GSA, optics, over reactions and glass houses

I didn’t exactly go through the five stages of grief when the public furor over the GSA Las Vegas retreat first erupted in the media. But I did go through something like that process.

Stage one is denial: I am a “benefit of the doubt” kind of guy. If there is an innocent interpretation, I will go there first, rather than buy in to the most damning explanation.

I don’t know all the details, and I am sure at least some of the outrage was justified. But I am equally sure some of it was unfair. A friend of mine in the association field, who ought to know better, was offended that “tax dollars went to putting up GSA staff in a luxury suite.” Now, I don’t know for sure, but it is a safe bet the GSA didn’t actually pay anything like the retail rate for that suite. It was certainly deeply discounted, if not actually comped as part of the total meeting package. And just possibly the group actually saved money by hosting social activities in that space rather than renting a separate venue.

Then came stage two, anger, as it became clear that even if things weren’t as utterly reprehensible as the press coverage and righteous indignation wanted to paint them, this was bad. In this sound bite and visual image driven world, the facts don’t matter. The GSA’s choices couldn’t be explained away, even if all the facts were on their side (and I seriously doubt that is the case). The whole thing just looked bad, and once you are forced to explain yourself, you’ve already lost the battle[1].

The congressional overreaction was equally predictable and anger inducing Over broad “solutions” (which no one on the Hill is willing to take credit for authoring and which were unanimously approved by legislators who didn’t even bother to read them) will create problems where none existed before and won’t fix the problem that stirred a thoroughly gridlocked Congress to actually take action in the first place.

Bargaining is stage three. The formal legislative response being spearheaded by ASAE is appropriate, sound and absolutely vital to the association community. It deserves all of our support. We need to defend our meetings from being unfairly painted with the broad brush of scarlet that the mainstream media and Congress are applying to all meeting events. We need to roll back the asinine restrictions that will hamstring even the purest of pure, publicly beneficial educational, development, networking and information exchange events.

Stage four, depression, follows. The occasional bad actor’s black eye is a cross we all are going to have to bear. For a long time. And it is going to be hard to defend the defensible without sounding like we are making excuses for the indefensible.

Where I part with the classical Kübler-Ross model is stage five: acceptance. I am not prepared to do that.

But now that the initial furor has begun to die down, I feel safe offering a word of warning.

Don’t let your justifiable outrage over how unfair and misguided the press coverage and legislative response to “GSA-Gate” was lull you into a false sense of complacency or moral superiority. Let’s be honest: this wound was self-inflicted. Albeit, inflicted by one organization’s meeting, But nonetheless self-inflicted. And all of us who do meetings take a hit when one meeting’s atrocious optics capture headlines.

And as long as we’re being honest, let’s take a good hard look at our own meetings.

Sometimes what looks like a boondoggle is just that. A boondoggle.

We need to be absolutely above reproach in how we structure and promote our meetings. That means living up in full to the claims we make about them. Do they truly match the brochure’s promise to deliver real value, regardless of who is footing the bill? Do they actually serve our particular, parochial interests in a manner that also advances the public interest?

And how would they look if they showed up on YouTube?


[1] In my more than thirty-years in the profession I have never spent a dime of my association’s money for first class travel. But I travel enough that I occasionally score a free upgrade. Ever try to explain that when the chairman of the board trudges past you in first on his way to a middle seat in coach?

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Review Gate

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.

http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/news/press/detail.aspx?id=22660

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.