Detroit’s labor dispute and social media

You might have heard about the Detroit Symphony Orchestra labor dispute. It’s not going particularly well. In fact, it’s getting downright ugly. Violinist Sarah Chang—originally scheduled to appear with the orchestra before it went on strike—backed out of a replacement recital after allegedly receiving threatening messages for crossing the picket line.

This post is not a comment on that situation, the strike, or on who’s right or wrong in the labor dispute. I’m not going to pick any sides. Beyond the public nastiness, the negotiations revolve around some interesting arguments, but it’s not up to me to be the armchair arbiter.

Although we have seen online and social media used in orchestra labor disputes before (think Columbus, Jacksonville), the Detroit situation is particularly interesting for its magnitude. It involves of course one of the major orchestras in the United States, the media is heavily covering it, and the emotions are running high. Orchestra labor disputes have never hit the social networks quite like this before.

On the Chang issue, the New York Times reports that “both sides said the issue was exacerbated by social media.” The Detroit News writes: “the fierce storm that blew up over the weekend reflects, experts say, the Internet’s power to spread a message to tens of thousands of people in a matter of minutes.”

Drew McManus, the best source of information during any orchestra labor dispute, offers a glimpse into the comments on Facebook and other social media.

So, what I’m interested in is how both sides do—or do not—use social media and what the implications are now and will be for the future. I might have more questions than answers, but perhaps the answers will unfold over the next few weeks. Let’s have a look:

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

* DSO Web site and messaging

While not necessarily social, Web sites are an integral part of online communications. On October 11, three of the six major stories on the DSO front page are related to the strike (Chang cancellation; press conference; and a message from the Board).

Particularly striking is the fact that one of the non-strike stories is about “a community-supported orchestra.” Is it appropriate to ask for monetary support from your community during a strike? Is it appropriate to talk about being supported by the community in a time when the community might have strong, divided feelings about the strike and its impact?

When I click through to the Chang cancellation story, I find another somewhat awkward messaging dilemma: the boiler plate (PR-speak for the standard closing paragraph in a news release). It seems out of place to boast about “trailblazing performances” when there are none currently taking place. What about the fact that other than indirectly with those trailblazing performances, the boiler plate does not mention the musicians?

Another example of such sensitivity is reflected externally in the DSO’s AdWords efforts. When searching “Detroit Symphony Negotiations” in Google a paid search ad with ticket sales copy—obviously based on just the key word “Detroit Symphony”—takes you to the front page. The manager responsible should probably take a minute to make sure the ad doesn’t show up in combination with the word “negotiations,” or perhaps rewrite the ad and destination page to reflect the search term.

Labor disputes and strikes are times of hypersensitivity with a focused attention on words and their meaning. Extra scrutiny toward messaging and branding is certainly warranted, particularly in an environment where one statement can cause a visceral reaction and a viral response.

* DSO blog

There has not been a blog post since July and none of the posts before then mention the negotiations. The DSO opted to communicate via their Web site, rather than the blog on matters concerning the labor dispute. Of course, the blog allows comments, the site does not.

Seeing the strong voices in support of the musicians on the DSO Facebook page and on Sarah Chang’s Facebook page, perhaps we could assume that if the DSO were to post anything on their blog related to the dispute and would continue to allow comments, we would see a slew of comments in support of the musicians, rather than management. And seeing the heating up of the sentiments, the discussion has the potential to turn ugly.

Currently, the institutional tone and style of communications from the DSO doesn’t quite fit a blog atmosphere. If the DSO were to blog, it would need to come with an adjustment in language.

Can anything be gained by blogging then?

I think so. The DSO would have a chance to explain their arguments in a less rigid, less institutional manner. Rather than passive aggressively linking to an editorial from a newspaper on the DSO Web site, it offers a chance to talk from the heart about the difficulties the DSO management faces in a blog format.

The discussion will happen regardless of your blogging. It will just happen somewhere else, completely out of your control. Wouldn’t you want to shed more light on your point of view? Ground rules for discussion can be posted and registration for commenting can be required. Don’t tolerate abuse and take the high road in allowing comments and responding to comments.

And although the mainstream media is jumping on one instance of ugliness in the Chang case, overall the discussion is frank but civil. Frank Almond writes on his blog Non Divisi:

I followed this pretty closely over the weekend, canvassing as many sites as I could that had running discussions. What struck me most was how generally civil the comments were, considering the emotions involved.

Perhaps it would even be wise to start a topic-specific blog. Your regular blog and Web site front page can then just have a subtle link to a place where people could find everything on the dispute if they are so inclined, rather than multiple stories dragging the issue out across your Web site. As Drew McManus wrote in 2008 during the Columbus Symphony labor dispute:

I’m not a proponent of posting any information about contentious negotiations or labor disputes at an organization’s respective website. […] instead, an orchestra association should create a separate website they can use to present their position in any way they see fit. This will allow the organization’s patrons and other website visitors to continue utilizing the orchestra’s website without fear of driving anyone away, especially those who don’t want to be courted to one side or another in a dispute and are only looking for concert or outreach information.

I am reminded of the stART.10 key note by Shelley Bernstein at the Brooklyn Museum. She gave the reason why Brooklyn Museum allows comments: “We are fallible.” She added that the community really, really values when an organization is listening and “when the going gets tough, foster discussion.”

Although the stakes were not nearly as high, Shelley displays this attitude in a recent blog post. A New York Times article slammed the museum’s iPhone app. Rather than sulking, Shelley fostered discussion among the museum’s community. It’s a good model.

But there is a fine line between stating and defending your position and “airing dirty laundry.” As one commenter on the DSO Facebook Fan page wrote:

I love the DSO. I truly do. But the very public way you are airing your dirty laundry during this strike will only serve to undermine the DSO’s future. Each derogatory press release or public statement by the executive office puts the public in the uncomfortable position of having to take sides in a dispute that should only internally involve labor and management. As a lover of music, I don’t want to take sides in a nasty labor dispute. It’s none of my business. I just want to listen to music from an orchestra that I love and am proud represents our struggling city. […] I hope management and the musicians can reach a settlement soon. We need you here in Detroit!!!

We all know social media is about conversations, but negotiations are typically conversations between two parties behind closed doors. It goes public when it goes wrong, as in the Detroit Symphony case, and public nowadays means the Internet and social media.

The DSO should consider the messaging of their usual communications in this hypersensitive situation and they should be smart about where they would like to lead the conversation from their infrastructure (as well as monitoring conversations outside of their infrastructure). It is important to stick to the high road and lead a civil discussion.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, keep in mind that this labor dispute will not be resolved through social media. In the end, the conversation will once again take place behind closed doors, between the two parties. And that’s where the decisions are made. But whatever is written and said online has a good chance of remaining online for people to find long after tensions have cooled. Search engine results are already impacted (see images below) and you will have to monitor what the long term impact will be and perhaps think about optimizing content for certain search terms.

Results on Google when searching Detroit Symphony

* Other social media

  • The DSO has posted one video concerning the labor dispute: a recording of the October 6 press conference.
  • Other than posting some official statements and links to news articles, the DSO has not actively engaged in Twitter. A search on Twitter doesn’t yield many results that include the @detroitsymphony handle in tweets about the dispute.
  • The DSO Facebook Fan page contains similar statements and links to articles. Interestingly, the responses from fans have been mostly in support of the musicians. See Drew McManus’ post to see examples.
  • I thought it was interesting that the Wikipedia entry has not been updated with a mention of the strike. Certainly, both management and musicians should refrain from doing so.

Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians

* Musicians’ Web site

The musicians of the DSO registered their own domain in March 2010 with the obvious intent to make use of it during negotiations. It’s an interesting collection of writings—much of it opinion writing by different musicians. The challenge, naturally, is creating one voice for the many musicians in the orchestra. Each group of orchestra musicians has typically appointed a spokesperson, who conveys the musicians’ stance, but the Web site offers perspectives from several musicians. I do wonder what the writing, editing and publishing process is and how much scrutiny and consideration each article receives.

There is a steady stream of content coming from the Web site, so the musicians seem to have the process well under control. Interestingly, the site remains mostly a broadcast tool. Other than an opportunity to “talk to us” via a form and the display of some of those comments, the musicians do not invite much of a conversation on their site; they do not blog.

For the public, the place to comment is the musicians’ Facebook Fan page, which only has about 1,000 fewer fans than the official DSO page (it would be interesting to track if people have been abandoning the DSO page due to the strike). On the musicians’ Facebook page, you will only really find comments in support of the musicians. What’s telling is that most of the industry-focused places will have much support for the musicians, whereas comments underneath mainstream media articles seem more balanced. The big difference being transparency, perhaps, as most mainstream media allow for anonymous commenting.

Furthermore, the musicians (although this certainly counts for the DSO as well) need to take into account that whatever they write is expected to be archived somewhere on the Internet, even if the particular Web sites are taken down.

Another challenge is to keep “rogue” musicians (and from the DSO’s perspective staff or board members) in check. This harks back to the need for always taking the high road, leading in civil discussions, and realizing everything can be shared at will and will be archived for eternity.

I found this quote by Anne Parsons in the New York Times very interesting:

Ms. Parsons said that while she hoped union members were not behind the worst postings, “nevertheless, the union must take responsibility for the behavior of its members.”

I won’t comment on the appropriateness of the insinuation in this quote (which in itself should be enough of a comment), but it is a good indication of the challenge to keep “rogue” voices in check, even if by association.

* Other social media

  • The musicians are active on a multitude of platforms. One of them is YouTube. While I do like the idea behind the videos, the execution leaves something to be desired. I’m not referring to the quality of the videos, but rather to the content, messaging and perhaps most of all delivery.
  • The musicians’ Twitter feed displays mostly links to their Web site or articles in support of their position. Not a thoroughly engaging experience, not much of a conversation. It would be interesting if the musicians could start using a hash tag to incite conversation. Perhaps I could suggest #DSOstrike.
  • They have a grand total of nine friends on MySpace and haven’t posted an update since July. The funny thing is that their current mood is “good” on MySpace. They also have a company profile on LinkedIn, but it’s bare. I’m not entirely sure why they would link to these efforts.

Wrapping up

The musicians seem to be much more adept at garnering support online. It looks like classical music fans mostly come to the musicians’ defense, whereas the general public is a little more divided. The musicians use their social media tools mostly to garner support from the classical music fans, whereas the DSO has a much more delicate line to balance with the institutional accounts.

Both parties seem to focus much of the efforts on broadcasting their positions, rather than truly fostering a discussion. Both sides want public opinion on their side, but don’t necessarily invite the public to weigh in. Furthermore, it is a challenge to tastefully show public support. It might look tacky for the DSO to display this support, but for the musicians perhaps less so.

In the end, I am reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker. Social media support does not necessarily and automatically translate into real world support. A “like” or a comment on a Facebook page doesn’t equate joining the picket line. Nor do supportive comments necessarily help any of the parties win concessions in the negotiation. Yes, social media broadens the discussion willingly or unwillingly, but as mentioned earlier, the labor dispute will ultimately be resolved by the two parties behind closed doors and not on the social media stage or in the court of public opinion.

Even when an agreement is reached, there will be some cleaning up to do in the short term and long term. On Google, there is already a heavy correlation between the “negotiations” and “strike” search terms and the DSO. It will take a little while to clean up the SEO mess, but people will always be able to look back and find remnants of these public, social media discussions. That’s why it is so important to find the right messaging and keep the discussion civil. And what are the musicians going to do with their Facebook Fan page?

What do you think? Blog or no blog? How can the DSO balance a line between institutional messaging and their labor dispute arguments? How can the musicians use Twitter better to their advantage? What will the impact of social media be on the strike and the negotiations?

10 thoughts on “Detroit’s labor dispute and social media”

  1. The more I think about it, the more I think going the route of a topic specific blog or microsite is the right way for groups to go.

    This is a great post on how labor disputes and short-term institutional messages can muddle or downright contradict long term communication and outreach efforts. The public is in the dark about arts organizations enough as it is, we don’t need to add to the confusion via too much tunnel vision during labor disputes.

  2. Thanks, Drew.

    I would definitely say blog. In a way it would force the organization to really think about their arguments and their messages. And if formulated and crafted well, it offers a chance to garner public support for your position.

    Overall, I’m just tremendously intrigued (and sometimes appalled) by the messaging from both sides. And in this new media environment, traditional broadcasting of messages might have different consequences.

  3. “And in this new media environment, traditional broadcasting of messages might have different consequences.”

    And how! I can’t count the times I’ve had this very conversation in the past year and for now, it seems as though this is one lesson that is still being learned the hard way.

  4. Thanks for the great article and outside perspective. As a web developer for a musicians association, your final paragraphs resonated strongly with me. It is always a good idea to maintain a class act. As tempting as it is to sling mud, for a non-profit a negative campaign can have long-term consequences.

  5. …and blogs always get a YES vote from me.

    Sometimes it takes a little bravery to leave comments on, but it this can open a variety of avenues. Web sites and blogs that don’t allow for comments are really missing out.

    Used tactfully and positively I believe that social media can really help open doors and grease wheels. But, as you point out, it is absolutely not a silver bullet and it can leave a stain if not carefully watched over.

  6. Thanks for the comments, Bruce.

    And the azooma site is very interesting. Very informative too. Interesting structure of how azooma works with the opera.

    And yes, stay classy San Diego.

  7. Great essay Marc! It would be wonderful if social media could serve as a tool for galvanizing community support for the DSO or any orchestra in crisis. One problem in Detroit is the erosion of broad-based donor support and while I can see reasons for both the musicians and management to limit interactive online and probably often emotional blog “conversations,” social media could serve — maybe in happier times and in situations like a music director search — to build public ownership of an ensemble and thus encourage financial investment / donations. If there’s a way to transform the acrimony in Detroit into a swell of community support for the orchestra things might improve. As it stands now, I’d guess that competing messages from musicians and management would paralyze donations.

    Your point about the similar sizes of the Facebook groups for both the orchestra and the musicians is also interesting. I just wonder who the various supporters are? My guess is that Facebook becomes a means for professional musicians across the globe to communicate support and camaraderie with the DSO’s musicians. The participation of actual DSO listeners and donors may be relatively limited. One would have to have administrative access to the pages to know, but maybe you or someone can comment in regard to Facebook participation for other orchestra and musicians’ association pages / blogs / websites.

  8. Wonderful article! I hope it is of good use for orchestras in the future when faced with the horrible situation facing Detroit.

    I would normally agree about DSO blogging to make their case. Unfortunately, it is my assessment from what I have read the past month that the DSO management/board doesn’t care about how it appears. The DSO WILL become smaller for sure: If these folks don’t feel like raising the money, there’s not a darn thing anyone can do about it, especially the musicians. And the musicians publicly citing mgmt incompetence (no matter how true) gives those same fundraisers lots of determination to keep musician salaries up, no?

    My prediction: board waits for the opportune moment to dissolve the current group of musicians so they don’t have to raise money for salaries for folks publicly bad-mouthing them. Then, little by little, a new orch will appear, much smaller and cheaper, and the current musicians will be out of a job and have nowhere to go.

  9. @Mark – From my own experience with Facebook, I would have to agree with your estimation on most fan pages. Two points to consider:

    1.) Even if only 5% of those numbers are actual patrons, that might be good enough.

    2.) For AZOOMA, we purchased Facebook ads, demographically and geographically targeted to cast a better net. A short 10-day campaign got us going (under $100). Of 615 fans, here are the local numbers:

    188 Phoenix
    53 Tucson
    21 Chandler
    16 Tempe

    About 45% of our FB fans are local. AZOOMA may have a small total number but they are concentrated. My conclusion – local arts groups should use targeted Facebook ads.

    Big numbers can make a loud rabble online, but local fans are the mouse that roars.

Comments are closed.