Rage Against the Arts & Humanities…Again.

National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, NEA, NEH, Maine Arts Commission, City of Portland Public Art Committee, Creative Portland, Portland Symphony Orchestra, PORT Opera, Portland Stage Company, The Telling Room, Terra Moto Inc., University of Southern Maine

We are living in an age of rage, perpetrated by both ends of the political spectrum, and during which, we are about to launch another battle over the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Entrenched interest have trampled upon and fought over these agencies more than The Ardennes.

It’s hard to believe this nation’s cultural agencies were born from a united, bi-partisan vision; established not to solve a problem, but to help us create, expand, and care for our national patrimony. Every time a fortification of bipartisan support is built to ensure their existence, it is breached by those bent on finding a boogeyman, a fundraising mechanism, a wedge issue, or an Internet meme that can rally the crowd.

It’s easy to demonize federal agencies. They’re just more bureaucracy, filled with listless civil servants indifferent to taxpayer need, right? But what if the clichés are wrong? What if the agencies on the chopping block are actually bare bones, efficiently run, professionally staffed sources of transformative and catalytic funding that enhances communities and changes lives?

Here’s another “what if.” What if we stopped disparaging and dismissing public institutions that deserve celebration and investment instead?

For five years I served as Communications Director for the National Endowment for the Arts. Since leaving the NEA I have served on several NEA grant review panels. I chair an organization that receives NEA support. I have intimate, first-hand knowledge of how it works, and here’s what I know:

The federal employees at the NEA come to work every day dedicated to responsibly distributing funding to regional, state, and local arts agencies—the ones that contribute culturally and economically to our communities.

In the last five years, arts organizations in Maine received more than $5.4 million dollars in NEA funding. Arts organizations in Portland received just under a half million dollars. The Maine Arts Commission received more than $3.6 million—funding that was then re-granted to local arts organizations around the state. The catalytic effect of these dollars is indisputable.

Portland Ovations, a stalwart of Maine’s cultural community, and whose board I chair, received $155,000 in NEA funding during the last five years. In that time, Ovations has contributed $12.5 million to the greater Portland economy. That’s just one non-profit arts organization. Other Portland-area entities funded directly by the NEA include:

  • City of Portland Public Art Committee
  • Creative Portland
  • Portland Symphony Orchestra
  • PORT Opera
  • Portland Stage Company
  • The Telling Room
  • Terra Moto Inc.
  • University of Southern Maine

The NEA’s annual appropriation is only .004 percent of the federal budget. Defunding the NEA is not about the money. It’s about the symbolism.

There remains a segment of our citizenry—and political establishment—that is highly skeptical of any pronouncement that issues from the arts community concerning the necessity of public funding for art. It serves no purpose to debate why this is so, to argue over whether this skepticism is at all justifiable. It’s enough to recognize this distrust is out there, and it’s not uncommon for it to be held by people not necessarily ill disposed to the arts. Indeed, they may well be ardent supporters.

Within this segment are two camps, those who object to federal funding for the arts because they believe the non-profit arts should be left to sink or swim in the marketplace, and those who object because they believe that the NEA (and NEH) symbolize the reign of the elites over “the rest of us” at the taxpayer expense of all of us.

To both camps, defunding the NEA “sends a message.” Indeed, it does.

To the former argument, I offer language that Congress included in its “Declaration of Purpose” that accompanied the legislation authorizing the NEA and NEH: “While no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.” Lifting non-profit arts from the market place is about understanding value versus price.

To the latter argument I offer the millions of children across the country and the thousands here in Maine who benefit from NEA supported arts and arts education programs. When Merrill Auditorium is filled with students clutching their free copy of a new book and enjoying their very first live performance at Portland Ovations or who realize they love music when hearing the Portland Symphony; when refugee children record their thoughts in a book at The Telling Room—in short, when lives are transformed by art, there is nothing elitist about it. Funding the NEA may be the most populist thing the federal government does, by making art accessible to all the people.

It’s disheartening to be fighting this battle again, especially when it’s presented as a false choice: pay for infrastructure and defense or pay for art. I worked at the Arts Endowment when a Republican president found a way to do both and enthusiastically signed into law a $21.1 million dollar increase for both the NEA and the NEH.

Despite the current climate in Washington, it’s my hope that Congress resists erroneous symbolism, and instead embraces the transformative power of art and our government’s rightful role in supporting it.

Felicia K. Knight is President of The Knight Canney Group, served as Communications Director for the NEA from 2003 – 2008 under Chairman Dana Gioia, and is President of the board of directors for Portland Ovations.

 

 

Five Christmas Clichés to Send Over the River and…You Know

Christmas cliches, Santa Claus, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Tis' the Season, The Knight Canney Group, public relations

We get it. It’s a busy time of year. You may be trying to get everything done so you can take time off over the holidays. Or maybe the client is insisting on a “funny parody” to promote an event or product. Whatever it is that’s pushing you toward any of these clichés, resist—and instead insist on a little more imagination. Be firm and say “no” to:

 

  1. Any parody of any line from “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Commonly referred to as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Clement Moore’s poem has been parodied to sell everything from mobile phone plans to men’s underwear. (Nothing says “Christmas” like a pitch to package the family jewels.)
  1. It’s beginning to look a lot like… We love Meredith Willson’s holiday song, but we don’t love it as an intro to the weather forecast or copy for a department store sale. It’s tired and uninspired. So, no. Just no. (And helpful tip: “a lot” in any context is two words: a and lot. Never alot.)
  1. The white stuff. While we’re mentioning weather, please just call it snow.
  1. The Grinch who stole… the money for the homeless shelter, the donated toys for tots, the wise men from the crèche—just fill in the blank. Sad stories all, made all the sadder by the same words we heard and read last year. And the year before.
  1. ’Tis the season. This is, hands down, the laziest of holiday copy writing. Whether it’s promotional, sales or news copy, anyone older than 12 who uses “’tis the season” is guilty of gross lack of imagination. ’Tis the season? ’Tis the reason you’re fired.

You’re probably thinking, “Wow, what a Grinch!” But no, we’re not stealing anything other than the opportunity for taking the easy way out in holiday copywriting. The principles that work all year round, work especially well during the holidays: tell a story, keep it simple, make it personal, know your audience.

One other helpful tip—no one actually likes fruitcake.

 

 

Truths and Myths About Online Reviews

corporate image building, online reviews, The Knight Canney Group, David Streitfeld, Rotten Tomatoes

Corporate image building is like filling out your data sheet at the doctor’s. But instead of again reminding your primary care physician that you’re allergic to NyQuil, always wear a seatbelt, and have no family history of the vapors, you’re reinforcing in your customers’ minds what makes your business compelling.

One of the surefire ways to build your corporate image is via online reviews. We all know that when customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction are posted for the universe to see, customers either will flock to your Small Engine Repair &VCR Rental or avoid you as fast as Keira Knightley shuns sugary soft drinks.

But not so fast. According to the Oxford University Press Journal of Research, a survey of 344,157 Amazon ratings of 1,272 products in 120 product categories found that there was “a substantial disconnect between the objective quality information that online user ratings actually convey and the extent to which consumers trust them as indicators of objective quality.” And to further damn with faint praise, “Consumers heavily weight the average rating compared to other cues for quality like price and the number of ratings.”

The good news: a handful of positive Yelp or Amazon ratings could make your company or product look like a winner. The bad news: this so-called “illusion of validity” is – well – an illusion, and can sometimes require crisis management.

David Streitfeld, who covers technology for The New York Times, recently wrote, “In May, Yelp issued 59 new Consumer Alerts, which are notices it puts on a business’s page that it has been caught trying to pay for better reviews. Among those cited were a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon and an emergency room in Humble, Tex. Lifehacker.com recently took on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, arguing their way of compiling reviews was ‘fundamentally flawed.’ FiveThirtyEight.com reported that ‘men are sabotaging the online reviews of TV shows aimed at women.’ (Why? Because they can.)”

In other words, while most online costumers still put a heap of trust in online reviews, mistrust is beginning to blossom across the land.

The Knight Canney Group’s advice: Make sure the concept of complete and competent customer service is part of your company’s business plan and mission statement, and respond quickly, completely, and politely to less-than-stellar online reviews (and while you’re at it, compliment the positive reviewers).

Oh, and don’t pay for good reviews.

Television: Still a Big PR Bang for the Buck

For your PR, advertising, or corporate image campaign, don’t discount 90-year-old technology: Television.

This week, we (and Google by way of a doodle) take note of the 90th anniversary of the first demonstration of television. Granted, it was a primitive mechanical television, but it was the precursor to the electronic tube TVs that dominated the childhoods of baby boomers everywhere.

That first image, demonstrated by Scottish engineer, John Logie Baird, was roughly 3 inches by 2 inches—a far larger screen than that of the Apple Watch, but not nearly as large as your neighbor’s 75-inch flat screen, where you’re hoping to be invited for Super Bowl 50.

The science and engineering of television have evolved in ways Mr. Baird could never have imagined. And so have its uses.

In the span of one decade (the 1960s), television was both the great uniter and divider. The nation came together in its grief over the assassination of President Kennedy and television news (in the United States) came of age.

As the 60s churned, television was the meeting place of the generational divide. The same medium that brought us tuxedo-clad crooners on The Dean Martin Show, also delivered the political punch of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in. Both shows had scantily clad dancing girls, but on one show they sold sex, on the other they sold satire.

The Viet Nam War was as regular a feature in everyone’s living room as The Lawrence Welk Show. Television learned to inform as much as entertain, and a new generation took that information and created a counter- culture and its own identity.

As television evolved from miracle technology to miracle money-maker, all networks or affiliates had to do was turn on the transmitter and watch the money roll in. Television is where advertisers went—and still go—for the most efficient corporate image building. Coca-Cola could tame Mean Joe Green.  Chrysler—and Detroit—could come back from the dead. Television is still a major part of any advertising or public relations campaign or crisis management.

Cable, satellite, and Internet distribution may have “disrupted” broadcasting, but all platforms have cashed in on the irresistible, ongoing attraction people have to a glowing screen. (Hunter S. Thompson famously referred to the TV business as a “cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs,” not in the context of compromising journalistic integrity, but because once he had installed a satellite dish at his remote mountain home, he was outraged to learn he’d have to pay to decode the individual signals of channels he wanted to watch.)

As public relations specialists, we know that your television screen is no longer the only one you watch and that audiences are now fragmented among hundreds of channels and platforms. We know that different demographic cohorts go to different places for their content. An analysis of Neilsen trends from 2011 through most of 2015, shows that while younger viewers are dropping away, “traditional TV remains the primary mechanism for adults across age groups.”

TV, especially the major networks and their affiliates, is still a very big PR bang for the buck.

 

 

 

 

 

The Actors Fund Bombshell Backfires

The Actors Fund

The PR bonanza named Bombshell has been showering The Actors Fund in glorious news coverage and giddy Tweets since last December when it was announced that The Actors Fund would stage a major fundraiser: a one-night-only concert staging of Bombshell, the make-believe musical about Marilyn Monroe, that was the center of the NBC musical drama, SMASH.

The Actors Fund is a 133-year-old non-profit organization dedicated to providing human services to all entertainment professionals in all disciplines across the country. The Fund provides emergency grants for everything from food to medical bills and also supports nursing and retirement homes.

It’s a worthy organization. More artists and technicians in the entertainment industry live paycheck-to-paycheck than from poolside-to-penthouse.

Since the announcement, thousands of Broadway theater enthusiasts (myself included), looked forward to the chance to buy tickets. Prices ranged from $120 to $1,000. (Needless to say, most of us were planning to bring opera glasses.)

To cover the production costs, The Actors Fund launched a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise $50,000. Kicking in gave donors a leg up on ticket sales. Make a donation and you got a pre-sale code that allowed you to buy two tickets a day ahead of the general public.

Eager to get an edge, 1,485 people (myself included) donated. The campaign raised $318,120.

At 11 a.m. on April 13, pre-sale codes in hand, we clicked on “Buy Tickets”, typed in our codes, and many of us were told, “Your presale code is invalid.”  At 11:04, I was locked out of the site completely. At 11:06 I sent an email to The Actors Fund explaining my code was apparently invalid.

Turns out the codes for many people were “invalid.”

Twitter came alive with tweeters (myself included) crying foul. Some even using the other “F” word: fraud.

The show sold out in an hour. The raging tweets continued for hours, with never a peep out of The Actors Fund, Ticketmaster, or Kickstarter.

At 8:44 p.m. I got a reply from The Actors Fund to my email:

We apologize for any inconvenience. There were issues with the Ticketmaster site due to the overwhelming response. Again, with thanks for your support and with our apologies. 

At 10:57 p.m., they Tweeted that I should see their “refund offer to generous Kickstarters.”

What’s interesting—and mind boggling—about the offer to refund the Kickstarter donations is that it never mentions the invalid pre-sale codes. It was a non-apology. It was a non-acknowledgement of screwing up.

As I explained to the gentleman from The Actors Fund who apologized for “any inconvenience,” people don’t feel inconvenienced. They feel played.

From the moment this event was announced, we all knew there would be a finite number of tickets for an infinite number of buyers. We all knew the show would sell out quickly. That’s part of the fun of the game.

What The Actors Fund should have known from the moment it received $318,120 in pledges ($200,000 of it reportedly in the first 18 hours), is that Ticketmaster would be hit hard at 11 a.m. on the 13th.  The Fund should have gone to Ticketmaster and said, “We’re expecting at least 1,500 people at exactly 11 a.m. Can you handle this?”

Ticketmaster has sold far more tickets to far larger venues than the 1,621-seat Minskoff Theatre. Ticketmaster is the culprit for the technical breakdown, but The Actors Fund owns the bad PR. A few no-brainer rules were broken here:

  • Don’t sit silent for hours while your brand is in crisis.
  • Don’t pretend the bad stuff isn’t happening.
  • Own your mistakes.
  • Don’t offer an apology that doesn’t acknowledge your mistake.

I did not request a refund of my small donation, but many did. The comments on The Actors Fund Kickstarter page are overwhelmingly negative. Phrases like “deeply disappointed,” “terrible job,” and “formal complaint” certainly are not what they wanted for a one-of-a-kind event meant to support a worthy charity.

In truth, the mainstream media coverage of the sold-out show is fine. It glosses over the faulty pre-sale codes and focuses on the good news, perhaps as it should. But PR is more than media coverage. It’s Public Relations. And The Actors Fund has lost not only donations but also a degree of credibility with many in their natural donor base, the theater-going public.