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“The loss of control you fear is already in the past . . . You do not actually control the message, and if you believe you control the message, it merely means you no longer understand what’s going on.”—Clay Shirky, 2010

It’s been a long six months for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. In October, a labor dispute between the organization and its musicians ground performances to a halt as oboe players, the string section, the timpani player, and the rest of the musicians said they would play no more until their demands were met. Only recently did the two sides come to an agreement, but the fight was not without its costs for both sides.

The original dispute centered on how deep a pay cut the musicians would have to take to help the struggling symphony balance its budget. The musicians were offering to accept a 22 percent cut, while management sought and then imposed a 33 percent cut.

As with most labor disputes passions ran high. There was the typical picketing and demonstrating and the local press followed the story very closely. But along with these traditional means of public discourse and public relations a newer, louder mouthpiece inserted itself into the debate – social media, particularly Facebook.

A torrent of vitriolic Facebook updates, both on the DSO page as well as the musician’s newly formed page, began to rain down like fire-tipped arrows as the two sides failed to come to an agreement. After some time, there was a sense that the Symphony had lost its footing in the battle over the hearts and minds of its community. Not only were many of the updates on the Symphony’s Facebook page negative, the musicians created their own Facebook page that soon surpassed the Symphony’s in number of fans.

Social media provided a twist to the ongoing negotiations between musicians and the DSO, says Elizabeth Weigandt, the DSO’s director of public relations. “It presented a lot of interesting questions and challenges.”

At one point, after months of mostly standing clear of the fray on Facebook, a representative from management called into question how many people in an advocacy group called Save Our Symphony actually contributed money to the DSO. At least 169 people left comments, and they were overwhelmingly negative, according to a story heard on National Public Radio.

I am shocked, saddened and disgusted by this post. If you’re trying to prove how unprofessional you can be, bravo.

In the time it took to type this posting, a phone call could have been made to a potential donor.

I’ve been on the fence during this whole strike thing, trying to learn the whole story, and this post finally teeters me over to the side of the musicians.

Cornelia Pokrzywa, a member of Save Our Symphony and active commenter on the groups’ Facebook pages, told NPQ that the rise of social media has completely changed the way an organization like the DSO interacts with its employees and its stakeholders, including its audience and donors.

The bitter, six-month strike cancelled 75 percent of the orchestra’s season, and “left deep institutional scars while symbolizing a turbulent era of change and economic uncertainty among American orchestras,” according to the Detroit Free Press. It’s hard not to believe that some of those scars cut deeper because of the widespread use of Facebook as a platform for the debate. The lightening fast, and sometimes anonymous, postings at times seemed to fuel the fire rather than clarify a position.

Ethan Allen, orchestra librarian and card-carrying member of the musician’s union, is the administrator of the musicians’ Facebook page. He says that it was a slow process getting their social media presence organized (the musicians also maintain a website and Twitter account), but once they were up and running it became a huge help in their cause. “Television news and newspapers write what they want, mostly one-sided,” says Allen. “Now we were able to get our message out to so many people.”

The musicians were able to organize some 15 concerts – some free, some fundraisers, and many of them sellouts. The group mobilized 200 – 300 people to demonstrate at a recent Symphony board meeting. And they were able to shut down many of the ongoing, non-orchestral, programs at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall, as many out of town musicians refused to cross the picket line.

Clearly, social media has emerged as a powerful mobilizing tool, particularly for issues like labor disputes, where political passions run high. Whichever side you’re on, labor or management, experiences like the one the DSO and its musicians have faced for the past six months tell us that social media is here to stay and nonprofits have to understand how to manage – no, embrace – the now-dominant form of communication for more and more of their community members.

Constituents, donors, and community members are now in control, says Michael Hoffman, CEO of See3 Communications. “We are all creating content. The people who will fail are people who look at these tools as just another location to push out their marketing agenda.” Social media has democratized the discussion and reinforced the notion that communication is a two way street – a two way street where speed limits are ignored.

The DSO is not alone in facing these challenges. Controversies of all stripes are increasingly being played out in the public eye, as comments on blogs, Facebook updates, tweets, and YouTube videos have created a new portal into the inner workings of NGOs, aid groups, charities, nonprofit groups, and to a lesser extent foundations. If there is dirty laundry inside the house, it will be seen by many.

A failed merger of Smile Train and Operation Smile, two groups that work to help repair cleft palates in children around the world, represents another in a string of these very public disputes. The announcement on Feb. 14 that the two organizations were merging at the time seemed like an effort to set aside a longstanding feud in the interests of a greater good. Stephanie Strom of the New York Times called the two groups the “Hatfields and McCoys of the charity world.”

But when Smile Train donors got wind of the merger, they took matters into their own hands, forming an online petition and mobilizing  opposition in a way that may not have been possible even five years ago. Donors representing about $7.9 million in contributions, according to Strom, signed the online petition op