Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sunday Morning, Looking Back: Circus Performers Who Blog From the Inside -- Of What Value Are They? What Risks Do They Take?

Update, 6/17/12: Having been following Kelly Miller Circus clown Steve Copeland's blog, mostly because for a long time he gave daily rough accounts of the size of the audiences, which was a choice rarity for we who are particularly interested in big top biz, I have noted recently that he seems no longer to be issuing such reports. Perhaps business has not been so good, and it depresses him to reflect that on his blog -- only a guess on my part. However, show manager James Royal e-mailed me that business this season has been "very good." Nonetheless, I believe the issue of a blogger putting out estimates of crowd sizes merits a look back at this post from 2009.

A most interesting issue of the moment that is unlikely to go away anytime soon is the potential value to the consumer and researcher of the insider blog. As Kelly-Miller Circus manager James Royal views this new medium for instant expression with an unlimited reach, “In the past, circus people have tended not to be reticent in expressing their opinions. The only change in the present is that these opinions are made public on blogs.”

And, boy, what a difference that makes.

Renee Storey Checks In:

While at present big top blogging is unlikely to influence, one way or the other, the masses who but tickets to circuses (traffic on the sites appears confined to the insular circus community), it does have critical long-term ramifications for the owners. According to Renee L. Storey, vice president of marketing for Cole Bros. Circus, who took some e-mail time during the summer to share with me her feelings on the subject, already one circus to her knowledge has “incorporated company sanctioned/sponsored blogging in its marketing campaign. This affords the company opportunity not only to edit but exercise creative control over info published. It’s a good marketing tactic that produces glowing but less than inspired reports.”

Which turns upside down the negative side of blogging. But what about the worker-performer not amenable to puffing for producers, or the soul who may puff under pressure but who might also, upon leaving the payroll with a grudge, spread malicious rumors because, well, who is there to stop them out there in the vast wide-open cyberspaces?

"Frightening potential"

“Employee blogs hold frightening potential for exposing employers to liability, damaging their public image and internal morale, and causing other economic harm,” writes Jeremy R. Sayre on LocalTechWire.Com. Sayre is a labor attorney with the firm of Ward & Smith. “With no warning to the employer, even well meaning employees can post information on their blog that might ruin a business deal, violate the trust of a valued client or customer, or even put the employer in violation of securities regulations. While many employees' personal blogs feature legitimate, innocuous, and sometimes hilarious musings, the knowledge that vindication is only one damaging comment away also makes blogging an attractive medium for a disgruntled employee who wants to lash out against the employer.”

Renee Storey focuses in on a major problem fueling an ongoing debate among media watchdogs: “The .www makes it possible for anyone to easily publish anything, minus the ethics that are supposed to apply to professional journalists.”

This means that readers turning away from newspapers in favor of the free information available to them on internet websites and blogs can be ill-served through the minefields of half-truths and rumorous attacks that flourish on a great many postings.

Two Clowns Dish the Dirt:

Earlier this past season, I found much to like in the blog of Steve Copeland and Ryan Combs (The Adventures of Steve and Ryan), who clown on the Kelly-Miller show, primarily because it gave me a good sense of the overall daily attendance, and, more interestingly, it shed light on the personality and modus operandi of new circus owner John Ringling North II. For example, midway through the season, Steve shared news of his informal discussions with Mr. North about new ideas for 2010, obviously hoping to get asked back. But in other less flattering postings, Steve dissed bum audiences (no advertisement for this circus), and I was surprised when he chose to vent a conflict with the prop hands who, as he saw it, were anything but professional in assisting him and Ryan.

Added to the grievance of Copeland and Combs was the issue of expected tipping to the prop men. This provoked a lively round of comments, one from a veteran performer correctly pointing out an organizational protocol for issuing a grievance, which evidently was not followed. The post and follow-up comments left an unflattering impression of Kelly-Miller management remaining passive on the sidelines, of a show unable to solve what should have been a solvable problem. Now, had this item been reported by a reputable newspaper, the other side of the story would probably have been researched. What might the roustabouts have said in their defense? Jim Royal would certainly have been offered a chance to respond. As it was, we only got one point of view. Fair?

Says John Ringling North II:

Kelly-Miller owner and producer North shared his view on blogging in an e-mail message to me: “Our constitution guarantees freedom of speech, so Steve and Ryan are entitled to whatever they like.”

Indeed, North’s position is compatible with a general consensus within law offices that employers have little legal basis for controlling what their employees may wish to blog about, short of disclosing trade secrets or committing other grave indiscretions. Copeland and Combs were offered and signed a contract to return to Kelly Miller in 2010.

What Circus Owners Can Do:

Circus owners must navigate a tricky line between, on one hand, honoring the constitutional rights of their employees, and, on the other, protecting their corporate interests and reputations against such things as defamation, harassment and breech of confidentiality. Summing up, Sayre writes, “A few keystrokes and a click of the mouse are all it takes for a blogging employee to harass or intimidate coworkers, make defamatory statements, disseminate proprietary information, or divulge trade secrets. If an employer wishes to limit its exposure, it should carefully consider taking steps to communicate its expectations to its employees unequivocally and to enforce its policies consistently and lawfully.”

Bloggers Benefit History and Reporting:

Such blogging is of great value to researchers, consumers and fans. Ultimately, it is the blogger who may assume the greater risk, for not every show owner is likely to share John Ringling North’s easy-going acceptance of carte blanche free speech. A reputation for honest tell-all blogging or agenda-driven rants may not be welcome at shows overly protective of their image, and this could short circuit career opportunities up the road.

Renee Storey offers cautionary advice for active bloggers within her profession: “Most circus employees work season to season at the will of the circus owner who may chose not to contract a disgruntled employee for the next season. Understanding that biting the hand that feeds you does not promote job security may encourage some bloggers to engage in self-censorship.”

They may have the law on their side. But not all of the big tops.



Paul H. said...

You raise some interesting points about freedom of speech, artistic freedom, etc. Truth be told, the Internet has turned a lot of conventional wisdom, protocols and behaviors upside down.

Based on nothing more than opinion and personal preferences, I enjoy the opportunity to keep up with (and occasionally communicate with) showfolks. The content (and opinions)that appear on these blogs are not unlike the letter correspondence that my late father kept up with several circus troupers a generation ago. The key difference, of course, is that the opinions, gossip, news, etc. is no longer private.

So, as long as that caveat is remembered, some troupers will blog. Others will express their opinions the old-fashioned way. One by one.

Anonymous said...

eh.. funny thoughts!

John Herriott said...

A number of circus owners-producers are very relucktent to have an employee or fan give out info concerning routing and biz. info in regard to attendence, name of sponsor because competitor would use that info to "steal the date", a very common occurance so these owners would not give route even to employees with exception of advising where the next town would be. I know this to be a fact and even been with shows bthat practice this policy. Sometimes someone in th KNOW would slip that info on the QT. At times you could approach said owner of needed info in regard to personal businessc. and he in turn might give you just enough info to satisfy the moment. Is it wrong? All depends. Its a dog eat dog out there and alot of unscrupulous operators [yes there are these types. heaven forbid] are the ones that would do just that.

John Herriott said...

Even Kenneth Feld would be thin skinned enough to quietly advis some fan or employee to " keep your GD mouth shut." But there will always be blowhards out there. I do enjoy the KM blogger and would suggest that in general he is "with it and for it" Nothing wrong with calling a spade a spade. Most bloggers are without venom. Its the anonymon A holes that spread alot of crap.