On Continuing Conversations and Organizational Transparency

Since my post last week which detailed my concerns with the latest communication from SAA regarding the labor dispute at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, I’ve had a number of significant conversations and communications have clarified the situation and my thoughts about it.

Unsurprisingly, the email which I found so problematic made a number of my colleague’s uneasy as well. Some had similar questions (and conclusions) as I did, while others wondered if they should be concerned for their personal safety at SAA. After a fairly lengthy comment thread related to a post on Mark Matienzo’s Facebook wall, the ever-observant Kate Theimer pointed out that SAA Council should be contacted directly by members with concerns or questions.

Acting on Kate’s suggestion, I sent an email to Council on Monday evening, and received a response from Helen Tibbo (SAA’s President) the following day. The message provided some essential context for me, and I requested permission to quote from this message, because I think it directly addresses many of the concerns I’ve heard or seen expressed.

In my message, I asked for clarification regarding three issues. First, I questioned why the latest message was sent only to SAA members registered for the annual meeting, when all previous communication had been in the form of public press releases. SAA Council responded:

We thought it important to get a message out to annual meeting registrants as quickly as possible, as this is the group that would be affected most directly if the union chooses to employ aggressive tactics at the meeting. Because registrants include both members and nonmembers, we chose to distribute the information via a blast email message on Friday.

At the same time, we realized that it is also important to share information with all members in a timely manner. Whenever possible we use our all-member online newsletter, In the Loop, to communicate timely information. (Our thinking is that our members are busy and may not care to receive multiple email messages from SAA in a given week. We try to consolidate information in the newsletter to save them time.) Because an issue of In the Loop was scheduled for release on Tuesday, August 2, we chose to include the all-member message in that medium and also to post a link to the news story on the home page on Monday. (Please see the home page for the news blurb.) Had this been a week during which In the Loop was not scheduled, we would have a) done a special issue of ITL or b) issued the information via an all-member email blast.

This makes sense to me, and I certainly appreciate the instinct to get information out to members quickly, while working within existing communication mechanisms. If a clause like “because you’re registered for the conference, we thought it would be a good idea to tell you this sooner rather than later” I probably wouldn’t have given this a second thought.

Second, I asked why the information regarding increasing pressure from UNITE HERE Local 1 was included in the message sent by Council and wondered what implications registrants were supposed to draw from this information.

You raise an important question and be assured that we had significant discussion about whether to include this information in the communication. Since January we have been hearing anecdotally from members who have received phone calls and/or visits from union representatives. Some members have been unconcerned about the nature of the contacts; others have expressed discomfort about the conversations. The visits to the SAA office have been uncomfortable because the union representatives have challenged the decision to meet at the Hyatt and repeatedly called for the staff (primarily Nancy) to move the meeting. The tenor of the visit on July 19 was decidedly more aggressive than in the past.

While we certainly don’t want to scare registrants, we do think it is important for them to know that it is possible that the union may choose to employ aggressive tactics. We were trying to be transparent without overstating the possibilities.

Unfortunately, my sense is that the message achieved the exact opposite of this intention because it was worded in such a vague way. I don’t think anyone knows what kinds of actions will happen at SAA except for the union (and maybe even they don’t know right now), but again including something like that second to last sentence would have gone a long way towards allaying my concerns, and perhaps others’ as well.

Finally, I asked there is no record in the minutes of the January 27-30 Council meeting of a presentation either by Hyatt management or union representatives, particularly since this information was announced in multiple other venues.

We made a mistake in not including a reference to the meetings with the hotel and union in the minutes of the January 2011 Council meeting. The possibility of inviting representatives to meet with the Council actually came up just two days before the meeting, which is why this was not included on the Council agenda. In the interest of getting the information out as quickly as possible (prior to drafting, review, and approval of the minutes), we included it in all news items about the Council meeting (beginning with the lead story under “Governance” in the February 1 issue of In the Loop and including website postings on February 9 and February 23 and the Council wrap-up story in the March/April issue of Archival Outlook).

None of us spotted the omission of this information from the minutes. Be assured that there was no intent behind this omission.

This was a pretty minor point which I quite frankly wouldn’t have even raised if I weren’t an archivist, and as a result hypersensitive to the “documents of record.” Given the number of people who had to read and approve the minutes, this omission seems pretty surprising, but these things do happen, I suppose. If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that records aren’t infallible.

While I’m satisfied with these responses, I think the larger point here is that communications like this risk alienating, upsetting and angering SAA members. A word that came up several times in a number of conversations (including the email from SAA Council) was transparency. But organizational transparency isn’t just about giving people information about things that are happening or will happen. It’s also about telling your constituency why things are happening. And yes, that includes telling them why you are communicating particular pieces of information. There’s still work to be done…