Catastrophic Brand Management at Santa Monica Symphony?

You may have heard that the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra has invited an outspoken anti-gay bigot and right-wing talking head named Dennis Prager to guest conduct at a concert this week. According to music director Guido Lamell, donations were down so he thought Prager’s fans might boost the struggling orchestra’s numbers.

I’ll admit up front that I’m biased in this matter. I have nothing but disdain for Dennis Prager because of the harm he’s done to innocent gay kids, and I think that any orchestra that would align itself with Prager just to suck cash out of his followers’ pockets is despicable. (I spent years volunteering on a suicide prevention hotline for gay teens. I know exactly how much damage men like Prager do, and I am appalled that the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra would give him any sort of platform.)

But this post isn’t about politics, it’s about branding. I read about the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra’s fondness for Prager in The New York Times, of all places. Think of it. A tiny ailing arts organization on the West Coast gets coverage in The New York Times and it’s about the controversy surrounding the Prager incident, not about art. This is probably the most famous The Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra will ever be and the brand message they’ve decided to put forward is this: “We’re perfectly comfortable aligning our organization with an outspoken anti-gay bigot.” (Prager embraces many other right wing ideologies so feel free to replace ‘anti-gay bigot’ here with whichever one you prefer.

The point is not that Prager promotes extreme right wing points of view, it’s that the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra has decided to align itself with those points of view by defending their choice to use Prager to get cash from his followers.

The question everyone’s asking right now is this:

Is it OK to invite outspoken anti-gay bigots to conduct an orchestra?

But the question Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra’s funders should be asking is this:

Is this a fiscally responsible way to manage the orchestra’s brand?

Folks can argue for years about the first question, but the answer to the second question will be evident when this news cycle is over and the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra finds itself relying once again on its community for sustenance.

Brands are reputations. They’re how people think and feel about a product or organization. They’re how people behave toward products and organizations based on the way they think and feel about them. This highly public controversy will undoubtedly influence the way people behave toward the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra for quite some time.

There’s a chance that the controversy will unleash enough long-term loyal support from Prager’s conservative fans to offset the losses among the orchestra’s disaffected liberal supporters, but this seems unlikely. What’s more likely is that in ultra-liberal Santa Monica and surrounding L.A. communities, the taint of the Prager affair will linger among local perceptions of the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra for the rest of its life.

In my mind and in my heart, for example, their brand is damaged beyond repair. I wouldn’t dream of attending a concert or giving money to an organization that celebrates someone like Dennis Prager.

It’s no secret that symphony orchestras are struggling everywhere and that community based orchestras are especially vulnerable. If I were on the board of the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra, I’d be wondering if adding such an ugly taint at this perilous time is a useful way to nurture a healthy future support system.




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