Public Relations and Marketing for Archives: An Interview with Peter Wosh

Wosh2011Among the resources in SAA’s advocacy toolkit is Public Relations and Marketing for Archives: A How-To-Do-It Manual (2011), edited by Peter Wosh and R. James and co-published by SAA and Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc. Today we bring you an interview with Peter Wosh, Professor of History and Director of the Archives/Public History Program at New York University. In this interview with David Carmicheal, Peter revisits the book and discusses the ways it relates to current advocacy efforts.

David: What prompted the book in 2011? Was there an event that brought advocacy to SAA’s attention?

Peter: Back when I was publications editor for SAA [2007-2013] the Publications Committee regularly scanned the literature to identify gaps, and we discovered that SAA’s last real advocacy book had been published in 1994 (Advocating archives: An introduction to public relations for archivists, by Elsie Freeman Finch).  Our scan of journals also showed very little literature about advocacy. There was much more archival writing on technical topics. Then, too, by 2011 archivists had become much more conscious about how central to our work advocacy is and how we need to spend more time on it. So the time was right for that book.

How do public relations and marketing relate to advocacy? Are they the same thing?

They relate, but I think of advocacy as a much broader concept that incorporates marketing and public relations. The public relations and marketing book focuses on how archives relate to user communities—primarily external communities—and how to make your archives more visible by using new technologies. This kind of marketing doesn’t include, for example, political advocacy. Advocacy includes internal audiences, which marketing and PR don’t generally consider.

When we decided to revise the Archival Fundamentals series (Archival Fundamentals III is due to be published in 2017) we thought it important to include a specific volume about Advocacy (being authored by Kathleen Roe) because the publications board thought it was so vital to what we do and had to be more encompassing than marketing and PR.

Advocacy versus marketing—do archivists favor one over the other?

I think they are more comfortable serving more traditional research communities and are still in the process of developing tools to promote themselves and their place in their particular institutions. To some extent archivists are also still hesitant to enter the public sphere of debate when archival issues come to the fore, though that is getting much better. I think it’s hard to mobilize the archival community around issues. Professional associations like SAA and CoSA take a stand on key issues, but I wonder how many people really take a personal responsibility to advocate. Advocacy needs to be sustained and ongoing and not just crisis management. We are better at responding to threats, but successful advocacy is being there all the time and promoting yourself in a constructive way 365 days a year.

How do we turn archivists into advocates?

Advocacy isn’t built enough into archival training and education. Archivists are good at standards and best practices and applying rules and regulations, and that has been the emphasis of our education and professional literature to a great extent. We don’t necessarily need individual courses in advocacy but every course should incorporate advocacy—how does what you’re learning in this course helps you express the importance of what archivists do. It needs to become part of our everyday lives.

Do you have an advocacy success or failure in your career that is instructive?

When I was at the American Bible Society I would ask myself what are the big issues facing the organization I work for and can I put together historical background papers to send to the Vice President or others that might show them the value of the archives. They responded well to my taking existing information and packaging it in a way that was meaningful to them.

When I was an Archdiocesan archivist it was a time when making church records open was a new idea, and many officials were nervous about who might be using the records. I would send them user reports (not just statistical) that included stories about how lives were touched by the archives. By talking about the range of users I was able to demonstrate that making the records available was actually supporting their larger mission to help parishioners and people in general.

I would say, finally, that just doing your job strategically is a form of advocacy. Doing the job well communicates the value of what we do in a quiet way.

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