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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Archaeological Publicity and Public Relations.
by Ralph Mills.

For archaeology to have any lasting and significant impact on the lives of the vast majority of people who are not engaged in it actively it has to present itself very carefully, avoiding sensationalism (which already so saturates our daily intake of information that it rapidly wears thin) and, on the other hand, not becoming stuffy and dull. This article is intended to inspire further discussion in tea huts and committee rooms and not to be definitive, but I nevertheless hope that it will help to improve the present low standard of archaeological public relations and publicity. I furthermore hasten to add that I am not holding myself up as an expert, having at one time or another committed every one of the sins I am so scathing about below!

I define public relations' purpose as to instill in people a glow of satisfaction as they walk away from their usually brief contact with a large and preoccupied organisation. They may have merely asked a question, made a complaint or lost their way, but whatever the reason for the contact someone 'bothered'. This concern on the organisation's behalf is not altruistic, for it is keen that its image is as good as possible. Publicity, on the other hand, has to inform the preoccupied public that the organisation is there in the first place and that it is worth contacting.

It follows therefore that archaeological publicity is directed primarily at establishing interest in the subject, be it the destruction of evidence by motorways or the talk on 'The travels of St Samson of Dol' at the drill hall next Friday night. Public relations maintain and develop the germ of interest, and see to it that the image of archaeology does not become tarnished. The result of all this activity is hopefully a feedback of money, resources, practical help, reputation and awareness. Although not all these responses are measurable they are equally important, as is the fervent desire (and here archaeology differs from many applications of PR) of those involved to 'educate' the blissfully un- aware public, whose knowledge of history often ends reciting the names of Henry VIII's wives and to whom all holes in the ground mean sewers, all 'digs' mean gold and all pottery Woolworths china.

The outward flow of publicity from any archaeological organisation should attract attention, involve the 'victim', make him/her feel important (as indeed he/she is!), tantalise, invoke some come-back, truthfully inform and be well-founded.

Group publicity and public relations:

The effort put into publicising a Group is overwhelmingly aimed at attracting a flow of new members to replace natural wastage and to increase resources of money, facilities and manpower. Pointing out to the armchair-bound layman what he is missing is also important, as is inter-Group rivalry (every Group wants to be best ... ). How the Group goes about building itself up is usually up to the most forceful members, but it is worth developing a Group philosophy. It is always important to remember that a Group is a group, and that everyone knows everyone else and all the in-jokes and tales about people turning up on sites with twelve-inch pointing trowels or mini-skirts, so the first thing to watch is that the Group doesn't become inward-looking, so that whenever anyone other than a gorgeous 'bird' turns up they are made to feel distinctly out of things. Make someone with a big grin and a telephone the Public Relations Officer and insist to the point of embarrassment that everyone new, be they young, old, athletic, borne on crutches, dim or professorial is made comfortable -- they will go away pleased that someone 'bothered'. Relations with the local press will involve someone in a lot of work, but it is worth it, for nothing pleases an editor more than to receive a couple of intelligent articles every month, plus pictures -- and free!

Flood the town with jolly posters in sweet shop windows, work hard to get even the smallest display of pots or photographs (of people) in the library or schools, and always answer letters with a personal call in the middle of 'Star Trek' (the bigger disturbance caused the better!). Above all avoid cliques and the jumble sale/coffee morn- ing/slide show image that somehow sticks to many local societies -- stress excitement and enthusiasm. It is hard work but well rewarded.

Excavation publicity and public relations:

Much of what I have said above applies to relations with fence-leaners, but the length of time involved is far shorter and the message has to be got over more immediately.

Firstly you may not want visitors -- flat out speed, high spirited mechanical excavators, twenty-foot (sorry -- six metre) holes and a sea of mud may dictate the exclusion of the public. If this is so make sure that the site is well hidden, that all signs are secret and that the gate is unassailable. Nothing loses more supporters to archaeology than the sight of exciting things being dug up on the other side of a knot hole, or being chased off a completely accessible site by a red faced and rather uncouth member of the younger generation. If the public is anathema do not advertise your presence (no newspaper stories until after the dig has finished, for example) and make sure that the site is well defended and cannot be spied on.

If you do want visitors, the kitty and the fun of seeing wonder in peoples eyes, then several things must be done.

  1. Announce the dig in the local and national press and local radio -- dangle a few carrots!
  2. Distribute posters. Avoid, if at all possible, those pale type-crowded things that resemble execution announcements. The posters should include a simple visual stimulus -- a bleached-out photograph, a stylised helmet, a pot or two. If you look hard enough, and talk hard enough, you will probably find a sympathetic screen-printer who will turn out some posters for you -- cheap. Never use hand-written posters unless you have captured a really good calligrapher.
  3. Signpost the site (ask the council first) and make sure that the signs are prepared long enough in advance to ensure good lettering -- scruffy signs convey a scruffy attitude.
  4. Make sure that the visitors are satisfied, and if they have paid to get in, that they have got their money's worth. Good guided tours (there are plenty of extroverts about); a scatter of neat, readable and informative signs; a booklet to buy and read at home; a good bookstall/souvenir stand; lots of pretty girls to answer questions; some worthwhile postcards; somewhere for the elderly to sit in the shade; a really first-class display of photographs and finds (avoid drawing pins and typewritten labels -- use a good calligrapher or instant lettering). Make sure that there is something to do or see if it rains, as it invariably will. Don't forget strategically-placed collection boxes.
  5. Get the guides to enjoy themselves too -- the slightest feeling of boredom on their behalf will transmit itself to the visitors. Given a free rein and lots to talk about, guiding can often be the best job on the dig.
  6. Make it impossible for those outside the site to see or hear what is going on inside; nothing more galling, both for visitor and guide, then a fence topped by mildly curious onlookers who cannot be bothered to pay the entrance fee!
  7. If a single visitor goes away grumbling then the whole exercise has failed -- a single grouse goes a long way. Remember that as far as they are concerned they might have been looking at a few square feet of featureless tarmac -- as long as they have caught the overriding feeling of enthusiasm and excitement they will always remember 'those diggers' with affection.
  8. Trouble! Most troubles are avoidable and unwanted visitors or children plummeting to the Neolithic strata can be prevented by thoughtful defences. There should always be someone about to step into an altercation, or rescue a guide from a clinging questioner, or throw a noisesome child into a half-nelson and he should wear a smile all the time. Watch your insurance.
  9. Closed! When the site is closed (and we hope thoroughly so) well informed notice boards should be put up to whet the late-corner's appetite for the morrow, or for next season, or to guide the enthusiast to the local Group/Museum.

General points:

Whatever you do, never give an impression of superiority just because you know what a doubled-looped palstave is! Remember that whenever face to face with a member of the public you are there, like any flunkey, to open the door onto a new, fascinating and often bewildering scene -- someone helped you once, so swallow all the murmurs about gold and druids and lead on! Never look tired, irritated, impatient, cynical or panicky, and don't make it obvious that you are only standing in front of the guided tour because your name came up on the rota that day, and that you would much rather be down in the cool, secretive trenches!

Whenever showing VIPs around, do so at a time when the humbly shuffling public are not there, otherwise they will go away remembering the mayor falling over the Roman wall, rather than the wall itself. There is also a good chance that envy will creep into the soul of even the most sympathetic visitor as he sees someone he didn't vote for getting an extra-good look at things while he is fended off by the barrier, or he sees the professor dragged off to see the hidden bits! Why not have a special day as a way of saying thanks or 'we told you so' to local councillors, the media (well supplied with press releases -- otherwise imaginations tend to run rife!) one or two real experts, the diggers' mums and dads (who apart from going to all the trouble of conceiving them usually have to wash their socks) their close friends, people who give discounts, special facilities (especially baths), resources and accommodation.

Finally, we -- the public -- are today spoilt by the excellence of advertising design and display, so to attract our attention and to hold it presentation has to be top notch. Work on it during the winter, or at least have someone fully occupied preparing the publicity and displays to a common high standard. This doesn't just mean neat labels and un-dogeared photos -- look to the state of the public walkways, the back view of the loo, the audibility of the guides and any possible causes of confusion. And guides -- it doesn't matter what fools the public make of themselves your faces have to remain straight -- wait until you get back to the tea hut before you roll about clutching your stomachs! Work up a relationship with the visitor which will ensure that he listens, controls his children, tells people at the back to schhh! and results in everyone going away feeling that you spoke to him or her personally. Never be superior or secretive -- admit you don't know if it gets too awkward (it is, however, part of the technique to otherwise know everything !). Simply be enthusiastic -- it rubs off !

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