Lessons In Damage Control

If you’re anything like MusicalAmerica.com’s Susan Elliott, the one-two punch of interviews with Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) executive vice president Paul Hogle appearing in the Detroit News (here & here) which attempted to clarify the replacement orchestra brouhaha left you thinking “huh?” If that’s not confusing enough, an interview with DSO president Anne Parsons in the 2/21/2011 edition of the Detroit Free Press sent an equally mixed message…

The Free Press article, by Mark Stryker, starts off with Parsons asserting that the orchestra “has no plans to hire permanent replacements for the 85 musicians who have been on strike for 21 weeks.” Seems clear, right? Well, that was followed up with some open-ended comments that may appear to some as leaving the door open for exploring it at a later date.

Parsons said that the possibility of hiring replacements had come up during discussions with donors and community leaders during the strike and was likely to arise in the future as DSO leaders explored ways of operating its business without a resident ensemble. But she said the priority was to find a way to resolve the strike — while also exploring ways to reinvigorate the Max M. Fisher Center by increasing its educational activities, rentals and partnerships.

Others in the field have been speculating on the nature of these mixed messages, including Robert Levine; Milwaukee Symphony lead viola operator (self described), Chairman Emeritus of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, and president of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 AFM.

A third, and more likely, reason would be to raise the ante for the musicians without seeming to do so. I doubt that a single member of the DSO really believes that management isn’t thinking about replacing them after Sunday’s article, which is quite possibly what management wants them to think now. But it’s equally likely that management doesn’t want the public thinking that, especially in a state with a tradition regarding picket lines as strong as Michigan’s.

But let’s give the benefit of the doubt for a moment and assume that the DSO really has no intention of hiring replacement musicians now or in the future. Next, let’s roll the clock back to Monday morning when the Hogel’s comments opened Pandora’s Box and the DSO found itself in the limelight of a public relations storm. What’s the best way out of a mess like that if you sincerely have no intention of doing whatever it is you’re being accused of considering but are suffering from a representative who spoke out of turn?

The good news is the answer is pretty easy; let’s use the DSO’s replacement musician bear trap as an example. Here’s what Parsons should have told the Detroit Free Press.

“Yes, we have had discussions about replacement musicians whenever board members, donors, and supporters have asked. But since they aren’t familiar with how these issues impact the business, we have to take the time to provide thorough explanations. But in each of those instances, we have always told them that we have not explored options, have no current plans, and will not entertain any future options that include replacing our current musicians.”

In short, don’t give anyone anything else to question or report. Sure, there will be conjecture about intent, sincerity, etc. but all you have to do from here on out is repeat that statement whenever it comes up and let your actions do the rest (i.e. don’t do whatever it is others suspect you will do). Even if the DSO was considering the replacement musician option on one level or another, the above reply still provides the necessary fortitude to back out of a decision while still managing to save face.

No mixed messages and the story would be done, over. Nothing left to report folks, move along.

Let’s chalk this one up as the first of what will likely be many lessons to learn from this labor dispute.

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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0 thoughts on “Lessons In Damage Control”

  1. Their response reminds me of how the Republicans respond to the so called Birthers who believe that Obama is not American. They won’t deny it as absurd, rather they will say something like: The state of Hawaii says he was born there and if he says so, I take him at his word. They leave just enough doubt in peoples subconscious mind, while appearing to not support the notion. Makes me think that Robert Levine is on to something here.

  2. That’s a big benefit of the doubt. I subscribe to Mr. Levine’s point of view. There have been poison pills in every offer that assure they will be voted down. See today’s musician post
    I’m not sure whether people are going to learn what not to do, or what to do from Detroit’s experience. Clearly DSO management wants to get credit for busting a union, and must think there are other managements out there waiting for someone to “lead the way.” Here in Detroit, it would have been politically difficult to bust the union from the start, so they had to make it look like the musicians were being intransigent by continually presenting offers that lacked some crucial element, like tenure, and then blaming musicians for rejecting them.

    • That’s exactly the point, damage control efforts that don’t close the door on widespread speculation can actually cause more harm than good. A good damage control effort will shore up a core support base and pull those on the fence toward your perspective or at the very least, keep them from leaning the other direction.

  3. I was also confused by Paul Hogel’s and Anne Parsons’ conflicting statements.

    In the quote above from Mark Stryker’s Free Press article, “Parsons said that the possibility of hiring replacements had come up during discussions with donors and community leaders…”

    But, then I clicked on your link to Lawrence Johnson’s Feb 22nd Detroit News article. “Asked again Monday if the concept of replacing the current musicians, under any circumstances, was beyond the pale of consideration, Hogle said: ‘I’ll decline to comment on that, since I don’t have an answer because that has not been discussed.'”

    So was replacing the musicians discussed or not? These statements seem fishy to me.

    • I agree George, at times postings to FaceBook by both sides in the DSO dispute has gone overboard, creating a toxic environment that risks alienating the general public. I’m all for using FaceBook to create a discussion forum in which AFM musicians and supporters (or conversely DSO management and other industry insiders) can process the emotional upheaval that has been the DSO since Oct., but it’d make more sense to me to keep these FB groups private / invitation only and then use public FB pages for more diplomatic statements. With Google Cache, the current vitriolic discourse will be popping up in Internet search engines for decades to come.

  4. Drew,

    I am interested in your thoughts about the abundance of union news going on right now in the national discourse . And specifically in relation to what is going on in Wisconsin and beyond.

    Do you think there is a nationalized union breaking plan taking effect?

    Just to be clear, I’m not a part of any union. While I’m sure my question has leading qualities, I am in no way directly involved or am financially affected by the outcomes of what happens in Detroit or in Wisconsin. I am interested in your thoughts since you are intimately involved in the profession.


    • Leading qualities you say? Surely, you must be joking 😉

      In all seriousness, that’s an excellent question Jacob and I’ve been thinking about whether or not I should post something about this. As of now, I haven’t made a decision but if I do, it will undoubtedly be soon. As such, thank you very much for the feedback, hearing from readers is always an enormous help in deciding which topics to cover.

  5. While a lot of attention is being paid to management and their current doings, as a web developer and musician I still have grave concerns over the musician’s web site and what this example says in terms of PR.

    The tone is shriek-y and in-your-face. I get it that this is a difficult confrontation but as Drew has re-scripted some words from Anne Parsons, the musician’s site needs similar attention.

    Seriously … I wince when I go to their site, thinking AAACK this is not how you endear people.

    While their points might all be valid, it comes across as angry shouting blah blah. It is possible to tell someone to go to hell and have them whistling a merry tune when they go away. It is called ‘tact’ and it is lacking at the musician’s site.

    Donning my flame retardant suit,

  6. Bruce/Drew-

    Your discussion about the DSO musicians’ website is strangely disconnected from reality. Remember that the reality the musicians are dealing with is just a bit more personal than that of the the armchair commentators who casually whine about bad form.

    Quoting Mr. Hembd:
    At this point they would be better served by taking that site offline. It does much more harm than good.


    Look at the “coverage” provided by the local newspapers and realize that the musicians’ website is the ONLY source that accurately presents our position. It may not be pleasant, or polished, or pretty, but we can discuss those things later. It may not be “good form” to call people out directly, but the time for politeness passed quite awhile ago, in case you hadn’t noticed.
    What I have noticed is that the web/media “professionals” are usually the last ones to recognize or acknowledge an aggressive, virulent attack for what it is. They sit back and watch… and wait, and wait… and wait…. wouldn’t want to risk saying too much…”bad form” and all that…
    So now, finally, when it is impossible to pretend otherwise, people are starting to recognize what is actually going on here. Thank God. Too late? We’ll see.

    Do you suppose any of the writers/consultants/experts will dare to remind DSO Board members exactly what their role is? Do you suppose any of the casual observers will offer insight into exactly how much better St. Paul isn’t, after their come-to-Jesus experience with the gospel according to Bruce Coppock? Do you think any reporter will go back, do the research, crunch the numbers, and then actually report about the lies, fabrications, and omissions that were sold to the uninformed(dare I say “clueless”) members of the DSO board to build the case for their current misadventure?

    I doubt if the Detroit News will do that. I’m pretty sure the Detroit News won’t. Read their editorials and review their “coverage”. Look into their labor history and things quickly come into focus, but at least their websites are a bit prettier than ours.

    If you want to experience some truly “good form”, come and hear the Musicians of the DSO, specifically the woman who is largely responsible for the website you’re carping about. Her Oboe/English Horn playing is a living, breathing example of what beauty is. I just hope you don’t have to go to some other city to hear her.

    And I think the website is just fine.


    • Without getting into this too deep, I could easily reverse this argument and turn it on its head. My comments are not a personal attack – they come from years of equal experience in marketing, web design and music.

      In short, you attract more flies with honey … even if it is laced with acid.

    • A PS –

      Fighting fire with fire is a sure-fire way to get burned.

      Not that my tiny little opera orchestra is any comparison to the DSO, but here is a good example of PR piece I made during a labor conflict. It sends a strong message without really saying anything at all.


      There is delicate art to communicating strife without coming across as arrogant, out-of-touch or shrill. Again, my situation bears little resemblance to the current affairs in the DSO, but I hope this video sheds more light. It had an impact.

    • Dear Kevin,Drew, and Bruce,
      I was just going to write something very, very similar
      to Kevin.
      I have seen many of these exceptional people, who are not only some of the finest Musicians in the United States, but human beings,
      experience this nightmare from before they were forced to strike. The betrayal, the cruelty, the surprise tactics
      foisted on these fine individuals, whose professionalism and dedication are more rare by the day, has been breathtaking and heartbreaking.I have known and written about this orchestra and individual musicians over the course of forty years. I have promoted it, formally and informally, broadcast this orchestra for the first time, raised money for it,and saved the Children’s concert series in the past, among other close associations with the DSO and the Musicians, and grew up hearing this exceptional orchestra since I was little more than a toddler. I have seen them go through one struggle after another, and what I know, is they have handled themselves with great discipline and dignity, always, in fact, remembering to maintain a deference for the organization, itself, to the best of their abilities.
      Please, do not forget, the public wants the Truth and only in the Musicians site are they able to obtain it.Lack of transparency has caused many, many people to get the wrong ideas, or forced them to arrive at inaccurate conclusions. One of the most frequently stated is the DSO is supported by taxpayers at the State and Federal levels.That, of course, is not true, and is one of the areas that separates the Musicians from auto workers ( GM rescue) and teachers.The pensions are totally different in structure, and the Musicians’
      union and Music Business is so complex on so many levels
      there is little comparison to any other union.I really believe, the Management and Board do not understand the implications of their demand, now dropped, of disassociating the Musicians from the Union and the Pension. ( It’s almost laughable, frankly, to anyone who
      knows about it.) Another is the accusation that the Musicians, not the Board, or Management, consider themselves ‘divas.’ How many know, that the Motown sound
      was recorded and contributed to by the Musicians of the DSO on countless hits and non-hits, night in and night out, after performances to make ends meet, prior to musicians earning a living wage? They continue to do so to this day.

      From the beginning, the strategies and tactics employed by the Management and the Board’s leaders have been designed to position the Musicians in such a light as to make them seem unreasonable and greedy. Such representations are completely off base by anyone’s measure, if they know the business at all.The Board and Management, cynically, played off of the public’s ignorance and abused their position. The Management’s and Board’s mindsets are such , they were bound to slip up, and they did, such as the the disinformation they fed for an editorial stating the banks had called in the loans. In a radio interview, shortly, after that editorial appeared, Ann Parsons was caught in having to admit it wasn’t true.
      She and the Management, consistently,feed misinformation about what is transpiring. The unsigned email distributed to subscribers and donors, etc. was written with the inability to contain a baseline hostility that shocked everyone. Yet, that tone did not even match the degree of animus spewed onto the Musicians, time and again. Another denigrated the spontaneous and newly formed advocacy group, Save Our Symphony, claiming it was a few years old, and the names and numbers denoted this and that, which were unadulterated lies written to sound trustworthy and authoritative.They never could have seen the list of members, in the first place.
      We, the public,learned ,earlier,in a piece by Larry Johnson, that when these plans that included degrading the quality and caliber of the Musicians and ,thus, the DSO, were revealed to the Board, one of the members asked, what about the audience? Another member quickly answered, they won’t know the difference.At that point, a reader could not but conclude the disrespect for the audiences.
      Soon after this all ensued, patrons began to realize the monies they had donated and expended for tickets to sustain, improve, and attend the DSO was going to destroy it.They were given the option of a full refund. Many recounted on line the trouble they had doing so, advising others how they finally retrieved their money. Several withdrew their generous donations as well.
      The toxins were entered into the public waters. The environment poisoned by Management and the Board.The Musicians had nothing to do with this.
      Consequently, what Drew advises about damage control became unattainable, since it can only be acquired, or work, if the speaker, has credibility. The Management and its Board and its CEO’s, destroyed their own trust and credibility. Donors in all various ranks are going to be hard put to trust these people with any sums, now, especially, with the exposure of the mishandled contributions for capital improvements and the endowment. This ,they did to themselves. Again, the Musicians have not done this.
      Emily Dickinson said, ” Truth is such a rare thing
      It is a delight to tell it ”
      From the beginning, as well, the miscalculations of the Strategy and tactics placed the Musicians at the frontline of a battle that is defending the quality and finest performances and the standards for all of the symphony orchestras in the United States. The DSO Musicians cannot settle for an inferior contract jeopardizing its top ten status.They cannot permit inferior precedents on any level to be established. The Musicians in this country have fought for more than 80 years for work conditions and a proper and appropriate salary. However, this is not only about the money.
      The DSO Musicians had worked on a Strategy Plan with Management, including Ms. Parsons and an outside firm for over two and a half years, which both sides , originally,accepted.It was written with recognition and accommodation of fiscal realities and provided a plan that included a vision for ten years with which to go forward. All the while, Ms. Parsons was, secretly, contriving a plan, which was sprung on the musicians, while tossing the one they had worked on and were under the impression was acceptable to all.
      What is happening is really not about the money.It is about maintaining the highest standards for Classical Music presentations for the Audiences, and much more.
      The DSO Musicians have accomplished many feats these last few months, because they care and are honestly passionate about the Music and the Audiences with whom they have a covenant. They know, the Music is the first priority, and the importance and the role of the audiences.
      They know, the audiences want the greatest Music ever conceived recreated by the finest musicians – solo, or in ensemble form- as often as possible with the highest
      standards and quality of performance. That is what they have continuously maintained for the public.They know, they are part of the Community,and continue to participate in various services for the community as they have for many years. For instance,they gave a benefit concert at a homeless shelter, and held a press conference, alerting the public of the consequences to the small businesses dependent on
      the DSO performances in Mid-town Detroit, and promoting their establishments. They presented
      Christmas programs for their audiences, so those patrons whose holiday always includes the DSO concerts would not be disappointed. To date, the Musicians have presented no less than 15 concerts in various venues around the Greater Metropolitan Detroit Area for filled and overflowing audiences, despite terrible winter weather, all the while adapting as an ensemble to less than ideal acoustic conditions. At each venue, they recognize individuals at the venues, who have made special efforts and contributions to the concert and to the venue, such as the organ they made sure to include in Saint-Saens Symphony, no.3. Thus, they enabled the donor to realize his dream. They worked with a high school concert orchestra for ten weeks, and for the concert featured a young girl as the violin soloist.
      All soloists and conductors are donating their services along with the DSO Musicians for nothing.
      Often, they were playing with heart and passion through tears and pain they saw mirrored in the faces of the audience members.
      Make no mistake by misjudging the audiences and students’ and their arents’ reactions and those thousands, who have taken the time to join SOS, to write, and/or, call. I am not exaggerating when I say people are angry, ‘ beside themselves’, crying, disappointed, feel betrayed, want the story of what in the world happened and is happening. No one seems to want to listen, or understand, that for many of us, this is personal for various reasons.Its our Heritage, passed down from our Parents and Grandparents.Its traditions are deep and glorious, and for the City, it is a cultural treasure of which we can be proud. Like the Detroit Institute of Arts, it is world renowned, but when it performs it is a living organism, alive with the energies of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Verdi, Mahler, and all who realized their human potential in creating their compositions, giving us hope.
      Truth, it is said, is the first casualty of war, and in this battle for standards and quality of the finest masterpieces ever composed, it becomes more precious to find and tell in today’s world on a daily basis. The musicians are to be commended for keeping ” their heads about them ” to present the Truth. After all, it is in the Music where the truth can be found, logically, intelligently, and creatively, bringing sense and order out of the chaos.

      • I can only echo Drew’s comments. As a musician I am tied between supporting the DSO musicians and their plight and being appalled at their current PR strategy.

        The anger and conspiratorial accusations on the musician’s site may seem justified in their tone due to an alleged history of deception. As a fellow musician I say HELL YEAH!

        But, the general public registers that ire as something else if care is not taken to keep passion in check. Ire can easily be perceived as arrogance and being out-of-touch with the times. Overlooking that perception – whether you believe it to be true or false – is frankly, reckless.

        This is the tone being set by the DSO musicians site. The facts are all fine; it is the presentation of them is what concerns me so much. The musicians, being too close to the controversy are perhaps losing the forest because of the trees.

        Yes, the truth should be most definitely told and as a musician who almost had his own job taken away a few years back (the Phoenix Symphony tried to takeover the AZ Opera Orchestra) I can truly empathize. While the stakes were less for me (AZ Opera is part-time), the sentiment is nearly identical.

        Hyperbole and histrionics only add fuel to a fire that is already raging out of control. While it pains me to stick my neck out like this I do it out of grave concern for the DSO musicians and the reckless path they are choosing to take on their web site.

    • A message filled with passion and framed by a fundamental belief in justification is only part of the overall equation that comprises a public conversation. Both sides in this dispute have made numerous errors in just about every component of this equation and as Bruce pointed out (as have I in earlier posts and comment replies), website design, user interface, and content planning is one of the most heavily flawed components of the musicians’ efforts. Fortunately, one of the silver linings associated with the season cancellation is it offers an ideal opportunity for each side to rebrand their message. As a result, if you feel like your efforts are not producing the desired results, check every component to find your errors. If you’re fortunate, you’ll get some outside insight from time to time to help that process along.

  7. What I am finding a little odd in this situation is that I have no sense that the DSO is, say, looking for donors with deep pockets. Detroit is in terrible shape, as cities go, and yet there must be some people with money. GM just posted a nice profit for the first time in years! Maybe they have a few bucks for charity?

    • Responding to Lisa Hirsch’s comment, what seems most frustrating for us bystanders watching the train wreck, is that money doesn’t seem to be the issue. Both parties have agreed upon a $36 million framework over the next three years. It would seem that if you’ve come that far, the rest should be do-able.
      The musicians also claim that an extra $1 million was thrown into the pot by one of the mediators, Mr. Dan Gilbert from Quicken Loans, which was missing from the agreement when the management presented its final offer last week (I think that was the third “final” offer.) DSO management did not deny that the extra million existed, but contended that the plans for it had not yet been finalized.
      Regardless, with an institution teetering upon bankruptcy, with the stakes so high, with the actual dollars and cents agreed upon, with at least one deep pocket donor standing by, clearly willing and able to act, with musicians who haven’t had a paycheck for 4 months, with an independent advocacy group (Save Our Symphony) of nearly 5,000 members also willing to support, you have to wonder why in the world management cannot produce an agreement.

  8. Currently, the DSO asserts that all recent large donors will only give under a very prescribed set of circumstances. In the business, twe call these highly restricted gifts. What seems to be the trouble is the gift’s restrictions coincide to the letter with some of the substantial changes in work rules so perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a cloud of disingenuousness that is contributing to the animosity. Whether or not there are donors out there with less concern over narrow restrictions is unclear. The management claims no, the musicians claim yes.

    Also unknowns how the DSO’s current large donors feel about all of this.

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