Fifty Percent: In Defense of Public Relations

Questions for Laura Iloniemi, Lisetta Koe, Nancy Kleppel, Jessica Scaperotti and Elizabeth Kubany by C-Lab

During the rise of the advertising profession in the 1960s there was a joke that high paying clients loved to tell. ‘Fifty percent of all advertising is non-sense. If I only knew which half I’d save a lot of money.’ The same may hold true today in the burgeoning field of public relations in architecture. The joke’s punch line recognizes that an audience’s receptivity to a message is far from certain. As a result, a good communicator might explore multiple strategies assuming that one will strike a positive chord while others possibly fall flat. C-Lab spoke to architecture public relations and marketing professionals who work with Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Studio Daniel Libeskind, and Richard Meier and Partners, among others. While the field is still new, it has quickly acquired an enormous amount of expertise, revealing just how invaluable publicists are for architecture firms today. Like ad agencies, architecture publicists have become effective in developing multiple strategies for representing architecture to the press and other audiences, and as result, fifty percent of what publicists say may sound like non-sense. But the other fifty percent may very well strike a positive chord. If we only knew which half was which…

C-Lab: What are the greatest challenges of your job?

LI: Learning to read how a client - in our case most often an architect - will feel about publicizing his or her projects when it is completed. This is difficult because in order to plan the promotion of a project properly you need to start well in advance, whereas architects are often still mulling over how they feel about going public with a project at the very end, usually worrying about details not turning out quite as they should and, most of the time, unnecessarily. At the other end of the spectrum, when excited about a building going up architects are overly keen to show the press and others around when there is simply not enough to see. Holding this enthusiasm back until later - when they are often stressed from finishing a job - is a skill that comes with experience and is very frustrating to learn.

LK: The greatest challenge to offering strategic communication for design profes sionals is articulating abstract or spatial ideas, artistry and poetry. Architects are fluent in spatial expression through images, drawings, sketches, models etc. and are often less comfortable with articulating their vision verbally.

NK: The most important questions are: who do you want to see the press we are going to get out there and what do you want them to get out of it? Is it something you want a targeted public to see? Is it something you want a client or a potential collaborator to see? Or all of the above?

JS: When publicists are too much out in the forefront it takes away from the story and what is happening. My job is to help you, the reporter or the average person in the street, get the information they need. If someone calls and wants to know how an idea came about, that is not something I can tell you. Mr. Libeskind can explain that his idea for the extension of the museum actually came to him while walking through the crystal exhibit at the exhibition. The thought hit him and he immediately sketched it out on a napkin. I can tell you that story, but to really understand how the idea came about you have to speak with Daniel, because it‘s the product of a feeling you have to portray. I can’t do it as well as Mr. Libeskind can.

C-Lab: How do you anticipate and respond to massive shifts in the public reception of a project, such as when ‘mob mentality’ causes public support to vaporize? How do you keep the momentum going on a project?

LK: Modern architecture often polarizes public perception. However, controversy generates attention which often brings opportunities for architects to speak their minds or show more work. If you get lemons, make lemonade.

EK: The integrity of a project is either there or it isn’t. I try to do my job with integrity, but I can’t make something that doesn’t have integrity have it. That having been said, what is really interesting is whether I can help tell that story doing what I do and that‘s what I try to do everyday.

LI: The public at large does not need a particular approach. Instead, ‘archi-speak’ should be avoided by the profession as it is does not achieve anything worth translating into proper English, but rather disguises ill-formulated theses. By being direct and honest and communicating genuine ideas one tends to be able to stay clear of the fluctuations of the mob mentality on populist issues.

C-Lab: How has your job changed when dealing with architectural clients over the past few years? What are the elements that catalyze this change? How have your clients changed since you started? Are the techniques and expected results different from what they were when you began?

LI: Looking back, my clients have not changed except that they have become more aware of the ways of the media. The techniques we use have changed partly because we now prefer to work less from press release campaigns and more on the basis of individual relationships with journalists.

EK: The public perception of architecture has certainly benefited from Bilbao and 9/11, but the idea of the starchitect, that over-used phrase, is really damaging the profession. The idea that an architect can be like a rock star is fun, interesting, kind of sexy, but on the other hand it really does a disservice because architecture is not an individual’s product. No matter how talented any single designer may be, architecture is a collaborative and technical endeavor and never only about one person. Thus this is a complete fallacy.

C-Lab: For an ambitious firm, what are some underutilized techniques that could gain public attention or cultural recognition for the firm's work?

NK: It's great to cultivate or take advantage of any speaking opportunities you can create for yourself. It's really useful to volunteer your time or services to any community-based organization that might be exploring projects or may be naive about how to begin projects. I have a client who evaluates the real estate value before they get into talks about the project fee. Meaning that when they first talk about their fee with the client, they can show the financial potential of the job. That's really being smart about how you present yourself and your ability to provide services so that you get paid for the value-added, not just for the set of drawings you hand over. It expands the role of the architect in a way that is not exponentially more work, but provides an opportunity to address things that their expertise can really speak to.

Another thing I offer my clients is introductions, understanding whom you know who should really know someone else. There is a huge value in strategic alliances, especially with small firms. I promote things like identifying who you think is your competition, but is really your ally.

C-Lab: How do you shape how the public views a building that has connotations not only for the specific architect responsible but also for society at large?

EK: People have had a whole range of reactions to the Freedom Tower. Some love it, some hate it, and everything in between. Those who hate it are often reacting to the form of the building; that's too simple and is a misreading to my mind, having been a part of the process. The work I do is about communicating the ways that it evolved. There are very different layers of the story that reach different people.

The jury is still out on a lot of these things. Are we going to see the classics of tomorrow? Is the Freedom Tower the Lever House of the 21st Century? Architecture is a long-term proposition. Even those who don’t like it now might like it in 20 years. To some extent this is about a building’s timelessness and ability to withstand the test of time. It is not about a competition today, it is about something that stands for a hundred years.

C-Lab: Is over-exposure ever a problem for architects? Are there situations or moments in a career in which lowering an architect’s profile is desirable?

LI: Over-exposure is only a problem when there is not that much to say. Most architects who are good at hype, of course, act as though they have no idea and blame their minions for causing such embarrassment when all they want to do is be creative in their studio...

EK: When an architect has a crisis, or when anyone has a crisis these days, often the best counsel is to be forthcoming and deal with it right away, knowing that it will blow over.

C-Lab: What is the relation between having fame and having power? It seems possible to be a household name and yet not really have an impact, so how do you make the transition from being well known to being significant?

LI: The synergy necessary to make the leap either way is probably not dissimilar - to have an impact you need to have a cause that is significant, or perceived to be so. The things that keep the majority of architects awake at night may simply not be significant enough to the rest of the world regardless of how well-known the architect might be as a spokesperson. I think Thomas Jefferson is the only architect who is a household name today and that's only in the US. Of course, he used another route to become known and have better power.

C-Lab: How does the future look? Will architects ever be real celebrities and would you want them to be?

LI: I find this debate a bit like the most popular girl in high-school. The criteria for architect celebrity are those of a very closed professional circle and are really only of interest to that circle. The measures required to attain that celebrity may require either being sensationalistic, loud or brand-brand-brand one's work for a consumer-oriented lifestyle culture. If these are the things one is really inspired by, why become an architect? Do I want architects to be real celebrities? I want architects to be celebrities as a result of an interest in what they are doing.

EK: There are architects who are real celebrities, but I regret any sort of hegemony in the architectural field. Not every building has to be built by someone famous to be good. It’s not just four or five architects who design the world. There are lots of good people who deserve opportunities to communicate what is important about their work.

To be a publicist is not about making my clients famous for fame’s sake, but to give them a platform to communicate why their work is important and necessary. If they do good work, they should be able to talk about it. In the end, I’m much more interested in architecture than in public relations. To get your ambition out there, you must be proactive and that’s what I do every day.