Milan fair experience shows how not to do PR

The arrival of spring can only mean one thing – Milan furniture fair. But Lynda Relph-Knight is unconvinced by most design promotions


The style season is upon us again. The opening of the Milan fair this week marked the official start of spring for designers, particularly in interiors, furniture and product design. Some regular fair-goers were expecting a lower-key experience this time – the volcanic ash that descended, causing travel havoc last year, may have obscured a relatively quiet year in terms of innovation, but it provided a buzz and a universal talking point.

Judging by the innumerable press releases that arrived on our desks at Design Week, there is much activity to be had this year. Some of the bigger concerns in the furniture world are playing it cool in the face of global recession, putting together ’classic collections’ rather than risking new launches, but there are a few mavericks in there.

What unites just about all of them, though, is the inaccessible way they marketed their products to the media ahead of the fair, with scant information provided and only low resolution images on hand – if, indeed, any were available. It was more about shelling out the invitations and trying to tempt the media in by listing the designers they have worked with on this year’s collections and offers of interviews during the event rather than providing decent preview meat.

This is all very well, but it rather assumes that most of the relevant press would be attending when, increasingly, it is the specialist freelances that make it to the fair, while desk-bound journos put together news items and previews.

PR agencies were hot on the case to promote their clients, with one sensibly offering a London preview session for relevant media of this year’s wares, but some proved unhelpful when questioned about products, having short-sightedly struck ’exclusive’ deals with some of the glossier titles over new lines that would undoubtedly be of greater interest to specifiers served by professional and business magazines.

When real data started to flow in, we detected a tendency towards factsheets, delivered digitally via PDF, with images embedded. In a couple of instances, high-resolution versions of the same images were downloadable from Google, but it took a resourceful hack or art director to find that out.

One of the most interesting parts of the ’official’ Milan fairground is invariably the Satellite enclave, showing the work of emerging designers and design colleges. Add to this the installations dotted around Milan from the likes of London’s Royal College of Art and northern Italy’s Fabrica – the Treviso-based experimental offshoot of Benetton – and you get insight into new directions and the next generation of designers.

As with any collective event, Milan provides invaluable experience for them and a chance to see their heroes – as well as the opportunity to be seen by the media and others. If they had the benefit of the pre-fair press releases, they might also learn what not to do to promote themselves successfully as they develop their careers.

Here are a handful pointers about first dealing with press:

– Top of the list has to be to have something to say. Adding an arm to last year’s chair or a new colourway is hardly headline news. The design media are looking for genuine innovation and new lines to report and they are looking for stories that are brand new, not a few months down the line. – Imagery is vital – a picture really does say a thousand words when you are showing new products, but simple, uncluttered high-resolution imagery is best, without the fetching pebbled background, the potted plant or – worst of all – people in the shots.

– Diagrams should also be available, showing process or explaining how a product or piece of furniture works if there is any complexity about it. Again, simplicity is key.

– Send over a complete package of brief details and appropriate images, preferably by e-mail. The media are prepared to dig to an extent, but often work to tight deadlines and, however great your design, it might not make the cut if something is missing.

– Be contactable and available for interview the minute your promotion hits a journalist’s desk. It is amazing how many designers fail to include their phone number on a press release – or even their website – or disappear inexplicably once the promotion has gone out. And if you do get a call build on the conversation to establish a relationship with that journalist, however lowly their status – that way they might approach you next time. But please don’t pester.

It is worth remembering that the media are people just like you, with a job to do as thoroughly and professionally as they are able. Anything you can do to make their dealings with you easier will pay off in the end.

Relationships of mutual benefit can run for many years, which most design heroes will admit with good grace.

Tips for successful self-promotion

  • Make sure you have something new to say
  • Imagery is vital when showing new products. Simple, uncluttered high-resolution images are best
  • Simple diagrams should also be available, showing processes or explaining how a product or piece of furniture works if there is any complexity about it
  • Send over a complete package of brief details and appropriate images, preferably by e-mail
  • Be contactable and available for interview the minute your promotion hits a journalist’s desk
  • If you do get a call from a journalist, build on the conversation to forge a relationship. They might approach you next time
  • Don’t pester
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