The Downside Of Insufficient Communication

I’ve done my fair share of complaining on these pages about how difficult it is to obtain information from orchestra managers beyond the typical flow of propaganda style news from Marketing and Public Relations representatives.  Along these lines Art Journal recently featured a Letter to the Editor of the Charleston Post & Courier from the Charleston Symphony Orchestra board President, Ted Halkyard.

In his letter he expressed his dissatisfaction with an article in the Post & Courier by Robert Jones that claimed the “CSO is reportedly on the verge of collapse for lack of money.”   Mr. Halkyard went on in his letter to state that while he was not in a position to release detailed financial information about the orchestra it was nowhere near collapse and that Mr. Jones never even contacted anyone in the orchestra’s office to verify his claim.

Well I’ve been in this position before, and from the point of view of someone attempting to write an article it can be frustrating.  If orchestra representatives refuse to return phone calls and email or refuse to release financial information about the orchestra just because the subject matter makes them uncomfortable, you are not left with many options.  You either have to write a story that is perhaps incomplete due to a lack of verifiable information or write nothing at all; neither of which are very good alternatives.

Given the fact that Mr. Halkyard had side stepped the issue of the orchestra’s finances in his letter to the editor I considered that perhaps Mr. Jones was being placed in that same type of catch-22.  So I contacted both individuals to find out what was really going on, and I was surprised by both ends of the situation.

First, I was able to get in touch with CSO Board President Halkyard.   During the conversation he was pleasant to talk to and not evasive when answering the majority of my questions.   When asked about whether or not he thought the orchestra was doing everything they could to present the orchestra’s non artistic information to the public he did say that “We could do a better job of releasing information and that the board has an obligation to notify the public about the orchestra’s financial position.”  So it appears that from their side of the equation, they realize they could do a better job with keeping the public informed with up to date data regarding the financial health of the institution.  That was refreshing to hear coming from an orchestra Board President.

Mr. Halkyard then went on to provide some details about exactly where the orchestra currently stands.  He said that by June 30th, 2004 they are pretty confident that the orchestra will balance its budget with no appreciable surplus or deficit.  When asked if that includes any money owed on a line of credit or other borrowing he said that the June 30th deadline includes repayment of those funds to their appropriate creditors.  Ted went on to say that their endowment, while modest compared to other orchestra’s their size, will increase by approximately 20%.

However, one sign of difficult financial times is that in order for the orchestra to balance its budget this year, Ted said that they had to institute large cuts in artistic and staff expenses and use about 50% of the revenue from next season’s subscription sales.   So although the orchestra certainly doesn’t seem be on the verge of collapse, they aren’t sitting pretty either.  There’s significant work to be done simply to return the organization to its previous financial level and they will need continued community support.  And that community needs to insist that the orchestra is managed properly. 

Later the same day, I spoke with Robert Jones, the reporter who wrote that the orchestra was on the verge of collapse.  I spoke with Robert at his home in Carolina and he freely admitted that he did make a mistake in the article.  He based his conclusion on information gathered about a year ago from sources inside and outside the CSO, but did not check to make sure that information was still accurate.  Robert said that he is a guest columnist as opposed to a staff writer for the Post & Courier, but he and his editor should have been more vigilant in following up on how current his information was.

During the conversation, Robert said that he typically focuses on artistic issues and stays away from the financial and operational issues of the CSO.  In his experience with those matters he’s found the orchestra’s artistic leadership to be very approachable.  When he does talk to orchestras about financial matters, Robert observed that “most organizations approach financial problems like a social disease in the family, everyone knows about it but no one wants to say anything.”  This was another refreshing conversation since most reporters are not amiable to officially admitting when they make mistakes; which is in direct contrast to the traditional news media line “we stand by our story”.

So what can everyone learn from this situation?  I think that cultural reporters should be more persistant in insisting that orchestra’s provide up to date, unfiltered information about the organization’s financial and operational condition.  After all, it is a non profit organization that is supported by public funds and donations, so the local community has the inherent right to have access to that information whenever requested.  Additionally, orchestras should not make obtaining that information so difficult, there is already too much spin to make something that is a negative appear as a positive.  Critics and reporters should insure that the information they have is current and relevant to any given situation, and if an organization is not providing the information requested they should mention that in their writings.  It’s definitely a two way street when it comes to providing and requesting information.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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