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Modern Marketing Challenges

Modern Marketing Challenges

Live Conversation from Boot Camp 2021

This podcast is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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In This Episode

Theresa Ruth Howard and Mariclare Hulbert explore multi-layered marketing challenges, including how to respond thoughtfully to social media criticism and how to communicate equity-related issues. They also investigate various power dynamics between marketers and organizational leaders, artists and organizations, and the general public and organizations.

Erik Gensler: Welcome to our next session. It’s called Navigating Social Media Criticism, Negotiating Power Dynamics, and Other Modern Marketing Challenges. Arts Marketers in 2020—arts leaders in 2020, but particularly marketers—find themselves in a difficult position. As the public face of their organization, they are on the front lines with critical organization priorities, like drafting social justice or public health statements, serving as moderators on social media, and publicly defending decisions or positions they may not fully agree with. This session will explore multilayered marketing challenges and also investigate power dynamics between marketers and organizational leaders, organizations and artists, and organizations and the public. Now, this session will be in three parts. I will first interview Theresa Ruth Howard, then interview Mariclare Hulbert, then we will come together for a group discussion and ask your questions, so put those questions into the activity feed. Theresa Ruth Howard is a former ballet dancer and journalist who performed with Dance Theatre of Harlem, contributed to many publications, including Dance Magazine, shen is the Founder and Curator of—that’s Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, a digital platform that promotes the contributions of Black artists in the field of ballet. Theresa works as a diversity strategist and consultant, assisting arts organizations to better understand and implement diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Welcome, Theresa. Please introduce yourself.

Theresa Ruth Howard: I’m Theresa Ruth Howard and I am coming to you from Bloomfield, New Jersey, which is the original land of the Munsee Lenape tribe and my pronouns are she and her.

Erik Gensler: Great. Welcome. Now, I want to take us back to the beginning of the summer, after the murder of George Floyd, and organizations were releasing DE&I statements and anti-racism statements. Some organizations did this quickly, and some were not so quick. A few did it well; a lot of them stumbled. From your purview, why did they stumble, how did they stumble, and how could they have done this better? We’ll start with a light question (laughs).

Theresa Ruth Howard: (Laughs) Simple. A three‑parter! It’s interesting, because… I had been in a long process with a number of different organizations, most frequently with The Equity Project, which gathered together 21 ballet companies to talk about increasing the presence of Blacks in ballet. And even before that, with my work with MoBBallet—which started in 2015. So people … I have been in this process, in these conversations, with artistic leadership and ballet, both personally and professionally. And what I found really interesting was that… there was this resounding silence! Right? It felt… if you can feel silence. It felt like a silence! As the world was sort of, like, exploding around this event. And… I think that… that ballet got stuck in this really incredible, sort of, conundrum. ‘Cause ballet is … it’s supposed to be art; it’s not supposed to be “political.” You know, most ballet organizations don’t come out and speak on certain things that feel like… politics, or “race.” Right? Social justice. That’s not the space that they inhabit. However, they had spent literally years in conversations about race and lack of diversity and, and exclusion, which is really just social justice work, right? But I don’t think that they made that connection. And so, I think that where they made the mistake is that they sort of stood behind their organizational logos, right? Using a logo almost as a shield. Like, “We’re not going to get involved.” And they weren’t human about what was actually happening, right? So, you’re watching the world, you’re watching these dancers who are Black and brown, who are deeply connected to what’s happening right? And in pain, and suffering, and just being silent. And I think that that was the first sort of initial misstep, is the paranoia of, like, the deer in the highlights, “Oh my god, what do we do? Where do we stand?” And in opting to not do anything as an action, which is a mistake, which was a failing.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. You talk about the speed of social media, where, you know … You and I have talked about this over the summer a few times, and I just think you have so much to say around this, but … You said that people were acting like they were drafting the Magna Carta, which is the issue of being the… how the PR and communications cycle works, versus how social media works. I’d love for you to talk about that.

Theresa Ruth Howard: Okay, so this is really interesting. So, again, like I said, part of my work is definitely building relationships. So, my clients are also… become my friends. Right? And so, I’m talking to people, and they’re having two experiences. They’re, you know, executive directors or artistic directors, but they’re also human beings going through COVID‑19, like everybody else, but trying to save their organizations. They’re also watching the BLM, sort of, protests, sort of, like, explode, depending on where they are in our country. But they were like, “Oh, we’re working on it. We’re working on it. We want to be correct. We want to say the right thing.” And I’m like, “You’re not drafting the Magna Carta. You’re drafting a statement just to say, ‘Hey, we see you. We feel you. We’re here. We care.’” And when I said that to a number of my friends/clients, they were like, “Oh.” They also said it like, as if we’re drafting a statement, a, as in singular, as if it was the one and the only. Right? “We’re going to do this once, put this out there, and that’s going to handle it.” And that’s sort of like old‑school PR marketing. Like, that’s very old‑school. Because, you know, you have social media now, where you can fire off posts multiple times a day. It’s not like the one press release or walking out onto the lawn and making a statement. You are in constant conversation with the public, which is vastly different. I think that that was a huge misstep, because the dancers, right, that they are speaking to … that is their language. That’s their first language. Right? So, they don’t understand not showing up in and on that space.

Erik Gensler: So, it’s also, I’ve heard you talk about the sort of structure of having to get something perfect. Or the model, the paradigm of like, publishing versus the immediacy of social media. I think that’s just a really important point that I’ve heard you make.

Theresa Ruth Howard: Like, don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Theresa Ruth Howard: Right? And so, for me, and philosophically, the way that I look at the work that I do, it really is about … it’s really, like, injecting empathy and humanity. Right? And so, there’s a lot around the professional statement, right? Like, it has to be professional, it has to be in a certain speak… And I am not technically of this world. Like, I am, but I’m not, but I’m also, like, sort of a consumer. I’m the person you’re talking to. And my question is, “Why can’t it be like you’re talking to someone who you know?” Right? So, like, what would you say to someone who was in this position? I probably … Like, “I don’t understand what you’re feeling but I know that you’re feeling and I feel for you because I care for you.” Like, what would happen if statements actually sounded like two people actually in conversation as opposed to an organization speaking to, maybe, its board of directors. A lot of the statements that came out were very much organizations speaking to themselves, right? Or speaking to the board. Like, “We stand in solidarity” became the new, “thoughts and prayers.” Right? So it doesn’t ring personal and human and it rings like a statement! And we are in a time—especially with social media—where people are expecting, sort of, to see you, right? To hear you.
And so, I always say that organizations are people. They’re not constructs. And so, I think that organizations that took a more personal approach, right, Took that … showed vulnerability in it. Even the uncertainty! Right? That could be respected and taken as authentic, more, for the public.

Erik Gensler: Right. The idea of, like, a logo not being human, or the building … you know, the building isn’t the … I think you said, “The building wasn’t wounded.”

Theresa Ruth Howard: Right. No! Right. And it is a new space to enter into. It’s a whole different headspace. It’s a different lens and it’s a challenge! But I think that that is the … this is, where we’re going, right? This is where we actually are, where you can speak … you’re in direct contact with your audience, all the time. Right? And so, you have to start to meet … like, organizations have to start to meet people where they are. And so, it is more dicey! Right? You can make more mistakes but you can also make amends more quickly, as well, right? And you can show them. It’s rapid. And so you have to be … it requires a different level of engagement, really, and presence. Like, you have to be actually present, more, I think, these days, than back in the day when you could, you know, put out a press release, wait for (Laughing) It to come back, wait for people to write about it, it to come back the next day or two days. No! It’s absolutely immediate.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. We saw a lot of examples this summer of organizations that—this was a word I learned from you—”dragged” on social media… where they got dragged on social media, and were absolutely silent! And people were calling for a response, and they were silent! Why do you think that was happening and what is a better alternative?

Theresa Ruth Howard: (Sighs) The dragging is a new phenomenon and it’s very interesting. I have … dragging and cancel culture, right, are, are the advents of this social media sort of immediacy. And I think it’s good in one way and it’s very frightening in another. And I think that there was, again, that deer in the headlights sort of, “Oh my god, we don’t know what to do and we don’t want to offend anyone,” not realizing that doing nothing was the greatest offense. Again, I think that whole Magna Carta, the one statement, the idea that they’re not actually connecting to the work that they said that they were doing for so many years, right? So, it’s about connectivity! Like, being connected. You know, the idea of (laughs) being dragged is … as a dancer, I go like, “You need to take your corrections. You just need to take your corrections.” Right? And so, the idea that someone is calling you … there’s a call‑out culture, and there’s the call‑in, right? When you get called out, you have to respond, right? What you can’t do is retract, and be like, “We’re going to act like it didn’t happen,” right? Because that’s not authentic. You’re talking about, you’re having multiple meetings a day about what’s going on.

And so the question is, “How do you respond to that?” Right? And so, one, are you taking responsibility? Because some of that feedback was … I was like, read your comments. Read your comments. That’s your feedback! Some of it is applicable! And so, the question is, “Are you trying to draft a statement that makes it look like you’re taking responsibility, without really taking 100% of the responsibility?” That was another thing that people were playing with.Like, ordering off the menu. Like, “We’ll take that offense and that offense, but we won’t have that.” Right?

So you can’t be in this work—specifically the social justice space—you can’t be in the work and not fully practicing. Right? It requires you to fully practice what you say you’re preaching. Right? So your core values, all those things. All money that was spent on all the, you know, consultants, that was your final exam and a lot of organizations failed, quite frankly.

Erik Gensler: You said something that has really stuck with me. And, I mean, every time we talk, I just feel like I… you’re so quotable! But this, as we… you know, I opened with the Angela Davis quote about anti-racism and have learned so much that anti-racism is about sharing power and something that you said has stuck with me and I’ve just seen it over and over again. And you said, “BIPOC people need to see the hands of the people doing the work, not white people in a dark cellar making decisions.”

Theresa Ruth Howard: Absolutely. I mean, white people love to go off and caucus about, you know, other people, and then come back, and be like, “Oh, we fixed it, we solved it.” Here! They present it. And then, when the people are like, well, we don’t… we don’t want that. Then they label them ungrateful, unsophisticated. You know, there’s all this thing, like … because, again, in that, sort of, white supremacist idea of authority, that is the role of whiteness, right, is to dictate and to solve problems, on its own. On their own. Now, you know. I opened with a land acknowledgment, riight? And so, we know that, inherently, we have empirical evidence that the track record of white people and people of color keeping their word, doing the right thing, we know that that’s abysmal. Right? And so, the idea of trust for communities of color in relationship with whiteness is not something that is assumed. It should never be assumed. It needs to really be earned. Right?And so, we need to see your hands! I need to see … It’s like math. Show your work. We need to show your work, so we know that you haven’t copied off of somebody, or cheated, or whatever! (Laughing) We need to see because we need to make sure that it is authentic! Right? So when you’re off in the back, and we don’t know how you arrived at any of this, that becomes … we’re always side‑eyeing it, because we’re like, “mm.” We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop because there’s always another shoe. Historically, there’s always been a flipside to it. Right? And so … and I think, like, in general, if we talk about the whole, like, power dynamics of race, white people don’t generally … they feel a little (Gasp) when they’re asked to … when they’re not trusted. Ironically. Right? Like, “You (Gasp) … You would think that I would … I would do that?” Like, “(Gasp)” But, it… there’s historical evidence! And so, I think it’s a learning to be like, “You know what? We should take all the skepticism because we deserve it, right? And so, we have to work through that and prove that we are trustworthy, right, and we are interested in sharing power, we’re interested in sharing space with people of color, specifically.” And then that breeds a different sort of relationship.

Erik Gensler: Mm‑hmm. In your work with organizations over the last few months, have you really felt, you know, the media … There’s, you know, this wave of white people recognizing racism, which is, you know, so problematic for people who have, you know … BIPOC people who have seen it and lived it and had the pain of it for years. Do you feel like, in your experience with the organizations you’re working with, that there is a sense of optimism, of a deeper commitment, of … Have you seen examples of real, positive change being made?

Theresa Ruth Howard: So, so funny that you … I know, you know, this is a question that is always … both sides wanna know. But my colleague from Amsterdam, Peggy Olislaegers, I work with her with the Dutch National Ballet, she is a white woman, but she says there’s this euphoria, this woke euphoria that white people are getting and it’s like an adrenaline rush. And I said, how do you feel that … that people are coming down? That people are settling, you know. Settling down. And we’re about to be in that sort of like, “Ugh! We don’t have time. We’ve got to save the organization. We’ve got to do this. It’s everything but,” right? So, you know, I have to be an optimist. I’m a realist but I have to, like, lean towards optimism in this work because if I don’t, then I shouldn’t be doing this work. Right, if I don’t really believe that there can be change, then I really should … this is the wrong position for me. So, I do see it. But I do … I also think that it takes … it will take time! Because it is a practice, right? It’s a learning. And so, to use another dance analogy, we, as dancers, know that you have to be in the studio every day to get to mastery. So, that’s why part of my work now is more in designing a curriculum for organizations, that will create a space for “social justice work” on a daily basis. Readings, like, lessons. Like, literally putting them through school so that they learn how to talk about it. They learn how to engage with it, right, and not recoil. And it’s not something that is, like, put on like an accessory. So, yes! There are glimmers, right, of progress. But I think that that’s … that’s what I trust. I don’t … I trust the process. Right? The evolution. Anything that just automatically flips, I sense, is not going to be sustainable.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Theresa, I learn so much every time I speak with you. I’m gonna bring on Mariclare, and then we’ll come back for a group Q&A. Thank you so much. I’ll see you in a few minutes.

Theresa Ruth Howard: Thank you.

Erik Gensler: Our next guest, Mariclare Hulbert, has over 15 years of marketing and communications experience in the arts and nonprofit fields, working with presenters, service organizations, artists, and companies. We met when she was serving at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival as Director of Marketing and Communications and since her role there, she’s worked with a wide range of arts and service organizations, including Kinetic Light, Alice Sheppard, Disability Dance Works, Dance/USA, and the Down Syndrome Association of Cincinnati in my hometown of Cincinnati. Mariclare, welcome and please introduce yourself.

Mariclare Hulbert: Hi, everyone. My name is Mariclare Hulbert, as Erik already mentioned. I am coming to you from Rochester, New York, which, according to my research, the Buffalo/Rochester/Syracuse region is on the traditional territory and the stolen land of the six nations which consist of the Mohawk, Onaida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Seneca nations. As an image description, I’m a white woman. I have dark brown, shoulder-length hair. I’m wearing a black sweater. Behind me, there are images of dancers or dance companies. My pronouns are she/hers.

Erik Gensler: I want to first ask you, do you believe it is part of our role as arts marketers to hold our organizations accountable before the public holds the organization accountable? Can you talk a bit about that?

Mariclare Hulbert: Sure. I first want to start, if I can, that I don’t want to call anything I’m talking about today advice. I can’t give any particular organization advice. You know your organization best; you know your staff makeup; you know the equity work you’re already doing, your goals, your community. My hope is that this sparks conversation and ideas. Is equity work marketing work? Yes! I think one of the most important things to acknowledge is that it is absolutely part of our work. It is integral to our work, as marketers, communications professionals, PR people, because our artists and our colleagues and our audiences and our world is intersectional. Folks are disabled; they are part of the LGBTQIA‑plus community; they are trans or gender nonconforming; they are white or people of color or multilingual. As Theresa already said, this is not a crisis that we address once or twice a year, and then hope goes away. We are already specialists in being that last stop. We are used to fact‑checking. We are used to looking over print or design materials, and pointing out something that looks a little strange. We alert colleagues if we think an audience won’t understand a phrase that’s being used. So, being the person, the squeaky wheel, is a term that I use a lot. The squeaky wheel that reminds, like, “This is problematic! This cannot exist. We have to address this.” That is already part of the work that we are doing.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. An important question you’ve asked is, “What is in our control as marketers in all of this?” Curious for you to talk a bit about that, as the role of the marketer and what is in the control of the role of the marketer?

Mariclare Hulbert: Sure. When I have these conversations with colleagues … So, we have to face the reality that, is it the marketer’s job? Is it the marketing department’s job to do equity work for the entire organization? Absolutely not. It has to be coming from the top. Everyone needs to be involved. It needs to be a weekly, daily thing. So, I am not suggesting that we can kind of manage up, in that way. But there are … I sometimes feel myself, and I sometimes know that colleagues have spoken to do feel like things can be out of our hands. We’re waiting for an organization to decide next steps, to do equity work, whether that’s in access, whether that is in antiracism, whether that is being … learning more about needs for trans audiences, or wherever that might land. And so, I think … I know that there are actual things that we can do, as marketers. But I think it’s an easy way out to just say, like, “I have to wait for my orders.” As I said before, doing this work is a feature of our job. It’s not a bug. It’s not extra or new and if it is feeling extra or new, I think, for those of us who it might feel new for, we have to reflect on our privilege. And … because it is not extra or new to—I think we’ve already addressed this, but just to reiterate—it is not extra or new to our disabled colleagues, our Black colleagues, our Indigenous colleagues, our colleagues of color, our trans colleagues, our gender non‑conforming colleagues. They are dealing with this in everyday life. If we feel like this is new to our job, we need to reflect on that. I acknowledge that is not everyone attending today or everyone in the arts world.

Erik Gensler: You and I have talked about power dynamics and you’ve created this frame of power dynamics that I think is super important and super interesting, so I’m going to bring it up. There’s a lot of power dynamics. You’ve worked on the side of a presenter, and also you’ve represented artists and companies. Let’s talk about that power dynamic of presenter versus artist, and how that comes up in marketing and in your experience.

Mariclare Hulbert: Sure. So, as marketers, we are taught that good marketing and branding means we take information, we put it through a specific organizational lens, so that messaging has a recognizable look and tone and feel in the world that has our voice. We are taught that that is what we’re supposed to do. That’s good branding. However, this can be inherently problematic, if we are working for nondisabled organizations, organizations that are predominantly straight or cis, organizations that are white‑led. There are a lot of issues that come up when, then, we are taking the work of artists and putting it through a different lens.

And then, in the presenting world, we have this habit—I have participated in this habit, when I used to work as a presenter; I am now on the other end of this habit, when I work with artist clients—where we put artist work through a lens, and then if we send it back to an artist, we send it back with a 24‑hour turnaround. And we say, “Let us know if there’s anything erroneous.” And we work in the arts world. We know—maybe not right now—but we know artists are on tour and on theater stages and creating work. And they don’t always have huge administrative teams. And they don’t have 24 hours, necessarily, to look at something really quickly! And that’s disrespectful. It’s just crappy. It’s certainly not equitable. If that artist … if you have misrepresented them; if you’ve chosen a media quote that they actually don’t like because the rest of the review was racist, or the rest of the review was ableist, or you changed around the way they described their work, even if they do feel empowered to speak up—and there are certainly artists and teams of artists that speak up; I’m on one of those teams, with Kinetic Light. We absolutely speak up when something is incorrect or ableist. But a lot of artists won’t because there’s a power dynamic! They need their next opportunity. They don’t want to become labeled the “difficult to work with” artist. So I just think that dynamic is an issue. And that is something, in my opinion, that marketing departments absolutely have control over. We can think about how to make that process different. We can have conversations with artists in the beginning of a collaboration. Ask them what language they love to describe their work. Ask them what language they hate. Ask them—obviously—things like pronouns, things like how do they describe themselves, in terms of identity, what capitalization do they use? If there are words that are non‑English, do they want them italicized or not italicized? Put in quotation marks, not? Having those conversations and starting from a better place where the artist feels empowered to let you know, like, “Ooh, that’s problematic!” or, “I’m not comfortable with how that’s been presented,” I think that’s a much better way to start. And we have to acknowledge that what we’re doing if we’re doing that … Not everything organization is, but if we are, it’s crappy, as I said before. To put it lightly. (Laughs)

Erik Gensler: Yeah, just to be aware of it is super important and acknowledge it, and that’s the first step of changing it. So thank you for calling that out and calling us in. Many marketers don’t feel like they have the autonomy or power in their roles. From your purview, what can marketers implement themselves? Or what would you say to people who say, “I don’t feel like I have the autonomy or power?”

Mariclare Hulbert: Mm‑hmm. Yeah. And I absolutely acknowledge that, that, depending on your organization, where you are in the “hierarchy” of your organization, you may not have agency or autonomy to make major decisions. I believe in the power of speaking up, of saying it out loud, even if you’re not in a place of power. I believe in putting that in writing, especially right now. We’ve alluded to this, I think, with some of the other speakers. There has been a healthy amount of arts organizations, in particular, being called out—dance companies, musical companies, theater companies. Unfortunately, sometimes shame is not made. Sadly, and ashamedly, change is not made until things explode and they become public. But I believe that has infused a healthy level of fear. And I believe that it’s the time to continue to speak up. It’s the time to continue to put things in writing, in e‑mail. If you’ve made a comment in a document that something is problematic and that comment has mysteriously disappeared a couple times? Put it in an e‑mail! CC the appropriate people. You are educating others, if you happen to know more about this topic than they do or know more about this work. And then there’s a record. You can reference, “I brought this up six times previously! I brought this up three months ago, and it did end up being an issue because we were being problematic. And I believe, again, we have to address this.” So, putting it in writing, continuing to be that squeaky wheel. I absolutely recognize not everyone feels safe doing this. I believe if you are someone who’s listening today who is white or is straight or cis or nondisabled, it is our moral and ethical obligation to speak up. It’s just something we need to do, if we’re not already doing it. Our colleagues have to speak up every single day about various things, if they happen to have some sort of marginalized identity. We… if you happen to be a nondisabled person or a straight person or a white person, who I am, or a straight person, we have to continue to do it, and we have to do it more.

Erik Gensler: One of the things where marketers do often have budget or choice is the freelancers or contract workers that they work with. You feel strongly that we need to be thoughtful and intentional as we find freelancers and contract workers of different backgrounds, rather than going to the same folks over and over. Talk about that?

Mariclare Hulbert: Yeah. I do! And this is an opportunity (Laughing) For me to admit that Theresa redirected me earlier when we were talking about this. Because I had this brilliant idea that, “What if Capacity Interactive helped us create a resource where people could self‑identify, that ‘I’m a freelancer, a contract worker, and I’m a person of color. I’m a queer designer. I’m a disabled photographer.’” So when we do want to make different hiring choices, there’s a whole resource for arts folks to go to. And Theresa, very gently and lovingly, was like, “Mariclare, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think we tend to say, ‘I need this resource! Build something for me. Please create it,’ and then someone build it, and we don’t use it, because we haven’t done the work.” And the actual work is to know more people who are different from us, whatever their identities might be and to seek them out, and to do our own damn research (Laughs) and to make connections and network! And I realize right now, in‑person networking is more difficult, but there are online networking opportunities. So, making that purposeful … if you don’t have a super diverse network, really going after that. Considering the contractors you hire. Considering the workshops you attend and who’s leading them and who your money is going to. Considering when we have more in‑person events again, who we’re hiring for catering, who we’re hiring for security, who we’re hiring for… you know. There’s a variety of different ways that, if you are someone who makes decisions, if you do own a marketing budget, if you do own an events budget, there are different, more purposeful decisions we can make, in my opinion.

Erik Gensler: Wonderful. Any closing thoughts before we bring Theresa back for the group conversation?

Mariclare Hulbert: Sure! I would love to cite an example while we were talking about social media and power dynamics, just in my last few minutes here. I saw a really … I learned about a really excellent sample of that power dynamic between audiences and organizations. And I did ask their permission before I cited this. So, New Repertory Theater is a theater outside of Boston. And in June, they sent out a statement via e‑mail and social media regarding their support of Black Lives Matter, regarding their own antiracism statement. And they got a few responses from audiences and donors who were not happy about it. And were saying, like, “What is this? I won’t support you! I’m really considering whether I’ll come back if you continue to make these sorts of statements!” And their artistic director—so again, this came from the top—their artistic director stated, and told them, and made it public, (Laughs) “You are… you are welcome to not return!” And in a few cases, he’s noted, “I don’t want you to return.” And then he posted on FaceBook: “A few patrons have responded negatively to New Repertory Theatre’s Black Lives Matter email and posting. I have invited them not to return, and a few I have told them that they are not welcome. New Rep does not want their money. This is with an I pronoun, so I believe his name is Michael, I think he submitted this or wrote it. This post went viral! It got a ton of support. I happened to see it when it went up and I just went back to see it before this session to check again. Folks saying, “I will become a new patron! I will donate! I have already just donated in response to this. You have a patron in me now.” And they got press for it! We have a screenshot. Yes. If you Google, “New Rep Theatre racism,” it goes into more detail about the response they got. But they got an overwhelmingly positive response! So, for any organization, whether it’s an issue … whether it’s an LGBTQ issue, or whether it’s an immigration issue, whatever the issue is—this is not just exclusive to racism and Black and white, of course—but this is an example of an organization taking a stand publicly and getting a excellent, wonderful response, even though they were responding to some patrons who were being racist and were being problematic! So, I think, reflecting back on, “(Sighs) What do we do? What do we respond to people, when they’re posting nasty comments, or problematic comments?” Yes! You do respond. And I think we need not be—and I use the “we,” if you happen to work at a white‑led organization—we need not be afraid of that. And so, please follow New Rep Theatre. Please look at their posts. They do excellent work. Especially go back to their June posts and see the work they were doing that month, but that was not just a one‑month thing for them. This could be a useful example to cite, if you’re having these kinds of conversations in your own organization.

Erik Gensler: Thank you for that. I’d like to bring back Theresa. And thank you for everybody who’s put questions in the feed for us to talk about now. Hi, Theresa.

Theresa Ruth Howard: I will say that what was interesting about that example that you just presented… and I say this oftentimes with my clients, is: You know, there will be people whom you lose? But you will always gain other people.So like, people like board members. You’re like, “Oh, what if they’re not, literally, on board, with the direction we’re going?” I’m like, well, that’s sort of what you want. It’s like spring cleaning. You want to get rid of the people who don’t align with you. But you’ll, in turn, attract people because you’re putting out a different vibration.

Mariclare Hulbert: Mm‑hmm.

Theresa Ruth Howard: So, you know, it’s six in one hand, half a dozen in the other, oftentimes.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. It’s like RuPaul says, “Everyone vibrates at a certain frequency.” I think the same is true of organizations. And if someone’s not on your wavelength, that’s okay! There’s plenty of people who are! So, the audience question I want to start with is, “As a BIPOC working in communication in a primarily white institution, how do I leverage representing the work we are doing to acknowledge the organization’s privilege and my personal worry that I am the spokesperson for the “Black folks” on behalf of the theater?”

Theresa Ruth Howard: I’ll take a stab at it. This is a sort of tricky space to inhabit. When you’re one of a few, oftentimes, as a default, things get dumped onto you. You’re like, “Why would you assume that I want to be doing this work?” Right? Which goes into the whole tokenism sort of thing. And I think of tokenism now—I’ve come to think of it—as less of a visual? And more of a feeling. Right? ‘Cause you can be the only person in a space. And if you choose that role, then go for it. But it should not be assumed that that’s your work. And it shouldn’t be assumed that you are responsible for it, even … you’re responsible for the entirety of it, even if you are that person and you want to take that on. And so, it’s many hands. And I think that… learning for people who hold those spaces, learning how to articulate, right, that sort of, like … the nuance of being in that space is really important. And it really should be on your terms, how you enter that work. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all.

Erik Gensler: 100%. Yeah. Mariclare, do you want to add anything, or should I go to the next question?

Mariclare Hulbert: No, I think Theresa handled it, and I am not a person of color. So I will let her speak about that from a personal perspective.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. There was another … let’s see. “I’m wondering if you can speak a little to the ‘disconnect/delay’ that happens between marketing professionals at the proverbial front lines—i.e., the ones who are releasing statements, managing social media—and the executives whose permission we often need to proceed with response.

Mariclare Hulbert: Mm‑hmm. Yeah! I can go for that. And hopefully, I hit where the mark is. Yeah! It’s really tricky! And I do know we have some board members and EDs on this conference right now, which I love. Your marketing and communications people, their job is to alert you language. Their job is to alert you to when, “We’re not expressing ourselves clearly here. We’re lying; we’re not being authentic! We’re saying we’re doing this work, and we are not!” That, I do believe, is our job. I don’t believe it’s our job—I know it’s not our job—to decide the equity work for the entire organization. So, I guess, I’m just recognizing and acknowledging that, sometimes, in these very tense moments, suddenly, it’s our job to literally direct the entire statement. And sometimes, it’s happening that that organization has not done this work, and they’re trying to pretend that they have. So, some of it depends on where you land personally on some of these topics and how far you wish to go, in terms of what you’re speaking up to. Again, this is where I go back to … my thing is, like, our job is to be the squeaky wheel. Our job as marketers. We do it all the time for other things, like deadlines and other things. We’re very used to being in that space. Our job is to be this thing. So, our job is to be like, “This is taking too long!” Like Theresa said, “Silence is violence! We’re being complicit by not saying anything. Every day. We have to respond.” Continuing to shop that up, if you’re not hearing back. Continuing to call out when you’re saying, “We need to respond to this problematic Facebook post that someone put on our page,” and if you’re not hearing anything, just continuing to remind. I think everyone also needs to know what their own boundaries are and at what point are you going to say, “Well, forget it! I’m going to make up the response, then.” Again, there’s safety. Not everybody feels comfortable doing this! Absolutely not. But you have to assess for yourself where your own boundaries lie. If it’s a very severe situation, I continually remind folks, if you have continually brought up issues on the statement, and you don’t feel comfortable hitting the send button on that email, you can say, “I will not send this out! I’ll instruct somebody else how to do it. But for these various reasons that I have already expressed, I morally do not feel right doing so and I won’t.” Now, that’s extreme. You have to ready for the consequences that might come your way. But this is what I mean by, we do have power over certain things. We can refuse. We can say, “You know, that response is not hitting the right point. We need to either rewrite it or I won’t post that.” I think we have—and again, reflecting on, especially if you are a white person, especially if you’re a nondisabled person, if you don’t have a marginalized identity of any sort, or … excuse me, of some sort … It’s our job to do that and to take that potential hit and to speak up in such a loud way.

Theresa Ruth Howard: I think it’s really … I don’t know. And tell me if I’m wrong. I just feel like, if people are … it’s like house rules, of like a family. Right? Family values. You understand where you’re coming from. Oftentimes, like, if it’s your family, you will have your finger on the pulse of how you’re gonna feel about this. Like, as a family, how you respond.
So, I feel like there is this disconnect between … or even inauthenticity about, you know, who organizations, their public persona, and who they actually are. Because I don’t think that when something like this comes up, it should require, like, people running around (Laughing) like chickens with their heads cut off! Like, “What do we say? What do we say?”

Mariclare Hulbert: It shouldn’t, Theresa, but it does. And that’s a problem.

Theresa Ruth Howard: So this is the thing that interests me, as an outsider kind of coming into organizations. Seeing how, like, there is not this embodiment, or clarity, even, of communication. Let’s talk about comms, right? Talk about communications, about what that is. So that, I think, is the internal work that needs to, kind of … that’s the curriculum. Like, it has to be embodied so that it’s not an out of body experience to respond to these things!

Erik Gensler: Yeah. A question to build on what you’re saying, specifically for Theresa, asking, “How would Theresa recommend navigating between ‘taking your corrections’ and getting into a, perhaps, very public, very heated back and forth people calling you out? How do we navigate that gracefully and frankly, as an organization?”

Theresa Ruth Howard: I don’t think that you need to get into a heated back and forth unless you want to, unless that’s your thing. Here’s the thing. The first question you have to ask is, “Is it true? Is it true? What are you defending?” Right? Because if, like, I was in a situation where, you know, a ballet company wanted to acknowledge the fact that ballet was, in fact, historically racist, but did not want to include themselves in that, and I was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no, you don’t. Like, what are you doing?” Now, that is a dragging because you are saying, “Now, we acknowledge that ballet has been racist, but we’ve been done X, Y, and Z.” No, no, no! “No, you have been racist, too.” And so, the first thing you can do is say, “Yes, we are a part of the problem and we take that part of it.” And sometimes it’s … sometimes taking your correction is just admitting that you’re wrong, without anything else. Like, it’s the … you can’t go like, “I’m sorry, but you kind of deserved it.” Like, it’s that “but.” There’s no but! “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” Right? It’s the need to defend, right, that kind of makes you double down on the initial injury. And so, there’s a time for just accepting that—like, “We were wrong—” and then there’s a time for saying, “This is what we’re doing to make amends.” But oftentimes, we try to put them in the same space because we want to prove we’re not so bad and I’m saying that maybe they should be separate. Maybe you should just be able to say, “I’m sorry because you were hurt and my feelings and my perspective can wait a little bit.”

Erik Gensler: Mm‑hmm. There’s also a lot of power in the truth of accepting that America is racist, your organization is in America, and your organization is racist, and if you’re white, you grew up with the benefit of white supremacy and racism. So start there! Like. Yes! Of course it’s racist because we were not actively anti-racist! If we are not being actively anti-racist, we’re racist! And like, if you can just accept that and see that instead of trying to fight that because it’s the most true thing … I’ve found that very, like, eye‑opening, the organizations that can just admit that, “Yeah! It’s America. We’re an institution, and we’re fighting against racism, but inherently, it’s pretty racist!”

Theresa Ruth Howard: That’s where it gets personal, though. And that’s where it gets tricky. Because people want to act like it’s everybody over there and it’s not us. Like, you’re in these workshops and everybody, like, “We’re all good people.” But good people … I mean, we’re all good people who are in the field and the field still looks like this. So what’s the excuse, right? So, you swim in the river; you get wet. And so, we’re all wet.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. And we’re all racist. ‘Cause, like, we live in a racist river, right? Yeah.

Mariclare Hulbert: I would say this is also an area where Theresa’s note about, “Don’t go after perfect because it can be the enemy of good,” if we widen the conversation to access for disabled audiences and disabled artists, I see—and I only see this because I work with Kinetic Light, which is a disability arts organization, for the last few —but there’s this fear of not wanting to do anything in terms of access, because we need to do everything first. Like, “We’re not ready yet. We’re not ready to pull out all the stops. We’re not ready to say that we’re fully accessible. So, we’re just gonna pause until we can figure out how to do everything perfectly.” And then they end up doing absolutely nothing. So, whatever the topic is, whatever community, whatever the “-ism” is, starting from somewhere and doing something as an organization or as a person who works in the marketing department, and just doing and starting and not being afraid of constructive feedback, not being afraid of constructive criticism. Not being afraid of not doing it perfectly. We have a … Particularly in our larger organizations, it’s a huge issue. Everything has to be perfect before it’s implemented.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Another question: “Thinking about the limitations of ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ and shifting to frameworks of reparations and undoing white supremacy culture, does anyone know of ways that—for the two of you—of ways that organizations are changing the language around equity to collect the work that needs to be done?

Theresa Ruth Howard: I’m not sure if I understood. Like, changing the language around it?

Erik Gensler: I mean, what I would think is like, “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” shifting from that language to “reparations and undoing white supremacy culture.” So, perhaps the, like … I think this is about-

Mariclare Hulbert: That language is too soft.

Erik Gensler: Right, exactly.

Mariclare Hulbert: Sometimes. I think Dance/NYC does an excellent job, at least from the outside. I am not part of that organization, so I cannot speak to internal work but I think they do a really good job of owning this kind of work and not just talking about it. Selfishly, I will cite Kinetic Light, as a disability arts company, as an example of, like, they don’t use the language of inclusion, because inclusion has implied hierarchy. Who is doing the including and who is being included? And they walk their talk and access is core to every single thing that they do. That’s a particular example. But they’re also deeply involved in the disability justice world, which is incredibly intersectional and fights against racism, as well. Theresa, does anyone come to mind that’s doing this work excellently?

Theresa Ruth Howard: Here’s my thing: I think that language is really a shell game, right? Because we … it’s a game of like, you know, “DEI.” You know, “You’re ALANA. You’re BIPOC.” There’s all this naming of stuff and, like, switching around of words, and we’re not looking at what people are actually doing, right? And so like, there’s a … it’s a shell game thing of like, “Oh, well, if I thought about it enough to create another word for it, or to switch up words, then it looks like we’re actually doing something.”

Mariclare Hulbert: Mm‑hmm.

Theresa Ruth Howard: Right? But actually, the work itself … (Laughing) The organizations aren’t necessarily changing. The language might be changing but are we asking the people who it’s referring to if they’re registering any actual changes in their lived experience?

Mariclare Hulbert: Mm‑hmm.

Theresa Ruth Howard: Right? And so I have a kind of mixed relationship with the idea of words … Yes, it kind of brings it to the front, or the fore, of the brain in a different way. But the question is … it’s great, if we’re going to change the language to say, “reparations,” then are we going to see that? Or are we just saying that?

Mariclare Hulbert: Is it just language again?

Theresa Ruth Howard: Do you know what I mean? Like, I don’t know. I would … you know, I know this is about marketing. I would ask the question, “If we’re changing the words, then what are the actions behind the words?” Like, we can change the words because the actions have actually changed. Does that make sense?

Erik Gensler: Yes. And that’s a fantastic note to end on. Thank you both so much for this really thoughtful conversation. Thank you again, so much.

Mariclare Hulbert: Thank you.

Theresa Ruth Howard: Thank you.

About Our Guests
Mariclare Hulbert
Mariclare Hulbert
Marketing & Communications Consultant

Mariclare Hulbert has 15+ years of marketing and communications experience in the arts and nonprofit field. She has worked with a wide range of organizations, including Jacob’s Pillow, Kinetic Light/Alice Sheppard/Disability Dance Works, and Dance/USA.

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Theresa Ruth Howard
Theresa Ruth Howard
Diversity Strategist and Consultant

Theresa Ruth Howard is a diversity strategist and consultant assisting arts organizations to better understand, design, and implement Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs and initiatives. She works with artistic and executive directors, school directors, and board members of ballet and opera organizations internationally on DEI efforts and shifting the culture of both classical art forms. Ms. Howard is also a journalist, former dancer, and the founder and curator of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, a digital platform that preserves, presents, and promotes the contributions and stories of Black artists in the field of ballet.

Read more

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