NASAA Notes: April 2011


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Jonathan Katz

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April 10, 2011

Management and Communication in a Crisis Environment

NASAA staff are working with several members whose circumstances involve a serious threat to the survival, core values and/or resources of their agencies with little time to respond. The purpose of strategic planning is to minimize the likelihood that management of such crises will be necessary. But sometimes the environment is such that a crisis cannot be avoided. The leaders and constituents of state arts agencies are resilient—in the past two years, nine state arts agencies defeated elimination proposals. Nevertheless, it is timely to focus attention on how taking charge of a crisis requires some actions that are not business as usual.

Communications consultant David Umansky, a former member of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, described the key elements of a crisis as insufficient information, escalating flow of events, loss of control, outside scrutiny, adoption of a siege mentality, organizational panic and institutional short-term focus. State arts agency leaders can reflect on this useful list and use it to assess the likelihood of a crisis “storm cell” forming in their current climate.

If a crisis does arrive, the most important first step to bring order to the chaos is to identify the critical decision points. In a budget process, these might include committee votes, floor votes, potential vetoes and veto override votes. Identify the key decision makers at each decision point. What do you need them to do and how many of them do you need? Do you need one more than half of them, a supermajority, a champion—for instance, in a conference committee, a detractor just to vote against you instead of persuading other colleagues to do the same? What contacts do you have and what means have you to persuade the key decision makers? This entails a person-by-person review of each decision maker’s record and inclinations, an assessment of what is known about how that person makes decisions, and a consideration of the relationships available to engage each person on your issue. There is no substitute for this step, and the quality of attention invested here can determine success or failure.

For crisis management tips and advice from your state arts agency colleagues, see the Postcards from the Inferno session notes from Assembly 2010 in Austin , Texas.

Having gathered the basic information, you must next focus on a plan of action. What are the human, financial and informational resources needed to affect the key decisions you have identified? What is already available and, given the time available, what additional resources can be gathered and organized? Which beneficiaries, constituents and stakeholders can quickly be motivated as advocates? Who will provide leadership and how will the effort be managed? How large a coalition and multidimensional an effort can be advanced in the time and with the resources at hand? What social networking can you employ? Facebook sites can reach a lot of people quickly, especially younger constituents. In several states, members have found this dimension of engagement extremely effective.

In a crisis, circumstances, urgency and limited resources may have to drive communication decisions. With regard to decision makers, if marshaling established supporters would be sufficient, the focus of communication can be on assuring their commitment and understanding of the issues. If their number or influence is likely insufficient, the focus of communication may have to be upon fence-sitters.

Next comes delivering your message. NASAA frequently assists members with in-state communication strategies. There is no silver-bullet message; communications to individual decision makers as well as advocates always have to be adapted to their various values. In crisis situations, however, messages have additional work to do. They must convey to advocates a sense of urgency and the cost of failure, indicate specific action to be taken with regard to decision makers, and motivate advocates by expressing confidence that their action will make a difference. Advocates are not motivated by messages about how serious the budget situation is without also receiving messages about:

  • the fact that funding for the arts generates jobs and tax revenues, and is therefore part of the budget solution rather than part of the problem;
  • the losses constituents will feel if cuts are sustained;
  • the process by which to make their wishes known to decision makers.

We know the membership has a keen interest in keeping up to date on major budget and restructuring proposals, so we maintain a definitive website feature on that subject. We are meticulous, however, about juxtaposing the extreme cases—which attract most of the media coverage—with the overall trends that tend to reflect more accurately the public value of state arts agencies. So we maintain a definitive document on the overall trends as well (see NASAA’s Summary of State Arts Agency FY2012 Budget Proposals). Following our communications principles, we encourage media coverage that focuses on the value of what state arts agencies do and on the loss of public benefits that results from underfunding. We discourage the media and our colleague national service organizations from allowing the misleading impression that the most extremely negative situations are the norm; allowing this perception can misinform decision makers, making poor decisions more likely, and can dishearten advocates, who might accept outcomes they could prevent.

If you have not yet familiarized yourself with the resources contained in the NASAA resource Taking Charge of Change, I highly recommend doing so. If you have a council meeting coming up, consider passing along the information noted in our Report to Councils. Encourage as many council members as possible to attend the NASAA 2011 Leadership Institute in Charleston, West Virginia, October 19-21. In this most challenging environment, the Leadership Institute offers a great opportunity to gain perspective from and share experiences with state and national leaders.

In this Issue

State to State

Legislative Update

Executive Director's Column

Research on Demand

Did You Know?




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