How to Prevent Tone Deafness

In an interview with Variety following the Grammys on Sunday, Recording Academy president Neil Portnow had this to say about the lack of women nominated for awards in 2018:

“It has to begin with … women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level… [They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome. I don’t have personal experience of those kinds of brick walls that you face but I think it’s upon us — us as an industry — to make the welcome mat very obvious, breeding opportunities for all people who want to be creative and paying it forward and creating that next generation of artists.”

Grammy award winner P!nk responded on Twitter to Portnow’s comments with this note:

“Women in music don’t need to ‘step up’ – they’ve been stepping up since the beginning of time. Stepping up, and also stepping aside, women OWNED music this year. They’ve been KILLING IT. And, every year before this. When we celebrate and honor the talent and accomplishments of women, and how much women STEP UP every year, against all odds, we show the next generation of women and girls and boys and men what it means to be equal and what it looks like to be fair.”

In light of the growing Time’s Up movement and support at the Grammys itself for the #MeToo movement, Portnow’s comments ring as tone deaf. P!nk and other female musicians are reacting to the lack of understanding in his statements for the bias, obstacles and systems that challenge women to advance in the music industry.

Could this controversy for the Recording Academy have been avoided? Absolutely. With some forecasting and preparation, organizational leaders can sidestep costly message blunders like this one and address these issues directly and with context. They simply need to:

  1. Become an issue forecaster. In advance of significant, high-profile events for your organization, survey the media landscape and identify any potential issues that may draw media attention or be a focus for your key audience. Equity is a major issue within the entertainment industry; it shouldn’t have been a surprise that media (and members) would be counting the number of women represented in nominations, performances and wins. Getting prepared to respond to questions related to representation of women in music should have been a priority.
  2. Talk to your audience. What do they think about these issues? What action or position would they like your organization to take? In communications, it often matters just as much what your audience thinks about an issue as how the organization feels about it. Connecting with members, colleagues and representatives from audience groups impacted by the issues you will be discussing is critical for informing how best to position and structure your message responses. Insights from your audience will help you really hear — and then effectively answer — concerns.
  3. Prepare responses. Now that you know what potential issues may be, the real work begins — developing what you will say about it. Spend time identifying potential questions for each issue — the easy ones, the hard ones and the questions you don’t want to be asked — and then develop answers for each question that illustrate transparency, candor and clarity.
  4. Get feedback from insiders. Share your message strategy informally with your key audience members. If your responses generate positive feedback, then you’re ready for showtime. You may even gain external supporters for your messages if media goes for the story. If you keep the message strategy siloed, you may gain more critics — e.g., P!nk — than friends.
  5. Rehearse. Repeat. Just like performing at the Grammys, rehearsal is key for a strong performance in media interviews on challenging topics. Familiarize yourself with anticipated questions and your prepared responses. During the stress of an interview situation, a prepared communicator will be able to share the message as it was intended, and comfortable enough with the message platform to be able to pivot back to key messages when needed.
  6. Listen closely. During the event and in interviews, remember to listen closely. Listen to the event attendees. What are they saying to each other? What are they saying to the media, if present? Listen to the reporters. What is the reporter really asking you? Answer only the question being asked and avoid saying more than is necessary.

Tone deafness can be difficult to recover from. Be sure you take the temperature of an issue before you discuss it with broad audiences.