28 May 2012 1 Comment
Give the Metropolitan Opera credit. When its leadership screws up, they do it on a truly operatic scale.
The Met is a nonprofit, structured in a manner not unlike many associations. There is the parent organization, the opera company, that delivers the core value to its membership (audience). And there is its educational foundation, the Metropolitan Opera Guild. The Guild engages in a number of activities in support of the parent, not the least of which is to publish the magazine with the widest circulation in the opera field, Opera News. A substantial part of each issue of the magazine is made up of reviews of opera productions from around the world.
On Monday, May 21st, in response to the sometimes negative reviews of the company’s own productions in the pages of the magazine, the Met announced that Opera News would stop reviewing the Met. In an interview with the New York Times, Met general manager Peter Gelb indicated that he never liked the idea that an organization created to support the Met had a publication “passing judgment” on the institution with its negative critiques of the house’s productions.
The reaction was immediate and predictable. Some of the reaction was overwrought. Charges of censorship were made, which is hyperbole. The Met management, as the owner and publisher, has every right to decide what it will and will not publish in its own magazine. No one has a constitutional right to have what they want published in “their” association’s magazine.
But the censorship accusation also misses the point. The Met had every right to do what they did. It was just monumentally stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Forget whether you agree or disagree with the assessments of the artistic merits of the Met productions that appeared in the pages of Opera News: Does a gag order on any content independent of the management’s preferred narrative increase or decrease the credibility of the journal?
Does making the house organ nothing more than an outlet for sales hype and self-promotion make it more or less likely that the journal will actually be read?
And the irony of the Met’s action was that it was a huge overreaction, too. The criticism of Met productions in the pages of Opera News was far milder than the criticism carried elsewhere.
Transparency isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) an imposed obligation. It is the organization’s best defense against mischaracterizations of its actions and intentions. Transparency does expose you to criticism. But it also creates an environment where the facts are allowed to speak for themselves and there is an opportunity for open discussion. Both your supporters and your detractors can weigh in and the lurkers following but not participating in the debate can decide for themselves. There is no guarantee that judgment will be reasonable or fair, but it maximizes the potential that the verdict will be informed.
Some in the opera world have serious doubts about Gelb’s capabilities as an operatic producer, but he is an undisputed master of marketing and PR. Which makes this monumental act of hubris all the more surprising. How could he miss the atrocious optics created by the action? Could there be a clearer way to send the message that the organization feels it knows better than its audience (membership) what is good for them? And that it doesn’t care what its audience (membership) wants from an organization that exists to serve its needs and is dependent upon its support for that very existence?
To the Met’s credit, its response to this gaffe was equally swift and bold. Within less than 24 hours, the Met voided its ill-considered move. (Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall for that board meeting?) And they did so in a clear and unequivocal manner.
No attempt to rationalize or justify or downplay the mistake. They just fixed it.
Every association has to struggle with the balance between credibility and leveraging the advocacy potential of the communications outlets it controls (its journals, publications and website).
Every association would do well to go to school on the case study provided by the Met.