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Public Relations: It's More than "No Comment"

Elin Danien

Almost everyone has a pet horror story about the press and its heavy-handed treatment of a sensitive archaeological topic. After all, the results of a field season cannot be reduced to terms of dollars and cents, and unknowledgeable reporters often misconstrue complex concepts. In the past, to avoid being mangled by the press, many archaeologists adopted an attitude analogous to building walls, digging a moat, and hauling up the drawbridge at the first hint of a reporter's approach.

Yesterday, we could do that. And many of us did. The public and the press were not important considerations when doing archaeology. Today, however, bringing a project from the planning stage to completion requires passage through an obstacle course rife with political, bureaucratic, and financial barriers. Strong research proposals are not enough. A positive public and political view of archaeology can help make the difference between being able to test a theory or just talk about it.

The press is the vehicle through which the majority of people get their information and form their opinions about archaeology. Newspapers, popular magazines, radio, and television are the media that reach (and teach) millions. For many, archaeology is completely outside their spheres of interest, but what legislators and their constituents hear, read, and believe directly influences the writing of local ordinances and national laws. Through the practice of good public relations, we can develop a public that sees archaeology as relevant, and that is more understanding of the goals of archaeology and willing to support them. Public relations is an important element in an overall strategy that can help build a ground swell against looting and in support of preserving and protecting archaeological sites.

The SAA Public Relations Committee has been actively engaged in efforts to improve the relationship between archaeologists and the press. For the past six years, the Press Office has been a standard part of the SAA annual meetings, and Press Officer Toni Moore has successfully arranged for positive press coverage and a more visible press presence. The committee workshops on how to deal with the press have been well attended and receive consistently favorable comments. The Gene S. Stuart Award, now three years old, annually honors reporters who present archaeology to the public in an intelligent and interesting manner.

Our next venture is to establish a broad network of archaeologists on whom we can call when reporters need information. By establishing such a network, reachable through a single phone call to the SAA Washington office, we will make life a lot easier for reporters, associate the SAA more securely in their minds as the organization that represents Americanist archaeology, and, more importantly, help ensure that accurate information is relayed to the public. In our next column, Renata Wolynec will explain how we hope to implement this network, and how you can participate.

Public relations involves more than a press release or answering a phone call from a reporter. It can include having coffee with a university trustee or speaking to the local Chamber of Commerce. It may mean taking the time to write a letter to the editor. It definitely includes changing your vocabulary when you speak to nonprofessionals. It can take time and effort that you may feel would be better spent elsewhere. Through this column, we hope to convince you otherwise, and encourage you to pursue public relations more advantageously in your daily professional lives. Members of the committee, professionals in different aspects of the field, will offer pointers, suggest techniques, and discuss potential problems and how to defuse them. We hope you will send us your questions; we will try to answer them in the column in ways that are helpful to you and to others who may have similar problems.

We want to hear from you, and the electronic world makes that easy. Email me at edanien@sas.upenn.edu or fax (215) 321-7413.

Elin Danien is the chair of the Public Relations Committee.


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