Monday, April 28, 2014

Content Marketing v. Arts Journalism

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on………………….."

A Chronicle of Philanthropy article details the plan of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to hire an embedded "reporter" fellow for a one year period to develop content for its website.

"In an unusual move for an arts organization, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has created a yearlong “embedded reporter” fellowship to help tell patrons and potential supporters about its work.
The group recently underwent a website redesign and was encouraged by new board member Amy Webb, head of Webbmedia Group, a Baltimore digital-strategy consultant, to develop more “self-generated content as a way to better engage our patrons,” says Eileen Andrews, the orchestra’s vice president for marketing and communications."

The article goes on to say:

"The embedded reporter, slated to begin working this summer, will develop feature stories and lighthearted content such as lists and quizzes. Ms. Andrews says she hopes that the fellow’s work will be picked up by news-media outlets—where, she says, “arts coverage has taken a hit.”

And the job description page describes the gig as follows:

"The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra offers a one-year writing residency for early to mid-career journalists. In this unique program, a talented arts journalist will “embed” with the BSO to tell the underreported stories of orchestra musicians (both the BSO and those outside of Baltimore/Bethesda), Music Director Marin Alsop, guest conductors and guest artists, and a wide range of activities happening within the BSO. In addition, the Writer-in-Residence will cover broader topics that look at the intersection of music and other fields. We’re curious about the science of how we listen to and interpret different instruments, the role of music in cognitive development, the future of performance (high-tech performance attire, new wearable devices via a partnership with Parsons), innovations in the arts, connections between neuroscience and music, and pop/cultural trends. 
Multimedia stories will include breaking news, features, trends, profiles and enterprise. Stories will be posted to the BSO’s brand new website and throughout social media channels and other online media. The newest iteration of is content-rich, hosting a prominent Stories Newsfeed on its homepage, dedicated to the stories created by the Arts Writer-in-Residence. We aim to establish partnerships between the BSO and outside news organizations and hope that the Fellow’s content will be syndicated to news outlets that have an understaffed arts desk. 
This Residency is intended to cover orchestra-related news, features, trends, profiles and enterprise work; it will not include reviews, personal essay or opinion writing. The fellow will have access to rehearsals, performances and everything that happens off and on stage, including after-hours talks, meals and drinks with musicians, staff and the community. This is the first and only embedded arts journalism residency of its kind in the country."

Further the job description suggests that they are looking for someone with an arts journalism background, and describes the position as:  "This fellowship is similar to being a foreign correspondent working out of a one-person bureau. Tell us how you think you'd spend a typical day. We're looking for self-directed, motivated journalists."

At least one person thinks this is a very bad idea, and describes the position being offered thusly:

"That’s not a journalist; that’s a PR representative. Maybe embeds can be justified in time of war, as the U.S. tried in Iraq, but in a symphony?" 

When I first read the Chronicle article, I took this to be that what the BSO was really looking for was not a journalist, but rather a talented writer who could provide lighthearted, human interest, feature style  pieces that would be part of a content marketing strategy.  I thought that was a good idea.

But by implying the position would be a journalism residency fellowship, I think BSO has muddied the waters a bit.  My reading didn't leave me to conclude that their intention was to create content that was deceptively cloaked as independent, non-biased hard news reporting or paid-for reviews or critiques.  I think though that in their use of the moniker "journalism" and "journalist" they got themselves into some trouble.  What they are looking for isn't a journalist per se.  It's a talented writer; a marketer.  It is probably not at all like a one person foreign correspondent bureau.   The content being created is designed to be a marketing tool - factually accurate, interestingly written, competently researched and even with the stated purpose of being fair and balanced - notwithstanding.

Is it journalism?  One might argue either side of that coin.  The American Press Institute defines journalism thusly: "Journalism is the activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. It is also the product of these activities."  Their site goes on to say that what separates journalism from all the other forms of communication out there lies in its value: "That value flows from its purpose, to provide people with verified information they can use to make better decisions, and its practices, the most important of which is a systematic process – a discipline of verification – that journalists use to find not just the facts, but also the “truth about the facts.”  Can someone employed by an organization create "human interest" content that meets a standard of journalism?  Verifiably factually accurate?  If that writer is also "transparent" in that s/he doesn't attempt to deceive the audience, including by way of omission of facts, reports their sources, and admits their employer / employee status, then I think, probably yes.  Can opinion or editorial position be journalism?  Do "lists" and "quizzes" qualify (for they often appear in newspapers across the globe)?  Again, one might argue either side.  But I'm personally less interested in that debate than I am in whether or not telling our stories as a marketing strategy works or not.

BSO's effort to try to engage and possibly expand their base of support by humanizing the people involved in their enterprise is what hundreds of private sector companies are doing in earnest.  The public generally finds human interest content more engaging than hard news or data.  As long as such content doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is, it is a viable marketing tool.   It may or may not work, but the attempt to experiment is, I think, both legitimate and to be applauded.

It doubtless would be better for the BSO to simply label the effort as a content marketing position, make sure that any content created and then forwarded to legitimate news outlets includes the disclaimer that it is not unbiased, independent journalism, but rather content created by what amounts to a paid employee of the organization.  There are lots of 'puff' pieces - artist profiles, backstage insights, and other human interest angle content - that are created by journalists and non-journalists and picked up by newspapers and magazines and other 'news' outlets all the time.  You don't have to be a certified, experienced journalist to create this kind of content - you just need to have a way with words that the reader will find interesting.  And if the reader finds your content interesting and engaging, perhaps they will be motivated to be more involved, more supportive of what you do.  That's the goal we all have.

While blurring the line between journalism and marketing is an issue, I am personally more interested in whether or not 'content marketing' - defined as any "marketing format that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire customers…" is a viable strategy for arts organizations.

The beneficial effects of 'content' marketing remain debatable.  The approach has both widespread support and skeptics in the marketing and advertising world.  Some argue it works, others argue it does not - at least that it does not drive new traffic to your site.  It is but one way to try to engage people in your organization.  We are in a people business - our people are artists and the creative people who work behind the artists.  There is huge potential to create interesting, relevant and engaging content that helps to tell the stories of those people.  And in telling those stories, it may be that we can expand our audiences and their support.  I think that is a very good idea indeed.

I think the arts need to experiment with and try approaches to 'content' marketing to see if it can generate any positive results.  It is but another marketing strategy, and one I think may have potential.  Humanizing artists and arts performances by giving them a 'face' may help to personalize the arts to people and get them to be more interested, involved, and supportive.  Someone with a journalism background may be best qualified to be the person to create that kind of 'content' - or not.  I would advise that they and their employers need to be clear that this isn't journalism per se - it's marketing.  There is nothing wrong with that; indeed, there may be much that is right about the attempt as long as no one pretends it to be something it isn't.  It isn't really necessary to label it 'journalism' for it to succeed or for it to be a legitimate endeavor.  I think the BSO is on the right track.  And I wish them luck with the experiment.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Blueprint for Professional Development in the Arts

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on……………….."

Dinner-vention Note:  The deadline for submitting nominees for Dinner-Vention 2 is May 15th.  If you have in mind names of the best and brightest of the upcoming generation of arts leaders - please take a moment and email those suggestions to me.  Remember this isn't so much about 'emerging' leaders, but rather leaders who have established themselves, but have not yet become the most powerful or influential.

Professional Development in the Arts Challenge:

I have long been concerned that as a sector, the nonprofit arts field isn’t adequately providing the professional skills training that we need.  The private sector has long recognized that skills training isn’t a luxury, it is a necessity -- if for no other reason than the rules of business are constantly changing and those who don’t provide the opportunities for increasing management knowledge are doomed to failure.  We’re doing better, by far, than we were a decade ago, but it seems clear to me that too few of our people have the ongoing access to the training they need.  As a field, our approach to the challenge of adequate, meaningful, ongoing professional development is piecemeal, not comprehensive.

Critical to any business of any size is the skill set of management.  Honing the business and leadership skills of senior leadership as well as that of the rank and file staff, and keeping abreast of new trends, developments, ideas and strategies in professional development training, is essential in running a successful business enterprise and competing effectively in the marketplace. Arts organizations are small businesses.

It is incumbent on our field to address the training and knowledge needs of our current and future leaders.  And yet, while we talk a lot more lately about meeting that challenge, our whole approach to providing the opportunities and access to learn how to become better, more productive, more efficient, more intelligent and savvy managers has some serious systemic problems that continue to negatively impact our progress is this area.  And those problems hamper bosses, supervisors, department heads, middle level people, the rank and file and even the trainees and interns.  While some of our people have regular access to the training they need in a way that makes sense to them, most really do not.

There are six principal avenues of professional development options in the nonprofit arts sector:

  1. University and professional programs in arts and business administration - degree programs, certificate programs, and isolated offerings.
  2. Independent consultants and coaches.
  3. Workshops, seminars, webinars, podcasts and other classes - offered by service provider organizations, management centers and others.
  4. Mentoring - from within organizations and from outside sources.  
  5. Independent self study including books, articles, case studies, online offerings and the like.
  6. Peer to peer education and learning - including offerings and networking opportunities at conferences and conventions.

These options are available either as in-person experiences or online via the internet.

In the aggregate of the above offerings there is a rich plethora of professional development opportunities available to all levels of arts administrators.  The level of sophistication of those offerings is increasing, and the opportunities are becoming more frequent and more available.  But not yet enough, and not for everyone.

And there are problems with what is available.  Not enough of our people are regularly afforded opportunities to improve their skills levels.  Not enough of our people are taking advantage of the opportunities out there.

The challenges to accessing these opportunities are chiefly:

  • Financial Affordability - In many cases there is a problem of prohibitive costs.  For most providers of the offerings (in-person or online), providing skills training is an income generating activity and they both expect, and need, to make money.  Thus, for example, University programs and independent coaches may be excellent, but simply not affordable for a lot of people - especially those who are already working.  But the real crux of the problem is a widespread lack of a line item allocation for professional development of all levels of the organization’s staff in most organizational budgets.  And even when money is allocated, it is often not enough to provide for all the training that is necessary, nor for all the people who would benefit from it.  
  • Access - There are far more in-person workshops and professional development offerings in the urban areas than in the suburban and rural areas, and thus it is more difficult for those not in the bigger cities to access in-person types of training options.  Locations can be inconvenient for some to travel to, and a one hour workshop or class may take an entire day if you factor in travel time -- and that kind of time is often unavailable to middle and lower level staff.  Then there is the inconvenience to those who might want to avail themselves of an offering in terms of scheduling (month, day, time of day etc.).  The bias towards urban offerings works against those outside those locales.  Even the online offerings are too often not "on-demand", but rather at times or dates not necessarily convenient or workable for the end user.
  • Identifying What is Available / Where and When - While there is a wide variety of offerings (both physical, in-person kinds of workshops etc., and the even larger offerings online), trying to find out what is available, where and when is increasingly difficult. There is too much out there.  I'm in the business of trying to keep abreast of what is going on in the field.  I get dozens of newsletters, alerts and the like every week, and I can't keep track of what is being offered. I can only imagine that the typical arts administrator who is not as much in the loop as I am must face an impossibly daunting task to know what is being offered.  There is no central clearinghouse of all that is offered; nowhere to access an aggregation of all that is available.  Individuals are basically on their own in identifying development opportunities that might be right for them.  Tracking down those options may often take so much time, that it defeats the incentive to even try.  Thus while there has been a dramatic growth in online offerings, including the MOCCs (Massive Open Online Courses - e.g. Udacity and others), with major universities across the globe offering literally thousands of courses - many of which would be useful and relevant to arts administrators, and while huge numbers of those courses are offered for free -it would take literally scores of hours to find the ones appropriate and right for you.  We need not only a central clearing house of arts related online skills training options, but we need to curate those offerings so that individual arts administrators can easily and quickly find what is out there that is tailored to their needs.  (And in an ideal situation, there would be a version of YELP so that those who have taken an in-person or online offering could review the same and share what was good and what was lacking.)  
  • Senior Management Bias - For far too long, the best of the skills training opportunities (including attendance at conferences and conventions where the sessions and networking opportunities constitute a form of professional development in and of themselves) have not been available to staff below the senior level.  The reason for that unfortunate reality has been the cost - of an in-person training event, a coach or of sending lots of people to these meetings and convenings.
  • Ignorance of what would be beneficial and how.  Part of the process of increasing one’s knowledge and skills level is in understanding where one needs help.  We do not have tools nor a process in place designed to help our people understand what kinds of training would be most helpful and beneficial to them at any given point in time.  That should be one of the skills taught to supervisory managers, so they could help those reporting to them gain the skills they need by being able to convey to their people what knowledge acquisition might help them perform better.
  • Limitation of Offerings.  The vast majority of offerings center on a relatively small number of management topics.  Assuming one could identify and avail themselves of the offerings, there are endless courses, webinars, presentations, symposiums, workshops, classes, books, articles etc. on fundraising, marketing, Board management,  audience development, strategic planning and even technology--  plus a few other major management areas.  But those offerings are only a foundation on which superior arts management skill sets are developed.  There are scores of other areas which our people ought to have the opportunities to learn and hone their skills so as to improve and nurture other valuable skill sets -- everything from the simplicity of how to read a financial statement (and I would venture to say half the Board members of every organization in the whole nonprofit universe, and a goodly number of the staff, do NOT really know how to read financial statements), to the more complex skills our leaders need - including the mundane (time management, how to run effective meetings, how to listen, budget planning, understanding data and research, how to conduct effective interviews) ---  to the sophisticated (how to enhance one’s charisma and leadership posture, how to recognize trends, to how to motivate people,  how to be an arts entrepreneur, how to run an innovative and adaptive organization, how to be a nimble leader, and so on and so on).  The point is that training in the arts 'basics' simply isn’t enough any more.  The need and demand for much deeper knowledge is there, and largely remains unmet.  My own bias is that we need offerings on policy formulation as much as anything else.  Nowhere can you find much help on that topic.

The most dynamic and effective leaders at all levels, understand and appreciate that there is a whole panoply of skills that are needed on a daily basis to run healthy, vibrant organizations - and that learning all there is to learn is an ongoing (and really never-ending) process.  The more opportunities everyone in an organization has to continually improve their personal and professional skills levels, the better chance that organization has in meeting the daunting, complex problems we face.  And, as management  today is a 'team' effort, the team is only as strong as its weakest link. ALL our people need access to ongoing professional development training opportunities.  It is essential not only to effective organizations, but to our recruiting and retention efforts as well.  Moreover, what you learn one year may well be outdated the following year.

The most promising tool we (and all businesses really) have probably lies in the online offerings as a way to complement the in-person offerings (which, for a variety of reasons, may not be available to everyone).

But we must address the issues of cost, access (convenience of access and scheduling), ease in identifying what we need and then finding the opportunities to address that need, and breadth of content (we’ve got to offer a much larger range of knowledge learning) -- or we will continue to have a hodgepodge of in-person and online offerings (excellent though some of them may be) which are underutilized by our people.

We have made inroads into our online offerings, and the potential is there to greatly expand what is available to our people.

Sources of potential online offerings include:

  1. Universities - both arts and business administration degree programs for a fee and general relevant university offerings at no cost.  
  2. Nonprofit (both arts specific and otherwise) class offerings - seminars, workshops, webinars, podcasts, lectures, presentations etc. -- offered by our own organizations, by nonprofit umbrella groups, by university programs and others.
  3. Independent coaches and consultants - from our field and beyond (Some of whom already create available online content.  The potential is huge for more from those coaches and consultants - and from the growing pool of experienced, recently retired arts administrators - who haven’t yet created online content professional development).
  4. Authors of books, periodicals, articles, speeches et. al.
  5. Peer networks / independent mentoring / coaching.
  6. Newly created offerings specifically designed to be online.

Our own sector’s online offerings are already increasing dramatically.  We need to manage that growth so that:

1.  The finances make sense to both those creating and offering the content, and those to whom that content is aimed.  Bottom line:  Those offering the skills training need to make money, and we need to incentivize all of those who might create valuable content to do so. Those availing themselves of those offerings need the cost to them to be affordable.

RECOMMENDATION:  Two things need to happen:  First, we have to build a culture in our sector that recognizes and embraces the idea that continuing skills training and opportunities to gain more knowledge is critical to our survival and must be available to everyone at all levels of their careers - throughout their careers.  Second, that attitude needs to manifest itself in every organization (irrespective of its size, age, focus etc.) having an annual line item in its budget that amply provides for professional development opportunities for everyone in the organization - board, staff and sometimes even for volunteers and interns.  Note:  I'm not being unrealistic; I do not envision a Utopia wherein anyone can have a professional development option at will - irrespective of the cost.  But I am talking about making a meaningful, ongoing investment in training the organization's people so that they can do their jobs at a high level.  That may require funders to recognize that the provision of professional development opportunities is a sector wide challenge and key to their grantees succeeding in realizing the overarching goals of the funders. Funders must work towards moving organizations to think in terms of professional development as an essential expenditure - like rent and salaries. Some subsidy may be necessary.  The danger in not spending the money for the sector is a situation where the very richest organizations expand their skills training opportunities while the ‘have-nots’ don’t - which will create an inequity that we will all ultimately pay the price for.

2.  What we offer needs to be much broader in terms of content and focus than what is currently available.  We have to have a much richer, deeper level of content as part of our overall professional development paradigm.  We need our skills training to at least follow (if not equal) the private sector model.  We are currently in the midst of the beginning of a major transition from one generation of arts leaders to others.  The number of organizations that have experienced a change in senior leadership in the past two years has been eye-opening. The turnover in middle level management continues to churn.  The wholesale transition isn’t something on the horizon - we are right smack in the center of it.  We need to figure out a way not to lose all of the knowledge of those that are leaving.  Offering training in the basics isn't enough.  We have to go deeper.

RECOMMENDATION:  We need to mount a major effort to expand offerings that go well beyond the basics of arts administration.  Those offerings need to focus on leadership qualities as well as nuts and bolts management issues.  And we need to include the new century skills that are embedded in the new economies and marketplaces - both technological and people oriented.  We need to figure out how those who are leaving the field can share their experience and knowledge with those moving into the front ranks of our organizations.  

3.  We need to figure out some way so that all the online offerings - ours and from other fields and areas - can be somewhat centralized so if you are looking for a specific kind of training you can find out what is available in a one stop process.  That entails identifying and aggregating on an ongoing basis all the content out there that might be relevant to our people.  That will take time and money.  Moreover, we need to make sure that all that our field already offers online is made available “on demand” - not just on predetermined dates and predetermined times.  The on demand element is absolutely essential.  This almost certainly will necessitate widespread cooperation and collaboration among lots of entities, and moreover, probably will need a consortium of funders to launch such an effort.  It will take a major investment, but it promises to yield invaluable benefits to our field over a long period of time.  I would argue that the cost of not doing this is far greater over time than the cost now of launching such a clearing house.

RECOMMENDATION:  We need to launch a one-stop clearing house of all the relevant skills training opportunities that are relevant to the field of arts administration (whether from our own or other sectors, whether online or in-person, whether workshops or classes, mentoring opportunities, or coaching, articles and books or peer networking.)  Everything available under one roof.  All our online offerings need to be "on-demand", and as much of our in-person opportunities that would lend themselves to putting online should be put online as a matter of course, and they should all be "on-demand".  The launch of this kind of website portal would need to be a collaborative effort of major service provider organizations and funders - both public and private.  I think, ultimately, such an effort could become financially self-sufficient by charging a very modest fee from everyone who lists their offerings, and from everyone who actually signs up and takes one of those offerings.  The people who are creating the content would have the incentive of increased income over a long term, and the people who are looking for offerings would have the incentive of saving huge amounts of time as well as supporting an arts sector initiative - for very, very little additional cost.  If you had a single site for professional development opportunities that tens of thousands of arts administrators accessed when they were looking for a specific course, workshop etc. - then those offering training courses, workshops etc. could afford to charge less because their volume would increase.

4.  Finally, we have to pay more attention to identifying what kinds of skills each of us needs at any given point in time.  The problem with our past professional development efforts is that we assumed everyone needed to the same skills.  That isn’t true.  Yes, a generalist’s knowledge and overview of the whole is valuable, but we are also increasingly specialists and we don’t all need the same training.  We have to figure out a process - usable by almost all of us - to identify what we don’t know that we need to know, as a first step in figuring out how to provide the training. By engaging in this kind of effort we may be able to develop a consensus as to the minimal kinds of skills we need to pursue.

RECOMMENDATION:  We need to fund the design, testing and roll-out of tools that will help arts administrators of all levels identify what skills they lack, and what skills will help them be better managers and advance their careers.  Once developed, those tools need to be widely available to everyone at no cost.

The bottom line is that we are not simply in the business of the arts.  We are also in the business of being good managers.  Skills training and professional development has moved into the new century. I fear the arts field is still approaching the whole challenge with a 20th century mind-set.  I would hope our funders, national service provider organizations, the NEA, state and city arts agencies and literally everyone in the field will make professional development a major priority for the next decade so that we can point with pride that our managers and our leaders are among the best trained, most knowledgable and skilled in any sector.  Much of what is needed to do that is already in existence.  We need to cooperate and collaborate to make sure we organize our offerings so that  every arts administrator makes learning the business of arts administration an ongoing reality - and we need to make it as easy as possible for each of them to do that.  That will cost us some time and money. Real money.  But it will be money well spent.   Or we can ignore the demand, refuse to spend anything, deal with the problem with a band-aid approach,  and very likely be also rans in the competitive marketplace for all those audiences, and support, we so desire.  Yes, we will very likely continue to increase our skills enhancement offerings, and very likely offer better and better opportunities for knowledge enhancement, but without making those offerings easy to find, access and afford we are missing the boat.  It isn't good enough that some of our managers are well trained.  It is time to organize the business of professional development for arts administrators.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Announcing Dinner-vention 2 - 2014 Edition

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on…………………"

Announcing Dinner-Vention 2

Readers of this blog are familiar with a project launched last year we called the Arts Dinner-vention - a play on the old idea of: If you could invite anybody, who would you invite to a fantasy dinner party --coupled (tongue in cheek) with the notion of an “intervention‘ - in this case to spotlight new ideas to some old challenges.

The idea was to gather some of the best younger minds from our field at a dinner party; people who had already gained some renown and reputation for their thinking but whose careers were long from peaking, and to give them a platform to share some of their ideas by disseminating the conversation from the dinner to as wide a field as possible.  We wanted to promote new ideas, introduce some of our future leadership to those who might not be familiar with them, and we wanted to encourage our guests to bond and keep in touch with each other.

We opened up the selection process to the field, narrowed the selection to twelve guests, created a master list of potential topics for the guests to choose from, sought preparatory position papers from the guests, and tried to share all of that via this blog with the wider field. Last year’s Dinner-vention was held at Djerassi Artist Residence in California in October and a video of the event was posted on this site after the fact.  The project garnered a lot of attention in the field and we think we succeeded in introducing some new thinkers (and thinking) to a wider audience, as well as to each other (and on their own initiative, there is a reunion of sorts of last year’s class apparently happening at the Americans for the Arts Conference upcoming in June in Nashville).

You can read the post announcing the project last year here; the announcement of the Dinner topic here; the guest list announcement here; the briefing papers here and here; and finally the video segments Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here, Part V here, Part VI here, and Part VII here.

We had such fun and success with the project, that we’d like to announce Dinner-vention II - the 2014 edition - and we again need your help.

We’ve asked the dinner guests at last year’s event to nominate people as guests for this  year’s event.  Having been members of the initial dinner class, their experience in having participated in the project will help us form a base list of possible invitees for this year’s dinner.

But we’d like your help as well, and we invite you to nominate up to eight new thinkers from our field that you think would make for a provocative, insightful and memorable dinner party discussion on an issue relevant to the arts field.  

As last year, we want inventive, creative, serious thinkers who have something to say and will contribute to an engaging, in-depth conversation on issues facing the sector -- and (hopefully) put forth specific ideas to move us forward in addressing those issues.  We want people with opinions, who are not reticent to share bold viewpoints:  provocateurs and visionaries, policy wonks and skeptics, from all corners of our field, from various disciplines and diversities, from urban and rural perspectives, and from disparate geographical points -- people who will make for an engaging evening.  And we want people whose reputations and influence is growing in the field, so we are not looking for long time, well established leaders - not those who have been around and have made their reputations,  but rather those still who are still on the rise, still making their marks.  Fresh faces and new thinking.  So please don't submit names of the established arts leadership.  This dinner isn't about them.  It's about the new class of arts leadership.

Having already done one Dinner-vention, we’ve learned from that experience how to manage the project.  This year we are making a few simple changes:

  • First, rather than twelve dinner guests, we’re going to keep the guest list to eight invitees.  We think a smaller group will allow more of an exchange of ideas and more time for each guest to make important points.  We hope the resulting conversation is even more engaging to you as an ultimate viewer.  
  • Second, rather than video tape the dinner, edit it and then air the segments, we’re going to try to stream this year’s event live.  That will necessitate less direction at the actual event and we hope it flows more like a live dinner event - warts and miscues notwithstanding.  It will also necessitate a somewhat shorter presentation.
  • Third, as was the case last year, we will present a list of possible topics for the dinner guests themselves to choose from and their consensus choice will be the featured topic for the evening.  But we will need your help here too and at a later date I will invite you to suggest topics to present to the selected guests for this year’s dinner.
  • Finally, last year’s guests thought the preparatory work (in exchanging position papers and in limited opportunities to exchange ideas via telephone conference calls) was valuable, and suggested more would be of benefit.  So this year we will try to expand the ways the invited guests can intersect before the dinner itself - including some intersections with last year’s guests.

I will report back to you all via the blog once the guests are selected, the topics chosen, this year’s site selected - and we'd like to move the event to a different location each year for diversity's sake (suggestions welcomed), and the date of the dinner.

You can submit your list of (up to) eight dinner party guests to me by replying to this blog email -   Nominate anyone you would like, including yourself.  You must include - for each name on the list - the person’s job title and organizational affiliation.

It would be very helpful if you could also give us a contact phone number and / or email -- and, if you can, in just a few words, why you included that person on your fantasy dinner party guest list.  The deadline for submissions is:   May 15, 2014

I would greatly appreciate it if you would pass this on (and publicize it) to people within your sphere.  The more names submitted for possible guests to the Arts Dinner-vention, the better.

Thank you all for your help again.

Have a great week.

Don’t Quit.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Arts Spin Doctors?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on…………………."

I have been a political junkie most of my adult life.  I've worked on campaigns, followed party positions and candidate thinking (in both camps), read everything I could find about elections and issues and was generally obsessed with American politics and the machinery that makes it run -- including a fascination with, and dedication to, watching the Sunday morning new shows - Meet the Press, Face the Nation and the like.  I watched them all - religiously. Until about two years ago, when I simply couldn't stand it anymore.

Long ago, the Spin Doctors took over all public comment on politics.  They started "spinning" after the debates - making sure the view that their candidate 'won', that their people had the right position - was the focal point of media coverage -  clinging to the belief that if they simply repeated, over and over again, their own sanctimonious and self-serving pronouncements, they had done their job.  Gone was any attempt to discuss issues or engage in any real truthful analysis or observation.  Soon, even the pretense of independent thought was but a joke, and nobody with even a modicum of intelligence was fooled by this charade.  Gone too was any attempt by the media to actually seek out divergent viewpoints and dig deep into the issues - let alone ask probing questions.  And nowhere was that more apparent than on the Sunday morning "news" (and I use that term loosely) shows as they trotted out the same talking head spokespeople - time after time after time - all of whom continuously "spun" their answers - no matter what the question - to parrot their, and their party's, position.  Some had their own agendas which they relentlessly pushed - again never really answering any questions - just "spinning" to the point of absurdity.  One would have thought they would have made themselves dizzy.  The best of these politicians perfected their "spins" to the point where they could provide the same answer - totally devoid of really saying anything at all - to any possible question that could be asked.  Evasion is the watchword.  Tap dancing around the truth the real objective.  Their job is to deliver talking points favoring their side.

The nadir of this sad state of affairs is, of course, the chutzpah of Bill O'Reilly on Fox News having the audacity to call his show the "No Spin Zone".  Cleaver marketing on his part and doubtless huge numbers of his followers truly believe such a ludicrous claim.  Mr. O'Reilly is one of the 'deans' of the college of spin doctors.  "No spin" by the news media's on air invited guests?  Don't hold your breath.

Apparently I am not the only one for whom this bastardization of journalism has crossed the line.  I ran across an article on the Huffington Post entitled:  "America Is Well On Its Way to Tuning Out the Sunday Shows" in which the author, Jason Linkins, points out the declining ratings numbers of the Sunday shows.  He quotes Paul Waldman who wrote an article on the topic for the Plum Line, urging these shows to:  "First, ban all party chairs, White House communication staff, party "strategists," and anyone else whose primary objective is to spin from ever, ever, ever appearing on the show. Ever.  So how about, as a first rule, the people you bring on should 1) know as much as possible about the things you’re going to discuss, and 2) have little if any interest in spinning?

Not so easy, suggests Mr. Linkns:
"This sounds pretty good in theory, but there's a reason those sorts of people don't get booked. Knowledgeable, substantive people tend to want to use their time on camera to explain complexities. They speak in paragraphs, not sentences. They tend to be capable of real argument. They don't necessarily come to the set governed by Beltway politesse. So, from the perspective of Sunday show producers, they're all loose cannons. What the producers of these shows are looking for are polite, concise talking heads who know where their light is, can hit their mark, and offer answers brief enough so that there's plenty of time to pass the ball to whoever else happens to be in the room. Sunday hosts don't know what to do with long, complicated explanations, and they aren't listening to them anyway."
Of course, everybody 'spins' today - not just politicians, but business leaders, celebrities, consultants, experts and, very likely, even we in the nonprofit arts.  We have entered the era (probably some time ago) where making your case (whatever your case may be) necessitates that you 'spin' the facts to best support the action you wish to engender.  We do that when we represent our field and when we represent our organization. We very likely even do that as individuals - in both our personal and professional capacities. That's not unusual.  But it just may be killing us - as a country, as a society, as responsible organizations and as effective leaders.  We are addicted to 'spinning' everything - all the time.

Spinning in some senses has become synonymous with obfuscation of the truth.  Not really 'lies' of course, just positioning one version of the truth.  You don't think that YOU are a 'spin doctor'?  Take a long look at your last grant application and tell me honestly if you weren't spinning things so that your project, program, performance or proposal didn't look as attractive as it could, even to the point of stretching the truth a bit, or leaving out certain known facts.  And what about your relationship with your major donors and patrons and supporters - or even your stakeholder collaborators and partners? Do you not 'spin' to them?  And it goes beyond just spinning in pursuit of money  - we do it all the time at our conferences where every panel (call them what you will - they are largely the same year in and year out at whatever conference you happen to be at) has pretty much the same people (shades of the Sunday shows?) and they pretty much spin their presentations to favor their party line (personal, organizational or whatever).  And often times (too often frankly), the heralded and lauded Keynote Speakers, are the most blatant spinners.  Not all mind you, but far too many (especially those with celebrity cachet and fame from fields other than our own who are really merely "professional" speakers on tour).  They give the same 'stump' speech (for a pretty penny) and change a few words here in there to make it seem tailored to the audience of the moment.  I suppose many people are inspired by some of these people, but to me, it's just boring and - in a way - insulting.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know a spin doctor when you hear one.

It's entirely possible that the norm today is to be a spin doctor virtually all the time.  At your next internal office meeting, watch for them and then tell me they don't exist in your organization.  And, by the way, we are all getting better and better at 'spinning'.  Practice makes perfect I guess.  We can spin with the best of them.  Now there may be nothing inherently wrong with that - then again maybe there is something fundamentally wrong with it.   Are we in the arts as guilty as the rest of them in terms of 'spinning' things and being wedded to that idea.  And is that ok, because everybody does it and it's even expected - right?  Where's the harm?  Is a little bit of spinning ok?  Where is the line?  What are the consequences?

I can't exactly pinpoint how I think this is harmful, but I have the gut feeling that it is.  And that it is getting dangerously close to becoming a systemic problem.  To the same extent that the American public is less and less fooled by the political spin doctors plying their craft - and even arguably getting fed up and angry about it, spinning in general increasingly runs the risk of alienating the spun audience - whatever audience you may pinpoint.  While some spinning may be acceptable, that line is getting blurred.  We in the arts run that same risk with our various publics.  And while transparency has become a desirable outcome in our, as well as countless other fields, transparency may have little to do with truthfulness and a willingness to take a long, cold hard look at realities as a way to come up with different approaches and strategies to deal with challenges.  Perhaps even "transparency" can be spun.

As a tool, spinning may yield desirable short term outcomes, but as a process (whether political on a societal level, or organizational on an industry level) it doesn't seem to have done much to get us (as a country or a field) anywhere near where we say we want to be.  All spinning has done - in my humble opinion - is to codify as reality the old Buffalo Springfield song lyric line:  "Singing songs and carrying signs.  Mostly say, hooray for our side".  Well "Hooray for our sideis a really weak position.  And it most certainly has little, if anything, to do with trying to understand a situation and coming up with ways to address a challenge. Sadly, 'Hooray for our side' is increasingly all that we have.

I think that somehow this all has to do with risk taking.   Somehow, dealing forthrightly with things has become something to avoid.  It's simply too risky to face questions about challenges and issues directly.  It's safer to spin our answers to hard questions; avoidance is preferable to all the nasty loose ends coming 'clean' entails.  As arts administrators we champion risk taking as one of the fundamental benefits that arts and artists bring to the world. Yet, do we as arts champions take risks ourselves?  Do we risk drilling down to the truth of things rather than spinning?  Do we dare?

I ran across another interesting article (this one in The Atlantic) called the Overprotected Kid. The theme being: "A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer", and laments that in our zeal to protect our children we have robbed them of the learning experience, and the later in life value, that risk brings.  The risk of playing is the focus of the article - on playgrounds, in fields, around the house -- anywhere.  We have become a society where as the author quotes:  "In all my years as a parent, I’ve mostly met children who take it for granted that they are always being watched."  That is, I think, a profound observation with multiple implications.  It is as though we have excised all risk out of childhood.  Little wonder than that we are producing adults who are risk averse; who prefer to 'spin' things rather than risk contrary opinions and harsh judgments, let alone holding up realities to the light of truth.  Someone is always watching, right?

In any event, if you are interested in politics - as a process for solving societal problems - I would stay away from the Sunday news shows.  The spin doctors are in complete control, and they have no interest, nor intention, in addressing your intellectual curiosity or your desire for real probing of serious issues.  They seek to avoid the 'truth' at all costs.  And their media hosts seem delighted with that reality - all their attempts to "spin" their shows as 'probing inquiry' notwithstanding.  Somewhere along the line, we have exalted these people; being a 'spin doctor' has become a badge of pride, something to aspire to.  Let's hope we don't become more like them.  We ought to be better.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit