Beware the settling dust in Bow Street

Well, well.  That was quite a day, wasn’t it?  I don’t imagine the senior officers of the Royal Opera were in the most tranquil of states as they slipped into the Auditorium for the opening night of the season.  I look forward to the first reviews – by newspapers or bloggers, with or without pictures – of Così Fan Tutte.

So what have we learned?  A few things struck me.  Setting aside the obvious ‘power of the crowd’, ‘power of the Internet’, ‘power of Twitter’ and all similar observations, the response of the Royal Opera House to the storm is instructive for anyone working on organisational applications of social media.

Read through the comments on the Intermezzo blogpost (120+ at last count) and you will be struck by the number that bring up familiar complaints about the ROH: the booking system doesn’t work (though I am clearly lucky, as it always has for me, except on my iPhone); the prices; the stuffiness or ‘exclusivity’; a rather distant and high-handed approach to communications.  These are clearly, therefore, the lurking undercurrents beneath the progressive upswing in the ROH’s reputation, which has been one of the more welcome aspects of operatic life in London for the last decade.  However, the legal move that they made on Intermezzo reveals just how near to the surface those undercurrents run.  The ROH needs to tread carefully.

On the rights or wrongs, I think the position is probably reasonably clear (based on some of the legal contributions to the debate): the ROH does have the right to ask for the images to be removed where they have been sourced from their own website or publications.  I’m not really interested in that, though.  The internet, as someone at some point remarked, works on the use and re-use of information.  Attribution is critical, but you can’t get a buzz about something without an image (this blog is testament to that!).  They may have had the right, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do.  It was a profoundly stupid thing to do, and did nothing to serve their interests.  And so, onto the social media aspects…

Firstly, as I mentioned in my last blogpost, the ROH’s social media strategy needs refinement.  Simon Thomas has also written an excellent account from this perspective on his Digitarts blog.  They appear to exist in the uncomfortable half-world of the hierarchical, cautious organisation which has launched itself into the turbulent world of social media as a PR endeavour.  As I mentioned before, and Simon Thomas also mentions, they are on a sort of ‘broadcast mode’.  I would be unsurprised to find out that the social media is operated by only one or two people, who spend half their lives trying to get simple notes and responses ‘cleared’ for publication.  So, when the storm broke, it took until beyond 5pm for the response to arrive.  A simple ‘early intervention’ strategy would have done wonders to quell the rising feeling that the ROH was ignoring it, or had retreated to the bunker hoping it all goes away, or indeed that they stood by it absolutely.  A tweet, perhaps: “We are sorry that this is causing distress. There are discussions going on here in Bow St and there will be something out by the end of the day.”  Perhaps a similar comment on the blog in question?  Just something, anything, that confirmed that the social media stream was managed by a human being (which of course it is) rather than a sort of  College of Cardinals, who deliberate whilst the rest of us wait for white smoke.

Then there is the issue that arises around the understanding across the organisation of social media, its intricacies and implications.  Such understanding is clearly not demonstrated in Mr Avory’s missives.  Again, I would be unsurprised to discover that he was shocked to find them published, let alone the effect of their publication on the Twitterverse.  That said, his decision to issue it in the days before the sensitive opening of the 2010/11 season suggest that his ability to carefully judge situations is at best questionable.  Lily’s comments on my last blogpost are an effective summary.  For that reason I would, in contrast, be utterly stupified if the Marketing team knew that this challenge to Intermezzo was about to be issued.  And if they did, and had not protested in the strongest possible terms, then they are derelict in their duty.  If they protested and were ignored, then I trust they now have the material with which to facilitate a board-level discussion on how the organisation is governed in the modern world, from the perspective of reputation management.  It seems to me that this proves that any attempt to have a battened-down ‘control strategy’ around social media fails, and what you need is competent users of it in pretty much all departments, who can temper their colleagues’ thinking as it develops, and can assist in both proactive and reactive instances.  Top-down hierarchy and social media do not work together well:  the latter is a product of the ‘networked’ society, the former tells you to ignore your network, since it’s your line of command that matters.

The tone of the apology is undoubtedly dignified, but it has left Intermezzo rather less than enthusiastic.  It is true that it does not answer many of the questions raised by this incident:  what exactly was the problem, what has changed as a result of the day’s farrago, and what exactly was real and justified concern on their part and what was more like an errant officer’s over-zealousness?  The way it was issued also sits uneasily alongside social media’s chattiness, in fact its very ‘sociability’: a pdf put up on the website, with links to it formally issued through Twitter and Facebook (which, interestingly, seems to have pretty much entirely escaped becoming embroiled in the debate).  It has drawn a line, but it has further eroded the ROH’s social media presence.  Those criticisms that were levelled during the height of the storm about ‘distance’ and ‘haughtiness’ in their approach to comms have been borne out.

Which is not to say that the apology isn’t welcome.  Yes, we have some residual uncertainty about what position, exactly, Intermezzo finds herself in.  We still don’t really know what the problem was, or how the ROH has changed as a result, if at all.  However, they have responded, and they have expressed regret.  We must therefore assume that some soul-searching has gone on.  That alone does soften my stance towards them and it would be easy for us to demand an immediate comprehensive response, get something that seems to fit the bill, only to find that the wider organisation hasn’t really bought into it and, as a result, ‘business as usual’ continues.  I’d rather they took their time, reviewed the postings, tweets and comments in the cold light of Monday morning and considered the wider organisational implications.

That said, it is true that when the fuller response comes, it needs to be fronted by someone, with ownership clearly taken, rather than the impersonal ‘formal statement’ approach.  Better yet, get a bunch of influential bloggers together – Intermezzo, Where’s Runnicles?, Simon Thomas would be a good start – for a short ‘summit’ on the ROH’s position in the new media world, and publish a summary of the result.  Do some of the ‘reflecting’ in public, rather than only in the hierarchy.

Failing that, we could send the BBC in to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary?  And if anyone remembers The House, you can’t but acknowledge that the place has come on a long way since then.  So, in short: a stupid error; a slow response; a reasonable line drawn; some further work to do, both internally and with Intermezzo.

I just hope Intermezzo’s excellent and lively commentary is not dimmed as a result.  That would be a sadness indeed for the London operatic scene.


  1. An elegant, articulate analysis of the PR faux pas that this matter has become.

    As the smoke clears, what seems now critical is that ROH rapidly makes an explicit statement as to what use they permit of images to which they may assert copyright or indeed any other rights (in particular, photographs taken by others).

    A cursory glance at the ROH website reveals no reference to this point which clearly, and justifiably, they hold so dear. Whether such a statement indeed lurks somewhere deep in the bowels of the website is immaterial; this information should be immediately accessible, on the first (or perhaps all) page(s) of the site from which copyrighted material might be sourced.

    Hopefully lessons will be learned and appropriate measures taken, not only by ROH by others too.

  2. @David – agree entirely – they need to sort their internal processes out for checking/responding to these sorts of things, and they need to be clearer on their position. The Salzburg Festival website has pages of high-resolution images for download for use by press. ROH’s rather controlling approach is to invite you to email someone…

    @Dan – I gather some clever scheduling has been going on which allows the company to be in both places at once. Seems the main company are out in Japan, and some extras have been roped in in London: Can’t remember Don Pasquale totally, but it’s not chorus-heavy as I recall, and neither is Cosi. As for the orchestra, who knows? The Guardian has an embedded journalist (which makes it sound like a war campaign, but hey):

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