Monday, May 25, 2009

On Transparency (Long Post)

Most of those who know me know that I am an avid reader, generally consuming a book a week, mostly on topics related to my work. A couple of weeks ago someone left a copy of Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online by Andy Beal and Dr. Judy Strauss on my desk. To this day, I have no clue who left it on my desk, and when I left the office to attend a Strategic Marketing conference by National Arts Strategies, I threw it in my bag thinking it would keep me company on my trip. I have just finished reading the book, and I found it fascinating, particularly for those of us who were trained in the old school of public relations. I have known for some time that with the proliferation of new technologies, "spin" is no longer an accepted practice, as information travels too fast, and some of the most interesting stories are broken online by citizen bloggers. In this new world, being transparent seems to be of prime importance, and that is an argument made beautifully in this book.

The authors encourage every organization to become "radically transparent," which means "being open and honest online, admitting mistakes, engaging stakeholders in discussion about you and your brands, and even revealing your internal processes." They go on to say that "there is little censorship in the world of online social media--the community values raw truth. The internet community immediately comes down hard on those who employ conversation spin, control, manipulation or spam."

Recently when I was giving a presentation at the Leagure of Resident Theatres (LORT) conference entitled "Theaters as Media Outlets," I made the argument that traditional media relations would no longer work and a new system would have to be created. I discussed how our artistic staff have direct lines of communication to our audiences via blogging and twittering, and that we were taking the next step of purchasing FLIP cameras for senior artistic staff so that they could capture their own video. As a communications department, we are still responsible for crafting messaging and monitoring all of our external communications, but we are trying to make those communications as authentic and transparent as possible.

In a recent article for Wired Magazine, "The See-Through CEO" Clive Thompson states "in the new world of radical transparency, the path to business success is clear. Show what you are doing, reveal your processes, acknowledge mistakes, and participate fully in conversation that concerns you."

Many media relations professionals have been following the relationship between the Guthrie Theater and the press, which has turned into an apparent feud during the past couple of months. It is always easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, and believe me I have my own issues, but I have to believe that if the Guthrie embraced the idea of radical transparency more, all of this might have been avoided. Below are a couple of articles concerning the relationship between the Guthrie and the press:

January 6, 2009: "Compensation in the Arts: Some Salaries Raise Eyebrows," The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Rohan Preston reports that Joe Dowling, Director of the Guthrie Theater, received a pay package of $682,229 in 2007, and then makes the argument that Dowling is paid much more than his peers at other theaters. I found it interesting that there wasn't an official response from the Guthrie, except an identified board member who sits on the compensation committee and a board member who spoke on anonymity. The article received 163 comments online, many of which weren't pretty.

February 2, 2009: "Don't Review This," Minnesota Playlist. A little less than a month after the article on Joe Dowling's salary, Melodie Bahan, Director of Communications (assuming that would be equivalent to Arena's Director of Media Relations) writes an article criticizing the state of arts journalism, particularly that found in daily newspapers and takes some swipes at the reviews found in her hometown papers (including the Star Tribune). Even if you agree with the arguments she makes (and elegantly so), the timing of her article could be construed as sour grapes over the Dowling piece.

This article prompted responses from the local critics and reporters:

Graydon Royce, Star Tribune

"Star Tribune's Peck responds to Guthrie staffer's rip" by David Brauer covering Senior Arts Editor Claude Peck's response. In response to Ms. Bahan's request for better arts journalism, Mr. Peck states it is "very difficult, for example, in the case of the Guthrie, which has had a long reputation of giving the barest minimum of cooperation for our newsgathering efforts."

Garnered responses from bloggers:

Minnesota Mist: To Ms. Bahan: "Oh, honey! Surely you at least thought twice about such a position after the Star Tribune newspaper reported last month about the $682,300 salary and benefits that were paid to Guthrie Director Joe Dowling in 2007. (That is less than 3% of the Guthrie's budget, by the way.)...I would bet that you and your colleagues did not welcome the writing of such news. Nor the discussion that has reverberated since...You read it here first: I can and will run any company into the ground for $500,000 a year. I will bring along my own cronies to help me do it. Where do I sign my contract?"

Secrets of the City: Theater Publicist vs. Newspaper Editor

Butts in Seats: When you Grab that Cute Ball of Fur, You Also Get the Teeth: "I just thought the whole situation was a great reminder to us all that when we bemoan the lack of good arts coverage, we should be mindful that what we wish for is a double edged sword situation and not entirely the ideal we envision."
Seems like this has been an ongoing issue...

February 3, 2008: Tynan's Anger Blog: The Guthrie Theater gets Childish. "In the latest case of critical reactionary drama queenery, a full page ad by the Guthrie was placed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune after the paper gave their most recent production a negative review. While the ad had been "planned for months," the content, decided upon after the reviews came in, feature a near-exact copy of the positive review from the alternative weekly CityPages."

Which continues...

March 26, 2009: "Guthrie Theater to Trim Budget by $4 million," Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Trish Santini, director of external affairs, said she was not authorized by board president Randall Hogan to release Dowling's salary. The Star Tribune reported in January that Dowling's 2007 compensation was $682,229 (which included a $100,000 bonus). Dowling disputed that Wednesday, but did not offer specifics. "The focus on me and my salary, which has been inaccurately reported, and I would say somewhat with ill-informed research, has led to a considerable amount of discussion in the community," Dowling said. "Let's take the heat off that and talk about the fact that here's an organization where people are willing all through the organization to make sacrifices."

Following this situation has reinforced a couple of things for me:

1. Be proactive rather than reactive as it involves the press. If it is controversial, break the story yourself through your own distribution channels, and provide the information that your stakeholders are looking for.

2. Transparency is king. The days of "no comment" and "not authorized to release information" are long gone. If you don't participate, it looks like you have something to hide. I am sure that funders read these articles and wondered why the Guthrie wouldn't comment and why the board wouldn't release information on Mr. Dowling's salary, particularly in the wake of Enron, ING, Madoff, etc.

3. You can't possibly win in a public slug fest with the press


Andy Beal said...

I'm glad the "transparency fairies" left you a copy of our book! :-)

Thanks for sharing your advice.

Tammy Enright said...


Its the first time I've read your blog in, well, months. Andy was the keynote speaker at the summit last year and we all got a free copy. Figured I didnt need it in the land of sports, so I left it for you. Glad you enjoyed it.


rania123456 said...

Thanks! I feels that nature of this topic is very fine.


Clay Lord said...

Chad, I'm preparing a presentation for some stakeholders and came across this older post, which I think is right on point. But I did have a question --

in your last bits of advice you note in point 2 that you have to be proactive and engaged. But then in your third point, you note that you can't win in a public slugfest with the press.

This is something we're grappling with here at Theatre Bay Area -- we've been getting great response on our blog (and on other blogs), but the responses have gotten us into some prolonged discussions/arguments with constituents. So far, I've happily and mostly successfully engaged in those discussions, but your comment did make me stop and think. We've had some of our stakeholders question whether there's a positive goal achievable in engaging with the blogosphere (setting aside for a moment whether it's even feasible anymore not to engage), and my answer has always been yes, of course, while you may never convince the actual commenter of your position, you may engage the passive reading audience. But then the commenter always comes back, and I start to see what you're saying about not being able to win.

I guess I'm mostly just wondering where you come down on this, since I know Arena's all over this stuff.