5 Communication Lessons from MoMA
We are trapped in our houses, banned from travelling, stopped from meeting one another.
It feels like a weird dream now, but not long ago, I was lucky enough to live in New York for a month, working hand in hand with our brilliant colleagues at Lansons Intermarket.
During those days, I was blown away by the city and impressed by the incredible art that could be found in its museums, which were shut in a rush, alongside millions of doors across the world.
I hope these five pieces of art that inspired me, and the communication lessons that can be learned from them, offer you a brief escape from wherever you are.
If by the time you’ve finished, you’d like to keep going down the rabbit hole of contemporary art, do visit MoMA’s online exhibitions, or register to MoMA’s free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on Coursera.
1. When the best views are inward
Claude Monet, Water Lilies, 1914-26
In the search of something new, exciting, fresh, we forget that really interesting things happen while no one is paying attention.
We are always inquiring about upcoming announcements, events, reports; but there is nothing more rewarding than creating something meaningful from absolutely nothing new to say. It surprised me at first, but this is my favourite part of working in the reputation management and comms industry: being able to create and tell a story (no matter the form it takes -placed piece, press release, event, full-on campaign) that has always been there, hidden in plain sight.
Easier said than done, but we should always be on the lookout for the light that will allow us to see something that seemed old from a different perspective.
In the final decades of his life, Claude Monet embarked on a series of monumental compositions depicting the lush lily ponds in his gardens in Giverny, in northwestern France. He travelled the world, creating magnificent paintings, but it was his own gardens that brought us these magical views.
2. Use times of change wisely
Frida Kahlo, Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940
Every company’s journey is, unavoidably, full of twists and turns. Many of them won’t be more than a change of rhythm, but, from time to time, there are decisions or events outside of their control that will shake up its very foundation.
When Frida Kahlo and her husband, the artist Diego Rivera, divorced in late 1939, Kahlo used her pain to reinstate herself as an independent artist in her own right. This self-portrait didn’t try to hide away or move on as nothing happened. Kahlo gets rid of her traditional feminine attributes -Tehuana dresses or flowers in her hair- and presents a new identity to the world.
Although it’s tempting to say that everything is still business as usual, when those big changes are acknowledged and communicated in a meaningful way, they are an opportunity to re-introduce yourself to your employees, customers, and potential customers, in a moment when you have their guaranteed attention.
3. When considering the what and the why, don’t forget the how and where
Frank Lloyd Wright, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1958. Cutaway perspective of the reception Ink and coloured pencil on tracing paper
Awards and speeches may say otherwise but, if we are completely honest, we can still say that a press release is the (tactical) cornerstone of external communications. It is basic, it is old-school, but done well, it is highly cost-effective and gets the job done, and that is why it is an all-time favourite.
Does this mean that all announcements, research findings, product launches, hires… must be flagged to the media and the general public through a plain-and-simple release (and/or its derived forms)? Of course not.
Back in the 50s, many architects and interior designers believed that the radically new forms of the early-twentieth-century art called for strikingly new types of spaces: galleries and museums where the public could also feel that change, that new era.
Proposals ranged dramatically and one of them was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, who completely disregarded tradition: as MoMA explains, “instead of designing a space of roomlike galleries, he proposed a spiral ramp wrapping the interior of a great sky-lit rotunda. The visitor’s path literally made the museum”.
The next time a brilliant announcement comes your way, stop for a second and think: HOW do I want my target audiences and the media to find out about this? How do I want to make them feel and what is the best way to achieve that?
4. The simplest idea can bring the most creative results
Dorothea Lange, Words & Pictures, various
Sometimes, the more you know about something, the less you understand it.
An excess of information can be overwhelming and completely crash the scope for new ideas and creativity. If you ever feel stuck, try to simplify things.
From 1935 to 1939, the photographer Dorothea Lange worked with US government agencies to draw the public’s attention to the economic and environmental catastrophe of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drought. Her pictures, among other testimonies, made a strong case for the government’s intervention on behalf of migrant workers and drought refugees.
Roy Stryker, American economist, government official, and photographer, oversaw the coordination of the team of photographers spread across the US for that purpose. To inspire them and bring them down the creative route he was trying to pursue, he frequently gave them shooting scripts, which often took the form of keywords.
One of those scripts called for “Signs – any sign that suggests shortage, rationing, etc”, and, like Dorothea Lange’s photography proves, sometimes a simple brief can have the power to produce exceptional results.
5. Be where it matters, when it matters… until you become part of the conversation
André Cadere, Round Bar of Wood, 1972
More often than not, in reputation management and comms (as well as in most things in life), I’ve found that persistence is the key to success: persistence to find the right idea, to strengthen it until it’s watertight against criticism, persistence to bring clients and partners on board, persistence when you receive a no, persistence to make it happen regardless of the hurdles you might find in the process.
In the 1970s, André Cadere decided that it was time for people to listen, so he decided to drag poles like the one in the picture, often unannounced, to art fairs, cafes and even other artists’ shows. He wanted to criticise the elitism of certain galleries and how only a few artists were able to showcase their work in front of the general public. This, of course, was considered disruptive and his entrance was forbidden. However, his statement reached the right places and his work is now part of one of the best museums in the world.
Having something valuable to say is sometimes as important as persevering until you are listened to.
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