Something about the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) labor dispute has struck me… and not in a good way. In the last few days the organization has been at the center of relentlessly bad news. That much is pretty obvious. But what is intriguing to me is how relentlessly bad its handling of the news has been. The ASO management knew what was coming, and presumably had time to prepare for the fallout. One could assume that it would have assembled a media plan to deal with the obvious negative publicity that would inevitably occur once the labor dispute boiled over.
Instead, the ASO management has given us a masterclass in how to foul your press coverage, and create new bad press to boot. It is a prime example of what we call “bad optics.”
Let me explain.
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1.The Lockout. Yes, most observers could see a lockout was a distinct possibility, given how far apart both sides in the labor dispute were. But really, a lockout is a failed strategy. It is a nuclear strategy, and no one can predict where it will lead. Given how obviously inflammatory it is, one would suppose that there would be a concerted effort to avoid it… or at least to appear that you tried to avoid it. Good optics would call for a very visual, frantic effort of trying every possibility to keep a lockout from happening; but if one became completely and transparently unavoidable, the leaders would announce it with sadness and resignation, and make clear that there really was no other choice.
The ASO has done nothing of the kind.
It opted out of last minute bargaining sessions, refused contact with the musicians as the clock ran out, and imposed a lockout the minute it was legally allowed to. With a cold letter announcing that all security cards to the building were deactivated and pay ended immediately.
Why? What reason was there for the unseemly haste? Why not make at least a show of trying to settle things? Why not toy with the idea of play and talk… or at least appear to toy with the idea? Instead, the management made it clear to all observers that it was gleefully adopting this inherently dangerous, destructive strategy, which will severely impact the broader community.
In a sense, I suppose the ASO management does realize how bad this makes it look—it tied itself into impressive rhetorical knots trying to avoid using the word “lockout” in press releases and in statements to the public. This fooled no one, and further inflamed the optics of the situation.
2. Stanley Romanstein’s Bonuses. As Emily Hogstad wrote over at Song of the Lark, ASO President Stanley Romanstein received substantial bonuses in the years leading up to the lockout, as did his predecessor Alison Vulgamore. But the ASO is promulgating the lockout of the musicians because the last few years have been a financial disaster for the organization. The ASO press release reads:
“The ASO has had 12 consecutive years of deficit operations. In the recently completed 2013 – 2014 fiscal year, it had a $2 million deficit, even with a significant contribution from ASO Presents, the concert promotional arm of the ASO. Accumulated debt is approximately $5 million. The ASO endowment has declined to about $70 million today as the Orchestra has taken additional distributions of $18 million to cover its accumulated deficits.”
So, why the bonuses? Yes, the recent bonus of $45,000 alone would not save the organization. But still. It is outrageous to claim such dire poverty that the musicians have to take sacrificial pay cuts on two occasions, but the CEO gets cash bonuses. It is outrageous that budget cuts forced the organization to reduce the size of the staff from 61 to 48 people—a point that it touts frequently as a successful part of its cost-cutting strategy—but the CEO gets cash bonuses. Given the pay scale of arts administrator, I can say with confidence that his bonus would have covered the salary of at least one of the workers let go.
This looks terrible. And reflects badly on all non-profits that are constantly scrambling to justify how they use donated money.
Even more shocking is the obliviousness of it all. This exact same thing happened during the Minnesota Orchestra dispute, and it was a disaster for President Michael Henson. It destroyed his credibility—not just from the general public, but also from members of the board of directors (many of whom had no idea that the bonuses were part of his compensation). Worse from a strategic perspective, “bonusgate” gave Henson’s critics a club to beat him with on every possible occasion.
Perhaps Mr. Romanstein should have asked Mr. Henson about this personally; the orchestral CEO world is small, and I can’t believe they are strangers.
3. Disastrous Online Strategy. The ASO’s online presence could not be more tone-deaf. As of right now, a look at its Facebook page reveals a desperate attempt to talk about anything but the lockout, posting stories of no consequence and providing no information about the lockout. Only when directly challenged does the moderator refer commenters to its lockout FAQ page.
By not seizing their message or controlling the conversation, the ASO leaders look lost and incompetent.
Which is all the more surprising because they willingly chose to engage the lockout strategy. Again, they chose this strategy.
So why didn’t they prepare for the obvious response? Given the national rise in audience advocates (which has been covered widely across the classical music industry) why didn’t they have a clear way of dealing with the inevitable negative comments on Facebook? Besides threatening commenters?
Instead, they chose to push a story focused on Joshua Bell… which is an odd choice. Bell famously defied the threats of the Minnesota Orchestra management and agreed to play in a special concert with the locked out musicians (once the lockout ended, the Minnesota Orchestra management was desperate to keep that date on the calendar). Does he stand with the ASO leadership? Does he approve of his image being used in this way?
Plus, the ASO promotes its new album… that features the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams’s name prominently barricaded behind barbwire.
Really? Doesn’t this seem a tad ironic, given recent events?
Plus, the ASO website is currently promoting upcoming concerts selling tickets to its concerts and special events—with live links. Is it a good strategy to induce people to buy tickets that almost certainly won’t be honored? Shouldn’t there be a disclaimer? Or something? How do they plan to handle the cancellations… and the resulting chaos?
And again, the ASO not only knew this was coming, but actively sought to implement the lockout. Why on earth is it so unprepared for the inevitable consequences?
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All in all, I can’t imagine how the ASO could look worse. All these items, coupled with the fact that former Woodruff employee Ralph Clark is going to prison for embezzling $1.1 million, reveals an organization that is incapable of managing money, or spending it appropriately.
It reveals an organization that has no capacity to manage situations that it has actively created—and has actively sought out.
It reveals an organization that has no concept on how to interact with the public, and to engage ticket buyers and donors.
It reveals an organization that at a fundamental level does not understand what it is about.
And unfortunately, these revelations will haunt the ASO long after this dispute is over. Even if the management “wins.”
[Edit: It appears that due to the overwhelming number of negative comments showing up on the ASO’s Facebook page, management will no longer post there or accept additional comments of any kind. I struggle to think of a more ridiculous response… which only serves to strengthen the argument of this article.]