Framing The Debate In San Antonio

There isn’t a day that passes where I don’t receive at least a dozen press releases but recently, my inbox has been filled with a new type of press release from the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony…


Currently, the San Antonio Symphony (SAS) musicians are engaged with their management in an increasingly contentious collective bargaining agreement negotiation. Over the past few years, orchestra players’ associations have been taking tentative steps into the world of public relations in attempts to even the playing field with managers during times of (less than harmonious) negotiations. Ultimately, any public relations campaign is simply an attempt to frame the debate among the general public and create pressure points designed to help the other side better understand your position.

countdown.jpgIn the SAS musicians’ case, they’ve implemented a countdown campaign in order to create an easily understood pressure point: a sense of urgency. In turn, the musicians are undoubtedly working to increase the sense of urgency among the SA community in hopes that it will manifest into augmented support for their positions by way of increased contact between patrons and management. The urgency resulting from the countdown may also create a sense of anxiousness among some SAS board members who, in turn, may put pressure on their executive managers and negotiators to be more flexible with certain musician demands.

Another benefit of the countdown is it provides an opportunity for the musicians to frame the debate and define the terms under which the public, in general, and patrons, in particular, view the issues involved in the dispute. Granted, this is all Public Relations 101 but in the end, it is the fundamentals that usually work best and it’s interesting to the SAS musicians use this tool in their efforts.

To date, the SAS musician countdown campaign has contained very generic language and a simple reminder for how many days are left before the contract expires. Nevertheless, the musicians could benefit from including instructions in each email message informing supporters how to contact SAS executives, SAS board members, local media outlets, and government officials, as well as including links to templates for letters of support (although they do offer such letters at SAS musician website).

Furthermore, the musicians could heighten interest in an otherwise repetitious email message by including only one individual contact point per email communication and rotate the following contacts over a period of a few weeks, thereby teasing supporters into a state of anxious anticipation over a new contact point each day. As of today, there are 39 days remaining in the SAS collective bargaining agreement so there is enough time for the musicians to make those changes.

Oddly enough, the SAS management isn’t using any of the same tactics to present their side in the negotiations. If you visit the SAS website, you wouldn’t even be able to tell they are involved in negotiations. Granted, they certainly don’t need to post something as ridiculous as the Philadelphia Orchestra Association’s infamous “Road map To Extinction” but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see them post something in response to the musician’s negotiation points.

To see just what the SAS musicians are doing with their countdown campaign, you can sign up for their e-newsletter here. To keep an eye on how the SAS managers and board members are dealing with the negotiations, you can stop by the SAS website (assuming they decide to post anything about it).

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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