ANALYSIS: Client Profile - San Francisco Ballet strides towardsolid reputation

The San Francisco Ballet has faced many PR challenges. But remaining focused on growing the audience and sponsorship has paved the way for the development of the onstage product.

The San Francisco Ballet has faced many PR challenges. But remaining focused on growing the audience and sponsorship has paved the way for the development of the onstage product.

The arts have to be the focus of extraordinarily good news or exceedingly bad news to get much attention these days. Historically, the San Francisco Ballet has weathered a lot of bad news - potential bankruptcy, allegations of discrimination, two years' displacement from its home in the San Francisco Opera House, and being stranded in Europe after the September 11 terrorist attacks. But each obstacle gave the ballet opportunity to expand and refine its business and PR practices, and provide security for its creative exterior to flourish.

"We have a business side and an artistic side,

says Kyra Jablonsky, in-house PR manager, "and to make them work together seamlessly is a real challenge.

Cooperation, careful planning, and strategic development have helped the 69-year-old organization age gracefully.

It's difficult to imagine unseemly PR problems when one is mesmerized by dancers performing under the glinting gold leaf that adorns much of the interior of the majestic San Francisco Opera House. But just over a year ago, the ballet endured its most widely publicized crisis when Krissy Keefer, mother of the then eight-year-old Fredrika Keefer, filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, accusing the San Francisco Ballet School of denying her daughter admission because of her weight.

Because the school operates in conjunction with the ballet, which receives more than half a million dollars of city funding every year, it is potentially subjected to city nondiscrimination laws. The Keefers landed on Good Morning America at the climax of the media firestorm.

"It broke quickly,

says Jablonsky. "People weren't taking time to research or digest the facts. We had to work hard to keep the facts straight. We stayed brief and to the point."

Sam Singer of Singer Associates, who had worked with the ballet in 1998 to help smooth union contract negotiations, was hired to help manage the Keefer crisis.

Larry Brinkin, Human Rights Commission manager, says the Keefer case is in mediation, and he hopes to see it resolved this spring. Maximum penalty is revocation of the $550,000 in funding, which Brinkin says is "unlikely."

On solid financial footing

Under the business leadership of CEO Arthur Jacobus, the ballet's endowment increased over the last nine years by 800% to a healthy $44 million, of which only $2 million of interest income was allocated to fulfill this year's $29.5 million operating budget.

In 1996, the opera house was closed for seismic renovations, forcing the ballet to perform in unfamiliar venues. A fundraising campaign was launched simultaneously, which helped keep the ballet in the public eye, and boosted the endowment with a $31.3 million haul.

"We played on intimacy, by getting the message out that we were bringing dance to the community,

says Alvin Henry, director of marketing and PR.

While Jacobus increased financial security, the company grew in stature from a respected regional troupe to an internationally acclaimed force under the creative leadership of Helgi Tomasson. The media has taken notice of the ballet's positive strides. Clive Barnes reported in Dance Magazine, December 2001, that the San Francisco Ballet "now stands in that major league once consisting only of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, not only in the size of its personnel and budget, but also in the extent of its international reputation."

The ballet's latest challenge came to light last month, when Jacobus announced that he would not renew his contract next year for personal reasons. "It was a shock,

Henry says.

The board of directors is creating a committee to replace Jacobus. Meanwhile, the internal PR team and agency of record, Ketchum, are working to keep moving forward. "Our goal now is to keep the momentum going, because we are in this incredible place financially and reputation-wise,

says Jablonsky.

Henry says that the challenge is to maintain the audience and product base: "We have to make sure tickets are sold, and that we have continued corporate and individual support."

Fifty-six percent of the 2002 operating budget comes from ticket sales.

Of the remaining $16.5 million, 8% is derived from corporate contributions, 12% from donations, and 58% is provided by individuals (the remainder comes from the government, and various miscellaneous sources).

"Once our corporate sponsors come onboard and see the product, they believe in it, and they work with us in every way possible,

says Henry. One such sponsor, American Airlines, provides striking evidence of the ballet's strong corporate relationships. "They are able to fulfill their commitments this year, as well as next,

says Sharon Jones, in-house manager of corporate and foundation relations. "It's pretty remarkable after all they've lost."

"It's important to be part of the community,

says Bobbie Chapman, Northern California sales promotions manager for American Airlines. "We didn't want to say we couldn't do it, even though it's a bad time. What good would it do for us to save those few dollars that the ballet really needs?

Now is the time to prop each other up."

Ballet as a marketing venue

Maintaining support is vital, but the ballet must also develop new revenue sources. "We've had to get much more creative,

Jones says. "Corporate people are not looking for just a philanthropic outlet; they're looking for a marketing venue, which means we're competing with NASCAR and the NFL. When you consider that NASCAR can show a corporate logo every 30 seconds, it's pretty challenging. Obviously, we can't have dancers running around, covered in logos."

To better compete, Jones partners with the symphony and the opera (which share performance space with the ballet) to bundle benefits and offer sponsors year-round exposure. Audience development also helps raise money.

"We want to expose people to the ballet, especially younger audiences," Jones says. "We don't want to be looked at as their parents' philanthropy."

Last summer, the ballet hired Ketchum to help with its growing PR needs.

"We were hired to broaden the reach to more alternative outlets, build new audiences, and create a more formalized crisis process,

says Ketchum SAE Nhu-Y Canh. MS&L, Porter Novelli, and Ruder Finn competed for the account, which is worth an undisclosed portion of the ballet's $1.8 million total PR and marketing budget.

"Ketchum helps us communicate in different ways to different factions, which include dancers, business staff, union relations, donors, the board of trustees, volunteers, and patrons,

says Jablonsky. "Our media audience has also broadened, and it's a large arena to talk to."

Ketchum and the in-house team were formalizing a crisis plan when a touring staff of nearly 200 was stranded in Barcelona after September 11. "The decision was to send the company home in whichever way possible,

says Henry. "But none of us knew who was on what plane, when they left, or when they were arriving. Ketchum helped us make a complete package for how we handle crises, both at home and on tour."

"It's important that the company understands what Kyra and Alvin do, and how integral they are,

Canh says. "If there is a crisis, they need to immediately contact PR to manage the situation and protect the brand."

Practicing PR for the San Francisco Ballet certainly isn't dull. "It's always very active, because there's a multitude of different people in any given place in our offices,

says Jablonsky. "I think that gives everyone a lot of energy. I love that a dancer can walk in here right after class and talk to me about an interview. When the dancers aren't here, everyone can feel a little deflated. All of us do such different things, and you can really learn a lot from the people around you."

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