Classic Word-Of-Mouth: The Nashville Symphony
Building buzz around about a world-class concert hall from the ground up.
Fresh from a Carnegie Hall debut that was lauded by the New York Times as a “knock out” performance, the Nashville Symphony was ready for the biggest challenge any orchestra can face: building its own concert hall.
Actually, the momentous project faced two challenges: One, the year was 2000, when a bursting tech bubble had put an end to the longest period of sustained stock market gains in America’s history. Not the best time to raise $150 million. The second challenge was generating broad-based support for what many viewed as an elitist endeavor.
The Symphony’s development staff could not hope to meet the first challenge without dealing with the second. For assistance, it called on the Bradford Group, which had handled public relations for the Carnegie Hall concert.
We began by contacting every orchestra in the United States that had built a concert hall in the last 20 years. From this research we realized that a typical PR campaign would not do the trick. Something bigger, bolder and more innovative was required.
Out proposal was to create a citywide word-of-mouth campaign. We would do it by creating a new organization of 400+ city leaders, called the Nashville Advisory Council. The council was a committee of committees, each of which represented a key Nashville constituency: business, religion, real estate, the arts, education and a dozen more. To build the Council, we recruited pre-eminent leaders in each constituency as committee chairs, then asked them to recruit 15-20 leaders like themselves. Within a short time, the Council had 400+ members, all of them influential members of the community.
But, this Council of 400 would only be effective if its members understood and believed in the importance of a new world class concert hall to Nashville’s future – and if they passed this understanding on to their friends.
To do this, we brought the Council members “inside” the Symphony by assuring they were the first to hear any news about significant symphony hall developments, and then encouraging them to share this “inside” information. We accomplished this by:
- Creating an enewsletter, “In The Loop,” that kept Council members up to date on symphony hall developments.
- Holding two meetings a year of the Nashville Advisory Council, during which we announced milestones in the symphony hall’s creation. These major announcements were always made first to Council members, not to the news media.
- Making it an honor to be a member of the Council by staging once-in-a-lifetime events to which only Council members were invited. For example, they were invited to “sign” the new symphony hall by writing their names on a gigantic concrete slab that formed part of the roof. They were each given a personalized hardhat and invited to take part in behind-the-scenes construction tours. And much more.
- Making it easy to be a Council member. All we asked was that they attend two meetings a year and read the enewsletter. These were all busy, influential people. Only such a low demand approach would work, and work it did.
Schermerhorn Symphony Center opened in 2006, only six years from the day the concept was proposed, easily eclipsing the 20+ years it typically takes for a major concert hall to come to fruition. And it opened to unanimous praise form the community – not a dissenter anywhere – and with a $20 million donation from the City of Nashville that was made possible by the success of the Nashville Advisory Council in removing the elitist stigma from the project.