March 12, 2010

Just talk

You first.Sometime in the last decade, I made an offer to the then executive officer of the RSPBA to develop a public relations plan. No charge. Perhaps ironically, he never responded, much less took me up on the proposal. It frustrated me then, as it does now, to see piping and drumming associations make fundamental communications mistakes. While these mistakes have incited a lot of news content – some of it quite extraordinary – over the years to any media outlet with enough courage to report it, many of the errors could have been avoided by doing just a few things differently.

I’ve worked in public relations for almost 20 years. I’ve done okay in the profession, working with one of North America’s top agencies, currently as a senior-vice-president. My company has gained more PR industry awards than any agency in Canada. I don’t intend to brag; it’s just to say that others seem to think I often know what I’m doing when it comes to communications.

To be sure, the RSPBA’s communications problems aren’t unique. In fact, they exist with most, if not all, piping and drumming organizations that largely rely on passionate unpaid volunteers to make the right decisions and make the time to implement them. There’s no denying that effective communications take expertise, experience and time. Those elements aside, most of it comes down to plain old common sense.

So, again, in good faith, here are a few essential tips for communicating effectively. Maybe a few piping and drumming organizations – associations, committees, bands, clubs, panels – will find them useful.

1. Silence is treated with suspicion and eventually contempt. In today’s instant messaging world, people expect open, honest, transparent dialog. When nothing is said the inference is that something’s being hidden. When questions go unanswered, contempt is created.

2. Mistakes happen; own up to them, apologize, learn from them and become better. No organization is perfect. We all make mistakes. But an association that doesn’t acknowledge or attempts to obfuscate its errors inevitably damages its reputation. The truth will out, so get in front of it. Don’t sit back and hope no one notices. The practice of sweeping problems under the rug thinking that they’ll just go away doesn’t hold up any more. It may be out of sight and out of mind, but it will continue to get smellier and stinkier and eventually become a suffocating stench when it’s uncovered.

3. Trust people. Last time I checked, piping/drumming was still music, enjoyed by those with a passion for it. It’s all good. Suspecting everyone of having some ulterior motive or a hidden agenda is counter-productive. Trust is returned with trust.

4. Earn trust. Members need to be confident that their opinions will not result in political repercussions. With unhealthy associations, open criticism is rare because members are afraid that some corrupt judge or executive will retaliate on the contest field. An environment of constant constructive dialog must be nurtured. It will take years to change, in some cases, the decades-old tradition of fear, but it can and must happen if you’re going to lead. Clamp down on conflict-of-interest and communicate that it will not be tolerated in any shape – real or perceived.

5. The “association” is the members, not its executive, music board or judges. Like a church, the “church” is not the preacher or the cathedral, it’s the congregation. An organization that loses touch with its members is destined to fail, or, like leaders of political parties, will be overthrown by the will of constituents. Always act in the best interests of the members. If you don’t know what their collective best interests are, refer to point 4.

6. Be accessible and responsive. Customer service is for many of today’s businesses the only real differentiator. There’s always an option to do something else. An association’s customers are its members. Treat them like a customer: with respect, good manners and appreciation. Viewing the membership as a giant headache or insinuating that they’re always wrong – as some associations seem to these days – will alienate them. You might be the only Wal-Mart in town, but if you neglect your customers they’ll eventually go shopping elsewhere.

7. Communicate your good news. Piping and drumming organizations do far more things right than wrong. They sometimes wonder why no one acknowledges their accomplishments. The reason is simple: you didn’t bother to tell anyone, and/or you didn’t respond to inquiries. Talk. (See point 1.)

8. Take criticism seriously. Organizations should welcome and even invite criticism. Ask members for their feedback, and consider all of it. You will identify trends, and you can prioritize what needs to be fixed first. (See point 2.)

9. Measure your “brand.” Do you know what your organization represents to members? To outsiders? To the people you want to reach? Are you even recognized for anything? Ask a cross-section of various audiences to describe your organization or band in three words. You’ll be amazed at what you discover, positive and negative – or even that they’ve never even heard of you. Only by listening, knowing and accepting can you improve.

10. Embrace change. A stubborn, obstinate organization that is unwilling to adapt to changing times or the desires of its members will eventually become a dinosaur. Associations often mistakenly think that their job is to protect the past, to control the music by rejecting suggestions to do things differently. In fact, any organization with vitality needs to face and embrace the future.

Perhaps these points will help a few foundering piping and drumming organizations whose problems often are a result of poor communication. As a member, contemplate how well your association, band or group manages these points.

It’s a different world today, and the piping and drumming traditions of the 1900s – ignoring and denying problems, sweeping troubles under the rug, silence and contempt – are unacceptable in 2010.


  1. One pipe major and his band come to mind that are exemplary of Andrew’s ten tips for good public relations and communications. In fact, Rafael Gutierrez is also a professional public relations agent and the unmitigated success of his St. Patrick’s Battalion Pipe Band as the only one of its kind in the Mexican Republic is remarkable. In little more than a decade, the organization has successfully promoted itself throughout Mexico, been honoured by the Mexican National Congress and has performed at some of the country’s most solemn national celebrations as well as international cultural festivals.
    Established in memory of the Irish and Scottish soldiers who gave their lives in defense of Mexican sovereignty in the Mexican American War, this band retains a special place within the national Mexican psyche by dignifying a kind of Celtic Mexican identity. I have only experienced this kind affection demonstrated elsewhere with pipe band music and things Celtic among non-Celtic or non-European culture in Hong Kong. Yet, that society had a historically profound and intimate British colonial relation that included Scottish culture and regimental pipe bands that number 26 almost entirely Chinese ensembles today. Mexico has had no such similar history, save for that critical, but fleeting moment of the original Patricio Battalion in the mid-19Th century. St. Patrick’s is completing its second album with Patty Moloney and the Chieftains themselves have released their own San Patricios CD. The band’ s involvement in all of this has much to do with Gutierrez and his fine public relations expertise as well as the organization’s popularity in North America, let alone throughout the Mexican Republic where it’s fan following, merchandise and CD sales is a remarkable achievement.

  2. I own and manage a growing residential remodeling and construction company. Business is good considering the economy. We have a long way to go, but have done well so far. Why do I bring this up? Everytime someone in the industry finds out what we do, they ask me “what’s your trade background?” My reply? Business. The best carpenter doesn’t necessarily have the skills to run a successful carpentry business. I know how to hire good carpenters, I don’t need to be one. P&D associations might suffer a similar condition. Acumen and passion for piping and drumming is not an indicator of an acumen to lead, develop and enhance a dynamic organization. It has been said that all organizations should run like a business first and foremost, with accountability to the product, customer and bottom line. How a business is run can be far less important that what business one is in. Coffee, T-shirts, Shoes, Microchips, the successful ones have far more in common than one might think; cultures of accountability and proactivity to start. Sure, volunteer non-profits are different. But there must be a way to tweak the model…

  3. So much of it is just plain common sense. It is good to be reminded of it sometimes. This seems to be a bit wasted in the blog. I think a reflection of these guiding principles, and the benefit to the Pipe Band movement in following these principles would make an excellent feature article.

  4. Wow! Excellent expression of opinions needing to be aired. As a former two term president of the EUSPBA, I can attest to the many pitfalls of the business end of a pipe band association.
    Based on my experiences, there are two issues easily overlooked when trying to apply a business model to a musical organization. The first is the role lower grade bands and individuals have in determining the direction and goals of a pba. They will always be the voting (and quite vocal) majority.
    The second is what I call “the good ol’ boy” network consisting of a rather small number of old timers who think their way is the only way. Their musical abilities are usually superior to the vast majority of the general membership. But sometimes they tend to want to slant things to their advantage. Especially if it involves their band, students or even their good ol’ boy friends.
    Executive committees ARE sensitive to criticism. Most times the perceived mistakes are based on less than complete knowledge of the ramifications of a decision. Couple this with the “we are only volunteers” mantra and you get potential future executives deciding to never put themselves on the firing line. Add the good (and bad) advantages of “instant news” via the internet and one no longer needs to wonder why just about every pipe band association is at a loss when it comes to finding candidates to run for office.
    I could go on with some possible suggestions but don’t want to bore the general readership. Keep up the good work, Andrew!

  5. Andrew, your points are well taken. And Al yours are too! An organization needs to be proactive to stay ahead of the game. Reaction is often to late and no action is no solution. As a member of WUSPBA, I can tell you that when the lawyers get involved it’s a lost cause, because you can’t say or do anything. I am still happy and amazed that quality people continue to seek out executive positions in the PBA’s. WUSPBA now carries insurance so that these “volunteers” personal assets aren’t in jepordy from lawsuits. The fact is my band has the same insurance and liability insurance, too. It’s just a different world these days. A while back my band had a picture on the website of a young child listening to the band play. We took tha picture down because of parental and legal libility concerns regarding pedophiles. Aghhh!!!

    I agree, it should be all about the music! That’s what binds us all together.


  6. Ah but ‘just talk’ isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. Easy, if all the conditions are in place for it, and the person or organisation wants to talk to you. You can offer the finest cruisine in the world, but if thats not what the person wants to eat, its not going to work.
    A well travelled cousin once brought a pizza as a gift to an elderly aunt. Some days later she was asked if she enjoyed it. Horrified, she reported that she had never in all her life seen ‘sic a conglumeration o things on a scone – fower lots o ‘kitchen’-cheese, ham, tomatoes, mushroom an even a slice o pineapple toorikin on the tap’.

    She had sat it out for the cats, and they didn’t go anywhere near it, and when she ‘flung it oot tae the hens’ even they ‘turned their noses up at it’. Asked about the eventual fate of the pizza, she said defiantly ‘a buried it atween the midden an the wee plum tree’.

    Another situation comes to mind. Its the one where parents have brought up a child, over the years, moment by moment, nurturing it, helping it grow. But then the child becomes grown up itself and says things like ‘you’re old fashioned, your ideas are crap, I could do things so much better, you’re antiquated, past it, you should adopt all these new ways of doing things’. There are parents who can rejoice at this independent young adult who they have brought to this point, and they can now step back a little and let the young person go on ahead, perhaps getting further than they ever did, but supporting and taking pride in the upbringing they gave it. Then of course there are parents who would feel bitter at such a stance from the young person ‘remember who you are and who got you here. Your new fangled ideas are way off the mark, you’re wasting everything we gave you, nothing like the good old fashioned ways’ etc etc etc.
    If an organisation has thriven on the basics – good old plain MSRs and clear melodic medleys, and its own way of doing things which worked for years thank you very much, what ARE they to make of four cheese pizzas, layered with meat, vegetables, fruit, all on the one thing – medleys with layers of harmonies, complex rhythmic features, melodies which evade the listener.
    imho, there’s a discrepancy between where the organisation is at, and the things people want to give it. For people who can’t ‘just talk’ music is frequently the treatment of choice, and it works incredibly well. Music can either be the vehicle for the talking, or it can be the place where the work takes place to enable the talking to come later. Don’t get me wrong, everything you say in the article, I go along with, After all helping people to ‘just talk’ is what I do professionally. But sometimes, the music has to come first to pave the way for talking. A bit like a young baby/child babbling before actual speech and language. I’m hopeful the music can provide the way for the organisation and what people want to give it, to come together and be acceptable to each other for everyones benefit. That the music, would be the meeting place in the middle, a place where integration and comunication might be possible. Perhaps a first step would be ‘just play’ in the widest sense of the word.

  7. Talking isn’t the problem. Anyone can do that. In fact, it seems that almost everyone I know seems to want to do that part incessantly…. “It’s all about me, don’t you know?” They’ll even cut me off mid sentence and begin spinning the topic around themselves!….
    The real problem is listening. Seems no one wants to do that part.
    Communication is a two way process and both talking and listening are needed.
    And to finish things off, a little comprehension of what is being said and listened to is also a good thing.
    Uhhmmm…..good luck with that!



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