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Press officers and journalists, an intimate love affair, or high-level battle?

In the best-read newsletter of cultural Netherlands (on average 60 per cent open and 12 per cent click left, where the national average for peers is 30 and 2 per cent respectively), I recently wrote that the news, that visits to theatres and museums have not yet returned to precorona levels, seemed to come as a surprise to some. In particular, I mentioned the Museum Association. That led to some hassle. I received an email from the information officer, which said this:

Dear Wijbrand, I just read, as always with interest, your newsletter. We have not claimed, either in September or at any other time since corona, that museum attendance would soon be back to normal. On the contrary. Would you please correct this in your expressions?

Where had it all started?

Now, I am never shy about putting things right, but in this case I was not at all inclined to do so, as I was sure the Museums Association had sworn to me as recently as September that they expected museum attendance to recover soon. The occasion was this article: Museum association sounds alarm: even strong museums will not get out of the one-and-a-half-meter without support. That had come about in kind of a consultation because, like other media, I had been given the text 'under embargo'. So that means you get a chance to make it your own story the moment the news came out.

The proportion of own editing I had added included these sentences:

"The damage suffered by museums because of Corona runs into hundreds of millions. And this time it is also the big museums that are feeling it in their pockets. Even though, thanks to emergency aid, they were still able to make up for the worst hits. What is not going to come back in large numbers any time soon is attendance. Not only has Covid punched holes in the visitor base, which was traditionally older anyway, there is also a dent in confidence. After all, who guarantees that that cough in the potentially expected crowds for the Night Watch, is not a gamma variant in disguise? And what about that train, anyway, and that snivelling fellow passenger?"

Cheeky

The Museum Association fell out over this at the time. I received the following email from the information department: "I read your piece with attention. Your assumption that people do not want to go to museums yet is not correct. Back in summer 2020, research showed that the vast majority of people who went to museums perceived it as safe. And that was before vaccinations. See here: Museums: visits with Museum Card almost halved by 2020 - Museum Association. We also see that the number of people with a Museum Card has remained almost the same, and that those people know how to find museums well again this summer.  

I didn't want to be so bold as to rewrite the first passage, but it's really not right."

Now I reacted very obligingly to the last passage, in which information officers sometimes come up with whole stories of their own (e.g. literal quotes in interviews) in response to a text submitted for information, and I left it as it was. I wrote: "Thanks for your response. I will add the reaction to the assumption, that also gives the story more colour. (Otherwise, I like making assumptions that are later belied 🙂 .)"

Disinformation

That was not enough. Information from Museum Association responded: "In your place, I would still like to stick to the facts. In times when there is a lot of disinformation going around, you can positively distinguish yourself with that, right? And you give your arguments more force with it. Have a nice evening."

Especially since I indeed wanted to have a nice evening, I had already amended the text: "Has happened, do not worry. I have detached it, and linked it to the theatre sector forecasts, which I am confronted with on a daily basis, so the Mo forecasts stand. But that's my job and responsibility, so if I get 'wet' with that, that's just fine. After all, my job is to inform as widely as possible. ;-)."

Opinions and facts

Now stood - and state - er: "According to the Museum Association, the public is eager to get back into museums, and all lights are on green for renewed mass interest, there is some doubt about the positive reports. At the moment, theatre attendance, for example, is still well below expectations. And that partly concerns the same target group. The fear is logical. After all, who guarantees that that cough in the potentially expected crowds for the Night Watch, is not a gamma variant in disguise? And what about that train, anyway, and that snivelling fellow passenger?"

To complete the good evening, I got back the following response: "Thank you for your post. Good to read that you distinguish between opinions and facts 😊."

So in this case, my view was that museum attendance might not return to its former level for a very long time, and the fact was that the Museum Association saw that attendance would return to its former level without any problems.

Timeloop

Return to the beginning of this post. Do you remember "Dear Wijbrand, I just read, as always with interest, your newsletter. We have not claimed, either in September or at any other time since corona, that museum attendance would soon be back to normal. On the contrary. Would you please correct this in your expressions?"

In which we had thus got into a kind of timeloop, because when I emailed back: "Hi X, we conversed about that at length. So I have nothing to straighten out, you know.", which I supplemented with the information officer's own quote from the September email exchange: "To refresh your memory, a quote from our email exchange of 12 September last: 'Your assumption that people do not want to go to museums yet is not correct. Back in summer 2020, research showed that the vast majority of people who went to museums perceived it as safe. And that was before vaccinations. See here: https://museumvereniging.nl/musea-bezoeken-met-museumkaart-zijn-bijna-gehalveerd-in-2020, We also see that the number of people with a Museum Card has remained almost the same, and that those people know how to find museums well again this summer. I can't read those any other way."

Yearbook

To this reference to the - slightly more fully quoted earlier in this post - email from September 2021, I received the following reply: "You cite information from 2020. All sorts of things have happened since then, so the information is no longer valid. Now people are allowed to do anything again without corona protective measures. For vulnerable people, this increases the risks. And we see that museum attendance is still far below 2019 levels."

After which I replied among the sea of broken wooden shoes (reader question: who refers to 2020 information?) in my study: "Dear X, the information is not from 2020, but I took it from an email you sent in September 2021. And I referred to that. So I just did my journalistic work.", To which the Museum Association came back with a long story: "Dear Wijbrand, The relaxations, and their effects, began 25 September 2021. In itself, it would be quite logical to wonder whether the September 2020 information is still applicable after 25 September 2021 - and certainly more than half a year later, if new figures have come along in the meantime (and tour-wise also several changes in the corona rules). See also, for example, our press release of 1 April 20232, for which there was considerable media coverage. (https://www.museumvereniging.nl/kwart-van-nederlandse-musea-kampt-met-financiele-problemen). Added to that: the email of mine you cite is about the number of Museum Card holders. Not about the total number of visits - which, both among cardholders and other categories, is still dozens of percent lower than in 2019. The text in the newsletter does not mention when that information is from, and pretends it is current. That is explicitly not the case. No one benefits from incorrect information circulating, and conversely, correct information does of course have substantial advantages. It is only nice when people know they can trust a source, right? Therefore, I ask you again to put factually correct information on your website about how museums are doing now. (I suspect that an already sent newsletter is difficult to modify. That way, the problem is at least partially solved. I think it would be nice to avoid this kind of situation in the future. In particular, let me know if you need up-to-date data; we have data on pretty much all museums here. We'd be happy to help you with that, of course. Kind regards, X"

Whereupon I passed on to the Museum Association, that I would make the whole email exchange public, to get rid of this yes-no stuff.

Symptomatic

So now the above case is a bit symptomatic of the relationship between journalists and information officers. There are still very few journalists anyway, and very many spokespeople in the world. Especially in the cultural sector. And those information officers, I repeat, are in the world to get the story of (the marketing department of) their organisation out there. My job is, to tell the story the reader is entitled to, and it is quite common that there is 'space' between those two stories. That is where the social interest is pinched. Indeed, it is the reason why Culture Press has been able to exist for 12 years without a subsidy, purely thanks to financial contributions from readers.

Fortunately, among those readers and especially members, there are also many educators, so I certainly don't want to judge the profession. My closest friends are educators; I even have a few in my very close family walking around.

What matters to me is that we do our best to give each other space. Cultural press does that, by letting members post their press releases unabridged, and those members do that, by allowing our journalists to follow their work extremely critically and write sharply about it from time to time. We all benefit from that.

Also, the Museum Association.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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