Do You Really Want To Lead With Scorched Earth Tactics?

If nothing else, this business is never dull. Yesterday’s Kansas City Star published an article by Dan Margolies which reports that the Kansas City Symphony filled a lawsuit against Missouri’s General Assembly for failing to provide arts funding as promised via decade old legislature…

The article does a fine job of reporting the details of the event, but the part I find confusing is why the orchestra would decide to launch a scorched earth campaign by using the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction: a lawsuit.

The article goes on to point out that none of the other local Kansas City arts organizations joined the KCS in the lawsuit. Furthermore, the article reports that the Symphony’s attorney (and board member) stated that he thought the other organizations would be afraid of reprisals if they took part. Perhaps that is a wise course of action for the other arts organizations to take since government funding on any level is, at best, unpredictable. Furthermore, adding a negative personal element such as a lawsuit certainly doesn’t serve to strengthen an already unpredictable relationship.

If the legislature is indeed at fault, then there are plenty of options available that bring pressure to bear on the situation to have them make good on their promises. All of this makes me wonder if the KCS board is so disconnected from the Missouri political machine that they have no ability to resolve this matter through back-door channels.

It also makes me wonder why they did not pursue any of the other options available to create public awareness, such as launching a PR campaign, holding a press conference, inviting the press to a meeting with state representatives, etc.

Regardless, the die is now cast and, hopefully, the orchestra has crafted plans as to how it will repair the damaged relationships this move will undoubtedly create.

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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1 thought on “Do You Really Want To Lead With Scorched Earth Tactics?”

  1. Drew,

    This is indeed interesting, thanks for pointing it out.

    My guess as to why they went with the scorched-earth approach is that it was in fact a calculated PR move. I don’t know the political and media situation in Kansas City, but it’s conceivable that they decided that anything less than a full-on assault would be ignored by the media, and that if they followed up a weak PR campaign with a lawsuit the media might see the conflict as “old news” and not cover it. If the story were managed in a way where it went stale before it even got covered, the PR value would be lost. It seems unlikely enough that the politicians involved would bow to the kind of weak PR that the non-scorched-earth strategy would create, which would lead to the need for a lawsuit anyway. Leading with the lawsuit means that the orchestra gets to look tough — like it’s standing up to the government.

    My sense of the public perception of lawsuits is that they hate “frivolous” ones, but love the idea of suing people who genuinely wronged you, and so far the framing of this issue is “the government is breaking its promises.” Plus, looking at the political breakdown, conservatives are the most likely population to oppose state funding for the arts but also the most likely to enjoy watching the government get taken to task. Liberals, on the other hand, are likely to support arts funding anyway, and aren’t likely to be disuaded from that view by a lawsuit leaving a bad taste in their mouths. So the “toughness” stance may well have negligible impact on the liberal electorate and be the most effective way to appeal to the conservative electorate — smart politics if I’m reading it right.

    All of this is oversimplified, of course, and I’m prepared to find that this argument doesn’t hold up. But it seems plausible at the moment.

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