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The Virginia Symphony Musicians’ PR Brochure: Hampton Roads’ Major League Team!

0 Tom Reel
orchestra4 Editor's Abstract

The importance of symphony musicians’ developing a positive PR campaign is often overlooked during preparations to renew a CBA (collective bargaining agreement). But presenting a carefully-crafted message to the community about the role the symphony musicians play in the arts life of the community can be a very effective tool to garner public support. Tom Reel, bassist with the Virginia Symphony and long-time Orchestra Committee member, explains in detail how he and his colleagues in Virginia went about designing a PR brochure and creating an in-house website.

Ann Drinan

The musicians of the Virginia Symphony recently published a Public Relations brochure with the above title and started a website. What were our objectives and what was the impetus for us to undertake this project?

Timing

With our CBA due to expire after the current season, we requested the services of AFM Negotiator Nathan Kahn. ICSOM President Bruce Ridge is an alumnus of our orchestra with whom we also met. Both Nathan and Bruce suggested that we needed to renew and maintain a relationship with local media – both print and electronic. This was important not just when preparing for a negotiation but should become an ongoing relationship, they said.

The Symphony had recently added a Public Relations Director to the staff and we had seen truly excellent results from her work. The institutional PR and Development messages were focused on the musicians – with good results –more than at any time previously. But we agreed with Nathan and Bruce that having direct media contact for the artists was worth pursuing. And with negotiations for a new CBA due to commence, there was no time like the present.

Getting Started

The musicians’ Negotiating Team seemed a logical group to embrace the task. We had to narrow our focus and decide on a core message. The Negotiating Team (of five) had elected co-chairs – Amanda Armstrong and me. Amanda also served on the Orchestra Committee, which would fund our efforts (but with limited resources). We looked at various options and shopped around for printers.

The first draft for our brochure carried a dual message – one focused on public relations, including both our value to the community as resident artists and also our reputation for quality. The second message focused on facts surrounding our upcoming negotiations, including our present circumstances and the progress we expected to make in the next contract.

Although we allotted considerably more space and emphasis to the PR message, we knew that our pay would likely draw as much attention from readers, if not more. We never changed that dual focus throughout countless drafts. Amanda used her desktop publishing software to develop a mock up of what our piece might look like.

Early Challenges

We decided early on to limit our information – no pie charts, no graphs – offering concepts more than details. We wanted to limit the size to one leaf, probably folded twice, providing six panels (front & back, 3 + 3). We had seen impressive documents produced by other orchestras but we wanted ours to be thoroughly read – not too thorough to be read.

Editing the material was challenging because we knew we wanted photos and we had so much to say! Ultimately we increased our space by opting for legal-sized paper (thereby expanding our column width by one inch).

As drafts were worked and reworked, we kept our Negotiating Team updated and involved them by requesting their input for additions and deletions. Ultimately everyone had specific input on concepts but Amanda and I always did the writing.

Communication

We asked for a meeting with the appropriate staff members to show them our work and to solicit ideas. The atmosphere was mutually respectful, so we could agree to disagree. And we did. Our offer to include the Symphony’s website with a direct development “ask” was declined for three reasons. The staff believed that:

  1. Donors could be confused by a musicians’ message that was so similar to what they were getting already from the staff.
  2. Noting a low salary would not be an effective tool to generate giving, and our dual message could cloud the focus of the staff development efforts.
  3. Spring was not the best time for a direct development solicitation from the musicians.

A “first person” component of an overall development plan would more likely bear fruit in the fall, they said. In fact, a plan was made to do exactly that.

We took away some other valuable input from our meeting with the staff. Every subsequent draft of our brochure included multiple thank yous and recognition for those already sustaining and supporting the Virginia Symphony.

Moreover, we understood the staff’s unease at the partial loss of control of a carefully-crafted message and plan of delivery. We listened to their concerns. While we would take great care to keep our brochure focused and “on message,” we were also aware that media coverage might be subject to journalistic bias or other factors beyond our editorial control. Given those concerns, we decided to proceed.

With those risks & concerns in mind and with renewed attention to a positive tone, we decided to proceed. We’d received good advice and ultimately the Management decision to forgo a direct solicitation for money in our piece was probably correct. Together, we will do that in the fall.

Broader Input

From the beginning, a key element in our brochure was a positive tone. We would laud the recent improvements on the staff and Board of Directors. We would scrupulously avoid presuming any sense of entitlement. Instead we would focus on what we bring to the community and our artistic quality. We would limit the negotiation portion to three simple facts; our current pay, a stipulation that it was far below what similar markets paid, and a modest goal.

As the brochure began to take final shape, we sent the text to the entire orchestra and asked them to have their friends and associates outside the immediate VSO family peruse the message, serving as a rather loosely-constructed focus group. Was our dual message clear? Was the tone positive? Would they be likely to visit our website? Was their impression of the musicians or the Symphony altered in any way?

Final Steps

The feedback was generally reassuring, but one important improvement remained to be addressed. The parents of one of our musicians, who are PR professionals, liked the content but proposed a re-ordering of the material. We recognized the value of their specific ideas and incorporated much of what they suggested.

Another request we made of our musicians was for digital photographs that we could use, especially of children. We got some good pictures and were able to incorporate three of them, perfectly complementing the text. We also distilled the optimum ingredients for our cover – a photograph of the full orchestra and chorus, and the perfect quote from a New York reviewer that tied together the photo and the title of the brochure. (To see the brochure, you are invited to visit our website at www.vsomusicians.org.)

The Website

Principal Second Violinist Simon Lapointe had both the expertise and the volunteer spirit to construct our website. Like our positive PR message, this new website will evolve and be useful for years to come. Eventually, with some password security added, it may be used to aid carpooling, babysitting, posting of minutes, perhaps even voting. Aside from official business, we can have light-hearted banter or bios that might not be appropriate on the Symphony’s own site. For example, I don’t know if photos of me as a baby or in my Count Spatula Halloween costume work on the VSO site. Of course, we offer a link to www.virginiasymphony.org.

During the negotiations, we also have an opportunity to present data supporting our aspirations, as stated in the brochure.

The Press

Without a mailing list, we decided on 5000 brochures to be delivered by our musicians to neighborhood gatherings, students, youth orchestra concerts, and some public places like the YMCA, coffee shops, book stores, etc. We also wrote a press release announcing the brochures and our new website that Amanda and I hand-delivered to over a dozen media outlets.

The print media responded quickly and we’ve been happy with the results, so far. We hope to sustain a lively public discussion about the value of our resident orchestra to this community. However, we are determined not to “negotiate in the press.” Our consistent message to the media is that we’ve announced a broad goal in the brochure but we will NOT divulge any blow-by-blow details of the process. We describe the early negotiating sessions as “professional and respectful,” and note that creative people can better achieve a win-win result without undue public scrutiny.

Conclusions

It’s too early to draw any final conclusions, of course. We do not anticipate a significant immediate influx of dollars because our brochure is not a development piece, and we are not distributing the brochures at VSO concerts – that is, to the people most likely to contribute. Perhaps in the fall a joint musician-management development project will have quantifiable success with the targeted demographic of concert-goers.

But before someone contributes or even attends a concert, they should know about the Virginia Symphony and its musicians. Even our subscribers can probably learn something new from our brochure and website.

With this brochure, we amplify and complement the message of our professional staff. We think that putting the “party line” in the first person can be very powerful. Part of our message is entirely our own, as well.

Here is how we admonished our musicians to deliver our message in a recent e-mail to the orchestra. “Our brochure’s cover and the first three panels are all about our value to the community. Our meager compensation is but one of many reasons to support the Virginia Symphony!! Please focus on ALL the reasons outlined in the brochure. Our best success will come from a complete and uplifting message. Just as you like to hear positive messages, so do our potential audiences and supporters…. Be an evangelist for the arts and for the Virginia Symphony!”

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