The Empire Strikes Back

Crisis management public relations is never easy and there is a good reason entire PR firms exist for the sole purpose of helping individuals and organizations’ deal with negative press in a way that marginalizes damage and ultimately brings about favorable public opinion. Traditionally, orchestras tend to deal with negative press using one a few blunt tools that aren’t very effective in bringing about the sort of change appropriate crisis PR management can accomplish. One common example is to responding to negative public attention that doesn’t merit much hope for changing views is to lash out against the author, which is known as argumentum ad hominem, a logical fallacy often employed by politics as a propaganda tool…

Such is the case with the response from Phoenix Symphony to a piece in the 6/5/09 edition of Musical America by Dimitri Drobatschewsky which focuses on labor problems stemming from reported actions of the orchestra’s music director, Michael Christie. The response begins by stating “The Phoenix Symphony is disappointed that a one-sided story was printed and we are responding now to correct any misunderstandings that might result from the article.”

Regular readers will remember examining Drobatschewsky’s article (along with another piece critical of Phoenix Symphony) in an article here from 6/10/09. The Phoenix response continued with much of the same information the Phoenix Symphony included in a press release following their recent concessionary bargaining agreement but when it came to the labor issues Drobatschewsky highlighted, only one of Phoenix’s seven paragraphs acknowledged those issues.

“As was mentioned in the article, the Symphony did make a number of personnel changes in the past few years, and we do not feel that it benefits anyone to comment publicly about the Symphonys valid reasons for professional actions. We cannot control the desire of the media and bloggers to discuss or speculate about these changes. The board, staff, orchestra and union all agreed that it was in the best interests of the Symphony to resolve all matters and to move forward. We are proud that our dedicated musicians and everyone in the Symphony family have come together as we embark on our future.”

This might be enough to suffice, however, the response didn’t include a quote from nor was it signed by a musician representative and at the time this article was written, the Phoenix Symphony musicians have not issues a separate response supporting or refuting claims made in the organization’s response. Consequently, since the thrust of Drobatschewsky’s piece was related to contentious labor issues caused by actions of the music director, the Phoenix Symphony’s response would have come across with the sort of untied spirit the language above eludes if it had been signed by a musician representative and/or included some quotes from the musicians regarding the issues Drobatschewsky raised.

Ultimately, many of Drobatschewsky’s questions remain unanswered and the style in which the Phoenix Symphony composed their response risks coming across to stakeholders just as heavy-handed, one-sided, and insincere as they accuse Musical America and Drobatschewsky. The approach is a bit melodramatic and comes across more as an episode of Star Wars than a measured, PR piece. moreover, the timing of response only serves to drag all of these issues back into the limelight and the approach is not the sort of direction crisis PR specialists would endorse.

Postscript: the Phoneix resposne is published at and is available to subscribers.

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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