Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012
India's First Biennale: The Art of a Successful Media Campaign
If statistics is one proof, it screams for us. It is mindboggling, even maddening, by any standards in the annals of India's PR history: 1,881 print clippings, 1,141 online clippings and an equally impressive TV coverage - just for one event! In advertisement terms, that is worth close to Rs 90 crore. And the print clippings included the ones in The Financial Times, London, and The New York Times.
The Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), the country's first Biennale, lasted from December 12, 2012 to March 17, 2013 - a good 96 days. And MD Niche played a key role in giving the contemporary international art festival sustained publicity over four months - a far cry from the initial phase of negativity and despondency.
As the PR consultant for KMB, we convinced an initially hostile media about the momentousness and magnitude of the extravaganza, prompting them to come up with positive stories by giving them ideas and angles, besides facilitating visits and meetings. What's more, our own content team kept churning out, on a daily basis, news reports, stories and features that totalled 423 by the conclusion of the contract.
Alongside prompt coordination of PR work, this deluge of press releases formed the lynchpin of our media blitzkrieg that was meticulously crafted with a single-point agenda: The Biennale had to move swiftly from ignominy to adulation, from rejection to acceptance.
Yes, the odds were heavily stacked up against the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) when they offered us the assignment with a one-line SOS: "Our media strategy has failed. Now save us with yours."
KBF had earlier roped in a leading PR agency, but apparently without any success. In fact, the organisers had thought the success of Indian edition of the famed Biennale, which has a 117-year history, was a certainty in view of its scale, official patronage and support promised by the corporate sector. But then, at times, even the best of the plots goes haywire - a fact they realised quite late.
Our task, thus, was two-fold: brand-building and reputation management. We decided to accept the challenge in the face of odds. Time was a big constraint. The event was to commence on 12.12.12 and we were hired barely three weeks before the date. By then, the Biennale had already started sinking in a heap of negative media coverage about alleged financial irregularities in the Rs 5-crore grant given by the Kerala Government one year ago. The local media was hostile; the government was seething with anger; a section of the art community was baying for the blood of artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the two curators of the Biennale. As for the Biennale in the national media, it just didn't exist, then.
When our team reached the KBF office in Kochi on November 19, 2012, we could readily sense the pervasive atmosphere of resignation everywhere. And it was not without basis. Kerala Culture Minister K C Joseph talked about blacklisting the event. Within a week, the government ordered a vigilance inquiry into the alleged misappropriation of funds, and also withdrew its nominees from the KBF. The day before the event's inauguration, it was still not confirmed whether Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy would be present on the occasion as announced earlier.
Out of the morass of despondency, we had to extricate the event for its stakes were high: It involved not only the prestige of the event but also of the nation.
MD Niche got cracking straightway. In the next one week after signing the contract, our team pored over hundreds of pages of material about the features of the event to design a media strategy. The analysis of material was followed by visits of our team members, led by the CEO with around 25 years of journalistic experience at the regional and national levels, to the venues to look at the preparations by the artists. We held interactions with newspaper editors and bureau chiefs as well as political, cultural and corporate leaders, stressing upon them the merits and uniqueness of the art event being held in the country for the first time.
The strategy developed by our team was multi-pronged to suit the needs of the regional, national and international media. From November 19 until March 19 (two days after the Biennale ended), the PR firm's editorial team generated news items and features on a daily basis. If at least one Biennale-related copy was emailed to the media every day, there were quite a few days when MD Niche churned out two and more (sometimes even half-a-dozen) stories about the festival.
Significantly, MD Niche prepared releases not only in English but also in Malayalam, Hindi and Tamil, and every such story saw the light of day. Such was the impact of the media blitzkrieg that India's debut Biennale not only ran for longer-than-scheduled 96 days, the government also shed its skepticism by ensuring participation of top leaders and bureaucrats right from the start to its finale. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, accompanied by several of his ministerial colleagues, inaugurated the Biennale. The vigilance inquiry was withdrawn a week after the event while an additional grant of Rs 4 crore to the Biennale was announced by the Cabinet.
Realising that an international event as the Biennale to achieve the truly global status was through the national mainstream media, we devised a separate strategy to bring art critics, freelance writers on culture and senior journalists from the national newspapers and wire services from New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai to Kochi.
The result was a string of encouraging reports, mostly full pages and, in some cases, even two pages, by virtually all the mainstream national media, including the leading television channels. Prominent magazines, including India Today, Outlook, Man's World, OPEN, Vogue India, Conde Nast, Femina, Frontline and The Week, splashed the Biennale event over six-seven pages.
The national coverage prompted the foreign media to visit the venues of the Biennale in Kochi, ensuring long and endorsing pieces in The Financial Times, London and The New York Times, which spoke of a "Biennale with a difference", praising the artistic brilliance of the event held in a historical setting at nondescript and dilapidated former godowns for the spice trade in Fort Kochi.
An event, which was widely believed to never take off, was eventually extended for five days on popular demand. It was our moment of pride; it was a testimony to our professional efficiency. That is so because the cash-strapped organisers had started thinking in terms of folding it up mid-way. With the government earlier deciding to withdraw its patronage, the promised corporate funding had retreated. Even the Union Culture Ministry, which had promised some grants, had backed away. Our activities also orchestrated crowd funding, donations by corporates and gate collection as the supposedly high-brow art event snowballed into popular perception.
Modelled on the original Biennale in Venice, founded in 1895 to promote new artistic trends from around the world, India's own Biennale recorded footfalls of over 400,000 visitors both from home and abroad. The Biennale website received 13.7 million hits during the event. Gallerists, connoisseurs and art historians from around the world came to the exotic venues at the heritage town of Fort Cochin where centuries ago ships packed with spices set sail for the West. Whole families from across Kerala came to visit the creative works of 80 well-known artists from 24 countries, among them the leading Indian artists Subodh Gupta, Vivan Sundaram, Atul Dodiya, Sheela Gowda, Srinivasa Prasad, Sudarshan Shetty and Tallur L N.
Before the event, Krishnamachari and Komu had been demonised; they are now heroes and household names. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale is now a brand; it has a reputation to be proud of.