Anne Bonnar has kindly picked up on the themes that I explored in ‘The power of words‘. She’s quite right in saying that both sides of the debate need to try and build a greater level of mutual understanding. So in the interests of working towards that goal I’d like to have a look at the way in which we communicate with one another.
I remember back in 2009 I was attending one of the sector-wide meetings set up to ask the Scottish Government to delay or rethink the establishment of Creative Scotland. Someone at the meeting joked that perhaps we needed a ‘truth and reconciliation commission’ for Creative Scotland. In the interests of trying to clear the air and move forward I’d like to try and do just that.
First up: I can understand why this row may have come as a surprise to Creative Scotland. Even though people have been discussing these problems amongst themselves for 3 years there has been no sustained campaign or lobbying to rectify the situation (although that doesn’t mean that individuals haven’t been speaking out). From the responses I’ve received it’s clear that people have avoided talking publicly about the problems because they feared the consequences for themselves and their colleagues.
That is my conclusion of how artists view the situation, based on the discussion that has taken place over the last week. If anyone from the artistic community disagrees with that assessment then they are free to get in touch and put their own views forward – I actively welcome their contribution.
It’s regrettable that this has been the case, but now that things are coming out in the open I hope that Creative Scotland will start taking these concerns seriously. If they can guarantee that no one will receive unfavourable treatment as a result of having taken part in this discussion then I am sure that this would go a long way towards starting to address people’s concerns.
Now that I’ve discussed the reasons why it’s taken so long for the truth to start coming out I’d now like to move on to the actions that I think Creative Scotland can take to start building goodwill and establishing trust. In order to do so I’m going to have to be open and frank about certain things, but I believe that’s entirely in keeping with the whole spirit of ‘Truth and Reconciliation’.
Away in the murky days of my youth, before I ever set foot in the arts world, I spent 18 months working for one of the top independent PR firms in Scotland. I was merely a lowly administrator and I had no responsibility for handling accounts, but nevertheless it gave me the chance to learn from some of the top people in the business.
The way in which Creative Scotland announced the FXO funding decisions has left a lot to be desired and I’d like to use this post to examine their PR approach in some detail. I believe that this is important because it tells us a great deal about the organisation and its outlook.
I’m going to frame my comments around 3 key principles of good PR, which I learned during my time working in the business.
Principle 1: Get the basics right
If you’re the national agency tasked with promoting new media and digital development then it’s probably a good idea for you to have a website that actually works.
Over the last 2 years I’ve heard people continually complain about how inadequate the Creative Scotland website is. I had the joy of experiencing this for myself over the last week whilst researching my original posting.
Key sections of the site, including the ‘Resources Overview’ and ‘Sector Resources’ pages, are still under construction two years after the organisation was established. At the time at which I was researching my original post the link to Creative Scotland’s Corporate Plan actually directed me the London 2012 programme page (although this has now been rectified).
For an organisation that is supposed to be at the forefront of promoting Digital Development in Scotland this is just an embarrassment. It’s a bad advert for the wealth of New Media talent in the country.
Even worse, the fact that the most important sections of the website still lack any kind of proper information creates the impression that Creative Scotland simply doesn’t have any clear plan or strategy for the sector.
Sort it out.
It’s also surprising to see what a difficult time CS has had dealing with the growing social media response over the last three weeks.
Anyone who has any kind of familiarity with social media marketing knows that if a controversy starts building online then it’s no use sticking your head in the sand and pretending that nothing is wrong. The people who are complaining are not ill-informed cranks – they are your core audience, and they are telling you what they truly think.
Most marketing people in the private sector would walk over hot coals to try and generate the kind of honest and direct feedback that CS is receiving right now. A clever private sector marketer would take that feedback on board and listen to it, even though it might not be complimentary. They might even use it as an opportunity to start a two-way conversation.
A last point while we’re on this subject: if you’re going to provide an information line for people to call then make sure it’s actually able to provide them with information. As one of my correspondents this week put it:
Now, we don’t even get through to the officers we need to talk to – we went from having named personnel to an utterly useless helpline staffed by call centre operatives with no evident expertise. Also, one reason it is so confusing is the AWFUL pseudo-business terminology, vague language and year zero approach they eventually took – I defy anyone to know what actual strand of ‘investment’ they naturally fit with.
Artists and producers don’t need an information line. They need dedicated art form specialists who understand their sector and who they can have frank, open and intelligent conversations with.
I believe that the decision to scrap the direct relationship between art form specialists and your clients was a fundamental mistake. It’s hampered clear communication and driven a wedge between Creative Scotland and the artists that it exists to serve. It’s also contributed to the perception that Creative Scotland is a faceless bureaucracy.
Even though ACE is currently implementing a 50% cut to it’s own overheads they have opted to safeguard the role of their Relationship Managers. That’s because they implicitly understand that those staff are the essential bond between ACE and the companies that it works with.
Principle 2: Get the facts right
Friday night proved to be something of a turning point for Creative Scotland’s critics. At around 11pm on Friday Creative Scotland released a statement from Sir Sandy Crombie (Chair of Creative Scotland), responding to an open letter signed by a number of eminent Scottish playwrights. At first glance the statement seemed reasonable and reassuring. However within minutes the entire thing started unravelling.
Almost instantly David Greig and Linda McLean, two of the signatories of the letter, made it clear that they weren’t happy with the way in which CS had attempted to pre-empt the letter’s appearance in the Saturday newspapers.
Even worse it very rapidly became clear that Creative Scotland had gotten its facts wrong. They had incorrectly identified the lead signatory of the letter as Ian Brown, former Artistic Director of West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Traverse theatre. In fact the letter was actually signed by Professor Ian Brown – editor of ‘The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Drama’, and chair of the Scottish Society of Playwrights.
This simple faux pas, whilst quickly corrected, was all that it took to rapidly escalate the row over the course of the Bank Holiday weekend.
Here at Stramash Arts we’re also still waiting for any kind of response to our questions regarding Andrew Dixon’s assertions that:
Had we kept the FXO programme we would have had to cut 20% of the organisations we currently support and then open it up competitively to those who lost out in the Scottish Arts Council’s 2010 bidding round.
We are not replacing treasury money with lottery as these bodies never had revenue. They are currently funded for two year programmes of work.
Everyone is now waiting for a clear, factual explanation of how that 20% figure was arrived at. We’re also awaiting a clear and detailed explanation of the legal reasoning that has underpinned this restructure. Simple assertions will no longer suffice and the continuing lack of clarity on both of these points is only serving to damage your credibility further.
Now we come to the biggie. The founding principle. The first and the last rule of good Public Relations:
Principle 3: Good PR is about promoting the people you work for, not about promoting yourself.
And this is where, in the interests of promoting ‘Truth and Reconciliation’, I need to start telling a few home truths.
No doubt some people have been speculating about my motives for starting this blog. Well – I guess I had two principle motivations.
The first motivation is probably the most obvious: I wanted to do something for the sector that I love, and to support colleagues who have earned my permanent trust and respect.
The second motivation was sheer, outright anger.
So far I’ve held back on saying what I’m about to say because I wanted to get the whole discussion off to a calm, rational, well-reasoned start. But I’m afraid that even with the distance of a couple of weeks I’m still not able to make the following point without resorting to bad language. Here goes:
If you’re going to make an announcement that involves you undermining the job security of hundreds of people, then it’s probably a good idea to stick around so that you can answer any questions that they might have.
Pissing off to Cannes and posting photos of yourself living it up on the Croissette with Ewan McGregor is not a good idea. It’s a downright insult to the people whose careers you’ve just jeopardised.
In PR timing is everything. For me the most unforgivable aspect of the whole thing was that this announcement wasn’t even news – Creative Scotland had already been broadcasting its intentions for the last two years. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to schedule this announcement on the day before Andrew Dixon flew out to Cannes ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Experts in crisis PR live by one fact, and one fact alone: If you’ve made a mistake then it’s best to admit it fast, and apologise for it sincerely. That way everyone can move on and set about repairing the damage. The only question now is whether Creative Scotland has the humility to do that.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest we can come to the last point that I’d like to make today.
Good PR benefits the people that you work for. Every producer and curator in the industry understands that it’s not about you – it’s about the artists that you work with and the art that they produce. If a theatre producer has done their job properly then their contribution to a show should be almost invisible to an audience.
I have never yet met an artist that doesn’t want their work to be seen by as many people as possible. I’m sure that if Creative Scotland put as much work into promoting Scotland’s artists as it puts into promoting itself then many people would be over the moon.
But that doesn’t mean that the only work that should get funded is the sort of work that reads well in a press release or that makes for a good photo opportunity.