Something Else To Consider In The Larger Oberlin PR Crisis

Diversity driven PR crises seem to be all the rage these days. Just when you thought things were settling down following the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields’ “white art audience” fiasco, something new pops up from Oberlin Conservatory.

In case you missed it, here are the highlights:

  • Oberlin Conservatory designed a flier for “A Celebration of Black Artistry,” a virtual performance ending Black History Month that included headshots for five of the performers.
  • All five performers are Caucasian.
  • Backlash from every recognizable corner of the internet and alumni groups ensued.

Oberlin quickly issued a statement acknowledging this approach was “problematic.”

Two things stood out in that statement:

  1. How quickly the statement pivoted from acknowledgement to virtue signaling.
  2. Completely side-stepping the fact that none of the performers were African-American.

Perhaps the best way to summarize is to say the latter is a byproduct of the former. Here’s what Oberlin wrote in their statement:

“We acknowledge that it was a mistake to post this event out of context, and without pictures of the composers themselves, and we are deeply sorry.”

According to the statement, it’s clear Oberlin doesn’t see any issue with the fact that someone made the decision to engage an all-Caucasian group of artists.

When you think about this issue, what gave you pause? Was it the decision to promote the all-Caucasian performers and none of the African-American composers, the fact that there are no African-American performers to begin with, or both?

I’m happy to give Oberlin benefit of the doubt that every effort to engage African-American performers was made, but no one was available for the terms offered.

Having said that, it doesn’t really sound like a bet I’d want to take.

From a PR crisis management perspective, Oberlin’s statement risks getting snared by the same bear trap that ultimately led to the resignation of the Newfield’s president after his attempts to explain why the phrase “white art audience” even appeared in a job description to begin with.

Time will tell how things play out in the HR department but for now, the organization seems content with letting people vent and keeping its head down (just check out the comments to their Facebook post on the matter).

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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