Change is unavoidable in today’s business environment. Sometimes you initiate the changes; sometimes they’re beyond your control. But one thing you can successfully manage is the way you communicate about them. Arts consultant David Gray tells what he’s learned from experience about managing the message.
When David Gray joined the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2014, he signed on to manage an ambitious shift in direction that would impact the organization at all levels. Ultimately the changes ushered in a new artistic vision, a goal to increase the operating budget by $3.8 million (to $13.8 million annually), and an exodus of staff that included top management (artistic director, executive director, ballet mistress, school director) and more than a third of the company’s 43 dancers.
Change can be hard for any dance business, but particularly at a dance studio or school where transition affects schedules, personnel or educational programming. Parents and students can easily become unnerved. Maybe a new policy causes problems, or a beloved longtime teacher leaves without notice. Your customers, funders and partners want reassurance and some level of transparency to make sure the quality of services continues to remain strong. Here, Gray, an arts consultant who left his position as executive director of Pennsylvania Ballet in 2017, offers five key strategies for communicating effectively during stressful times.
• Get Ahead of the Message
If you have the luxury of seeing a big transition coming, Gray recommends having one-on-one discussions with key constituents. Meet with big donors or investors, local media (if you can have off-the-record conversations with them), and parents who you think will be good opinion leaders for you. “Start intelligence gathering and figure out who will have their ear to the ground and will be helpful,” he says.
Work on internal messaging so you and your staff are saying the same thing. If you have someone leaving who can articulate a positive communication to families, ask that person to write a letter explaining the reason for their departure. Maybe that faculty or staff member is taking time off for maternity leave or moving out of town for personal reasons. A note from that person will help prevent uncertainty or speculation among students and families.
• Control the Chatter
The dance world can be fueled by gossip. To control the chatter, try to be as clear as possible about what the studio is doing and why. “Make sure someone in authority is available to talk to people,” says Gray. “If you circle the wagons and close the doors, then the gossip will rule the day.” Take time to meet with focus groups or one-on-one with parents, to make sure they are feeling heard. “Often with personnel transition, in particular, there can be animosity and weirdness, but taking the high road is key. Just be honest about where you see things going.”
If you know of individuals who are particularly vocal and against the change you are trying to make, reach out to those people and invite them to talk about it. You might not be able to convince them of your studio’s new plan or direction, but you can mitigate the damage. “They will feel like they’re being heard, even if they don’t like the answer they get,” he says.
• Focus on the Positive, But Be Honest
Be honest about where you see your business going. If you are shifting from being identified as an inclusive organization to one that will focus on top talent and competitions, for example, let families know so they can choose whether they want to stay. This internal communication to your stakeholders and external messaging to the public should be the same. “For the community at large, they are watching and will assess through what they hear and communications you put forward,” says Gray. “What you say about who you are and what you’re about shouldn’t differ in public or private.”
If you are managing a major staff change, try to be forward-looking and focus on the positives. Acknowledge that the person decided to move on and then talk about the excellent personnel you still have at the studio, and how and when you plan to replace the individual who left. “Let people know that there are knowledgeable and responsible people involved in the process,” says Gray. “People in the dance world tend to think that leaders are going to hire all their friends. Even if that happens, be in a position to make sure people know why that friend is qualified and the right person.”
• Talk Directly With Those Affected
When you try to change or emphasize a policy, you know which people will be the most upset by it. For example, if dancers need to be held accountable for their absences and are not allowed to perform, you might want to sit with those students and families first. “Talk to them directly and know that you’re not going to be everyone’s friend,” says Gray. “Sometimes we hide behind the policy because we don’t want to deal with the personalities, but you have to do both.”
Most importantly, have a plan and be able to explain why you think the change is going to be for the better. “Be prepared to hear things you don’t want to hear,” he says. “People have very strong opinions about what you should and shouldn’t be doing, and that’s one of the challenges in the business.” But if you can reassure your stakeholders and provide them with some level of transparency, you can minimize damage and make the transition as smooth as possible.
Bonus Advice for Nonprofits:
How to Keep Your Funders Confident During a Transition
Get one of your organization’s biggest donors onboard early and quickly, and make that person part of your communications plan with other funders. “Take that person to a meeting with the bank or stakeholder,” says Gray, “so they can see that you already have support for the transition, someone who is substantially involved and engaged.”
Julie Diana Hench danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet and became the company’s ballet master during David Gray’s tenure. She has since consulted with him in her executive management role with Princeton Ballet School and American Repertory Ballet.