You Don't Have To Shut All The Way Up

There was an interesting bit of news about the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) labor dispute in NPR from Jennifer Guerra on 3/16/2011 about how the dispute has played out in social media. That article contains a quote from Christie Nordhelm, a University of Michigan marketing professor, who offered the following advice on how the DSO should approach social media.”First: Shut up, just stop. And then second: Wait quietly until people forget.”…

Although there’s certainly plenty of value to that tactic, especially from a public relations perspective, it does have limitations. For example, there was no way to ignore the tidal wave of protest emanating from social media channels when the Sarah Chang recital situation exploded into public view. The really important part you should notice in Guerra’s piece is that the DSO is using their established, official social media outlets to publicly communicate their position.

This is where Nordhelm’s advice is best applied. The governing organization should never use established online channels to communicate and interact with stakeholders during a labor dispute. Certainly, they can expect plenty of inquiries but they should all be politely directed toward the temporary social media outlets created exclusively for the dispute.

At bare minimum, this means an organization will need either a blog platform or a Facebook page. A clearly stated communication policy should be constructed so as to define the parameters of public engagement and once the dispute is resolved, the pages and related content should be deleted. At the same time, creating specialized communication outlets during a dispute isn’t a license to launch weapons of mass communication destruction. Regardless of how long the dispute lasts, both sides will need to fight against those temptations.

Perhaps it’s time to put all of this together in a single source and write McManus’ Art Of (labor) War. What do you think?

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 “You Don't Have To Shut All The Way Up”

  1. I was surprised she gave that advice. I was expecting that from a law professor, not from a marketing professor.

    What is wrong in this case, is the DSO’s (management) messaging and the distribution channels, not the fact that they put out a message.

    There are plenty of times you should remain silent, and not fan the flame, but this scenario is far beyond that point; the conversation is out there.

    • Good observations Marc and the closing the barn door after the horses are out perspective is entirely apt. I think this is a perfect example of the distinct line between public relations and a clearly defined damage control situation.

      More often than not, PR and marketing professionals are not always the folks you want to craft a damage control strategy. It’s also important to define in this discussion that damage control doesn’t have to be reactionary, if a situation, like a labor dispute, is in “coming storm” stages, that’s the time to begin injecting damage control efforts into the process.

      In that sense, marketing and PR become a part of those efforts but they don’t necessarily lead those efforts. this is also a good way to help put a bit of insulation between those individuals since they will almost certainly be the ones responsible for carrying out regular marketing/Pr efforts once the situation resolves.

  2. The real problem with the DSO labor dispute has been the profound mistrust and apparent animosity between the two parties. This has colored their actions and their public statements, and has in turn set a tone which their respective supporters have tended to adopt, which is one reason that comments on Facebook have been so strongly stated. I do agree with Professor Nordhelm that it’s a bad idea to negotiate in public, but both parties have been doing that since before the strike, and it would have happened with or without Facebook.

    I thought that Professor Nordhelm showed a lack of understanding of what’s really been going on at the DSO Facebook page. I agree that management was wrong to question whether the SOS (Save Our Symphony) supporters were donors to the DSO. That appeared to be an attempt to marginalize the musicians’ supporters, and it was a bad PR move. I have been critical of management’s inconsistent and confusing public statements about the status of negotiations and other aspects of the labor dispute. There was a recent case where the VP told a local newspaper that the DSO planned to hire replacement players, only to have the CEO dismiss that statement later in the day as a “misunderstanding” by the reporter. So there is no question that the DSO management could improve in the area of communications and public relations. I’m no expert, but it would seem to me that they could start by designating one member of the management team to whom all questions about negotiations and the strike would be directed. The rest of the team would refuse to comment (or, in Prof. Nordhelm’s words, “shut up”.)

    I don’t think that adding one more source of information would help things. The DSO already has their own website, where they periodically publish updates on the labor dispute, along with statements and public letters that justify and support their bargaining position. Then there is the Facebook page, which allows the public to express their thoughts and opinions. During the past few weeks, the tone of the comments has become much more constructive, with supporters of both sides listening to each other and trying to come up with workable solutions to the impasse. Some people have openly asked management to engage more with the public on the Facebook page, and management has responded to some questions in what I consider to be an appropriate way. If management had established yet another Facebook page devoted solely to the strike, that would still not prohibit the public from posting strike-related comments on the “official” DSO Facebook page.

    As I said, I have major concerns about many of the things management has done throughout this crisis, even before the strike, and in particular, their communications and PR have not been what I would have expected. However, aside from the post about the SOS supporters, I think they’ve done a reasonably good job dealing with their Facebook page.

    • Your observations about “how” a situation is currently being handled on the DSO FB page are apt, the situation being discussed here isn’t so much an examination of direct efforts so much as the benefits of not using established, official institutional new media platforms for communication during labor disputes.

      I posted a much more detailed article about what this entails on 1/8/2010 along with a detailed guideline on how best to go about the efforts: But in short, a group would be very hard pressed to discover a scenario where using the existing institutional new media platforms for primary communication is the way to go(the same advice goes for musicians).

      In this case, an organization isn’t creating an additional point of communication. Quite the contrary, they are making it easier by narrowing the points of communication and insulating expected contentious and difficult conversations to a medium that (hopefully) won’t have a long term impact on the group’s future.

      • Thanks for providing the link, Drew. After reading your article, I now understand the context of the post to which I originally responded. I agree with what you wrote in the post from 1/8/2010, and only wish that DSO management had adopted your suggestions from the beginning. Now, do you have any suggestions for those of us who do not want to see the DSO fail? Should we continue to exchange our thoughts on the DSO Facebook page, or should we back off and let the two parties thrash this out on their own?

      • And my apologies for not originally providing the greater context. As for whether or not those concerned should continue posting on any of the stakeholder’s official new media platforms, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. since there isn’t a dispute oriented venue available, there aren’t any other choices and simply put, it isn’t a patron’s problem if an orchestra or its musicians fail to abide by recommended guidelines. They should feel free to express their opinions and ask questions within a civil context.

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