something succinct in their reports, which you can then use in the main discussion.

If you only have your team and project to consider, bear in mind that publicity can bring in sponsors and donors. So think about what you need or what would improve your work, before you start a PR campaign. And you can be quite blatant in you appeals for help, especially on local media, where people will understand the problems you face. I’ve always found local newspapers to be incredibly supportive.

One thing that does concern me is communication skills. I won’t say that the current generation of archaeologists are bad speakers and lecturers, as that would be a gross over-simplification, but nonetheless I’ve noticed that people have trouble sticking to their time-slots and over-running. There is also a tendency to speak in jargon and not to project the voice. If I could have £5 for every time I’ve seen a speaker address the screen, with his or her back to the audience, when reading from a PowerPoint screen, I’d be a rich man. For thirty years I gave almost weekly talks to local and farther-flung archaeological societies, where such bad habits were soon ironed-out by some trenchant comments from the back row. Audiences today seem more restrained: I don’t think I’ve heard a shout for a speaker to ‘speak up’ since the turn of the century. I suppose you can understand why so often they mumble.

Good communication requires a clear message if anyone is to benefit. And this brings me to my biggest worry. Archaeologists seem to be frightened of the Big Issues. I’ve always assumed this was a result of academic caution – which has its place, of course. But sometimes one has to come out of one’s secure comfort zone and make a slightly controversial claim. My advice is to think about it carefully first, but then to do it. And do it whole-heartedly – preferably with a smile. When you’ve done it, you will almost always be hounded by academic colleagues, and if you’re prepared for this, I can assure you, it won’t be so bad. Anyhow, make your claim and stick to it. You can always modify it later ‘in the light of new evidence’ – a wonderful get-out-of-jail card that only archaeologists can play with any conviction. Also bear in mind that many of your professional critics are only motivated by jealousy, and the fact that they wish they’d had the guts to come out and say something interesting.

Finally, imagination. Yes, archaeology is a social science and as such demands rigour. Indeed, that was something that we successfully fought for with the New Archaeology of the late sixties and seventies. But as archaeologists we are meant to be researching the lives – the whole lives – of people in the past. These lives weren’t just about food, subsistence, building materials, the availability of water, or the price of eggs. They were also about love, humour, belief, fear, death and trust. These are all things that defy quantification and demand imagination. In the eighties and nineties, post-Processual movements were meant to address these aspects of life in the past, but I don’t think they have taken us very far. I personally believe that the teaching of archaeology has become much too restricted and programmatic. More progress has been made by creative individual thinkers, such as Mike Parker Pearson and the superb Stonehenge Riverside Project; by Mark Knight and the unit at Must Farm, or Nicky Milner and the team at Star Carr. I believe we should encourage such individual creativity, wherever it occurs. We should also foster it from an early stage in an archaeologist’s training. So instead of just having links to subjects like sociology, anthropology and geology I would like to see university archaeology departments forge closer ties with English Language, art – even music. Let’s put a little imagination, a little poetry, back into archaeological communication. But this will require us to change too. We need to loosen-up as a profession and become less conservative and oh-so-portentously analytical. Remember, you will never bring the past to life, if you’re scared of being creative, yourself.

This blog was written a part of an archaeological blogging festival. To find out more go to Doug’s Archaeology

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