Just in: Boston's silent Woodcock hires crisis management PR

Just in: Boston's silent Woodcock hires crisis management PR


norman lebrecht

January 17, 2012

The New England Conservatory of Music is refusing to answer seven questions, posted on a Facebook page, about the propriety and legality of its dismisal of Benjamin Zander, the popular and experienced conductor of the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.

How long its president, Tony Woodcock, thinks he can hide is for him to decide. But from today he is hiding behind the skirts of a crisis-PR firm, and their services don’t come cheap.

Journalists and commentators are being referred to Ms Karen Schwarzmann, who told Drew McManus on Adaptrisation:

I’m serving as spokesperson for the New England Conservatory on the matter involving the sex offender who was engaged to videograph the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and certain other programs at the Conservatory.

You asked whether we had put out a statement commenting on the posting on Ben Zander’s website. We have not.

Karen’s website helpfully explains that she provides ‘litigation support, crisis management, and general public relations services to a diverse mix of corporate and institutional clients.’ NEC may be needing all of those, and paying heavily for them.


  • James Brinton says:

    As a media person, I can say that such a hire only happens when the people involved are worried or guilty about the strength of their case, or when their motives are being vigerously questioned for good reason. If your case is solid and you can be completely open about process, you don’t need “crisis PR.” You simply walk up to a microphone and tell your story, then present your documentation to the press. Unassailable cases are hard to assail.
    I predict Woodcock will be ejected, but only after the NEC wastes a lot of money on things like this.
    Does he deserve it? I think he does.
    let’s assume Tony Woodcock were a sensitive human being without an ulterior motive. He could have handled this in a very low-profile way, reaching an agreement with Zander to move quietly off stage, or into another position where his hiring of the videographer would not have been an issue. The (rehabilitated) videographer could also have been dealt with in a reserved way. Woodcock lacked the diplomatic skill to do that; perhaps he lacked the desire.
    Instead, he has alienated Zander, most of Zander’s students, resurrected the misdeeds of a man who has rehabilitated himself and stayed out of trouble for twenty years, and in general, brought discredit on the NEC, a fine institution that doesn’t deserve to be lead by an incompetent.
    I don’t blame Zander for the ongoing controversy; his web post appeared only after the story had been leaked to the Boston Globe and WBUR, and was a generous and rational defense, not the sort of counterattack he had every right to make.
    Judging by the response to his dismissal, Zander’s only enemy in the world is Mr. Woodcock; the outpouring of support has been huge. There has been none for Woodcock unless you count the slippery statement from his crisis-management spin-mistress–which again leaned on the sex offender issue which, it seems, is Woodcock’s only cover. It would be interesting to see whether it is an adequate defense against a suit for defamation.
    All in all this is a very tawdry affair and reflects terribly on NEC management. Woodcock should do the honorable thing and resign.

  • Grant Barnes says:

    I think that Benjamin Zander is a great conductor, not least because of his Mahler performances and recordings with the Boston Philharmonic, of which he has been the conductor for several decades. I especially vividly recall his interpretation of the Seventh Symphony, which I heard twice in Boston a couple decades ago. (For full disclosure, Maestro Zander is one of my Facebook friends, and NEC’s Mr. Woodcock is not.)

    Maestro Zander has also been a faculty member of NEC and, in that capacity, also worked with mostly underaged prep school musicians. There doesn’t seem to be a dispute that he hired a man with a sex offender conviction about which the NEC currently claims it did not know until an unidentified person informed NEC management.

    The employment of a convicted sex offender, no matter how many years ago the admitted or proven acts took place, is deemed under American law to raise potential concerns, and so, under Massachusetts law, like the law in the other U.S. states, there is a public, on-line sex offender registry, and certain convicted sex offenders must register. The applicable law, generally known as “Megan’s Law” throughout the rest of the country, in Massachusetts is referred to as the “Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration” Act, See http://www.mass.gov/eopss/agencies/sorb/. A sex offender convicted of one or more specifically enumerated crimes must register. Id. at http://www.mass.gov/eopss/crime-prev-personal-sfty/sex-offenders/information-for-sex-offenders.html. A Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board was established pursuant to Mass. Gen. Laws Chpt. 6, ss. 178C-178F, and each registered offender is classified into one of three categories. Sex offender information is available to members of the public in Massachusetts. Schools generally have policies of communicating such a right.

    According to the guidelines of one Massachusetts public college, for example, “Any member of the public who is 18 years of age or older may request sex offender information. Sex offender information will be provided to any person who is seeking the information for his or her own information or for the protection of a child who is under 18 or for the protection of another person for whom the requesting person has the responsibility, care, or custody.”

    At the same time the NEC terminated Maestro Zander, it reportedly sent a letter to 6500 parents of prep school students advising them that a level 2 registered offender had been videographing their children, impliedly without the knowledge of NEC senior staff. See http://www.boston.com/Boston/metrodesk/2012/01/new-england-conservatory-warns-parents-about-sex-offender-who-videographed-student-concerts/9PT9B6xpItl13uLcZ7bWsK/index.html.

    According to Ms. Schwartzman (referenced in the blog posting above), the Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray had been engaged by NEC “to investigate the scope of services provided by the videographer and to determine whether faculty and staff knew of his status as a sex offender. To date, Schwartzman said, the investigation shows that the videographer was engaged by a single faculty member who knew of the videographer’s past and that the faculty member [now known to be Maestro Zander] has been disciplined by NEC president Tony Woodcock.” It can be assumed that the law firm would have been consulted about whether a letter should be sent, what content such a letter should have, and about any employment/independent contractor consequences. There is no way for the public to know if NEC followed the law firm’s advice.

    Maestro Zander has retained the services of an attorney, Carol Goodman, in light of the employment — and potentially defamatory — consequences of NEC’s action. See http://articles.boston.com/2012-01-13/metro/30618872_1_benjamin-zander-boston-philharmonic-orchestra-conservatory-officials. His attorney “Goodman declined to say whether Zander is considering taking legal action. ‘We need to understand all of the facts and review all of our options and reserve all of our rights,’’ she said.”

    Accordingly, a call for NEC to answer straight-forward questions posed in the blog in simple and conclusory terms is at this time simply unavailing because the matter will likely provoke litigation, including by the parents who had not been previously advised and not least by Maestro Zander for alleged wrongful termination.

    Where so many potential litigants are looking into their legal remedies, and where this issue has become a matter of international concern and calls for Mr. Woodcock’s resignation have been made in public fora such as this blog, it is reasonable, and a right, of a defendant to hire whatever legal consultants it, withour without advice of counsel, believes are required.

    Transparency cannot be expected in a pre-litigation context where anything one party says will be spun, taken out of context, used for impeachment, or may serve as an inadvertent admission that would bind the institution as well as the senior executive.

    There are more legal issues involved in this kind of situation than have been reflected in the discussions I’ve seen, and thus I would urge more caution in opining before the record is established in court proceedings, no matter how strong one’s adherence is to Maestro Zander as a conductor and educator.

  • Grant Barnes says:

    Sorry, I meant to say “with or without advice of counsel”

  • Luciano says:

    If Ben Zander has a case why doesn’t he sue NEC? Surely if he did hire a registered sex offender to videotape rehearsals without the schools knowledge then NEC has a very strong case and Ben Zander has none. Clearly Ben’s a very popular guy, but that doesn’t really change anything.

  • Peggy Friedland says:

    “He could have handled this in a very low-profile way, reaching an agreement with Zander to move quietly off stage, or into another position……….”
    Are you kidding? Imagine Mr. Zander doing anything ‘quietly,’ ESPECIALLY moving off stage! It would never happen. You obviously know nothing about this man!

  • Elaine Fine says:

    This Ben Zander situation is a nightmare. He has always been a kind of 19th-century personality doing his best to function in a world that is far more complicated than any Mahler Symphony. And he has always been the kind of person to give someone a chance.

    I first encountered him when I was in high school, and had been playing the flute for about a year. I slipped into Jordan Hall to listen to a rehearsal of his Youth Chamber Orchestra, a precursor to the Youth Philharmonic (I believe it was their first season). They were rehearsing Schubert’s 5th. I decided that my goal would be to play in the orchestra the next year, and I re-aligned all my atoms to become a good enough flutist to get in (there were only two flutes, and the Boston area had a lot of good ones). I did not get in that first year, but Zander’s letter to me was personal, telling me basically that I was next in line for second flute and that someone a bit older me was chosen. He did give me the opportunity to play that year though: in a performance of the Erocia Symphony that we played at a farm, using hay bales as chairs, and playing piccolo in the Bartok Romanian Dances at Jordan Hall. The next year, even though the only orchestral experience I had was playing with his orchestra, I was the first chair flutist. He gave me a chance because he knew that I, as a young person, held the kinds of musical ideals that he wanted his students to hold.

    I continued to work with Ben as an adult (in the Boston Philharmonic), even getting in trouble with the Musician’s Union for doing so.

    Ben does have a huge ego (something necessary in order to make any kind of success in major-city music) and a huge personality, but he is an innocent as far as people are concerned. All he really cares about is making music and getting people to express themselves musically. Period.

    I imagine that Ben Zander didn’t truly understand the scope and severity of Benjamin’s crimes, and I imagine that he, in his usually way, felt that a videographer who could do the kind of work that reflected the musical ideals he had was worth taking a chance on. Benjamin had, as far as Zander’s understanding of the legal system goes, paid for his crimes by going to prison. Zander must have taken Benjamin at his word that he had been reformed (and as far as the record goes, Zander was correct).

    Now I should mention that if my children were members of Ben’s orchestra, I wouldn’t want them to be videotaped by a sex offender, reformed or not, but the idea of making Ben Zander into a criminal is not the solution that I would demand. Firing the videographer and getting a letter of apology from the conductor and the school administration would satisfy my needs. But we live in a different world.

    Why haven’t other people and musical entities who have employed Benjamin as a videographer been named or dismissed from their positions? That would turn the situation into even a greater fiasco than it is.

  • Anonymous says:

    Not true. Ben Zander’s employment had already been terminated before all this happened. Mark Churchill had also been pushed out, and NEC’s association with El Sistema greatly curtailed. Zander and Churchill are not the only ones who have been terminated. The climate at NEC is one of fear and intimidation.

  • ariel says:

    All conservatories are about power struggles and who sucks up to who and music is only used as a stalking
    horse to climb the ladder of success > All in this sordid business have learned to wear the cloak of”serving
    the art of music ” while figuring out who is the next to get nailed ,gotta keep the general public from knowing
    all this is the first order of business. This mess has fallen under the watch of the present operator of
    the conservatory and for not knowing what is going on under his watch he should resign .

  • Roy Lisker says:

    The callous insensitivity of Tony Woodcock’s manner of proceeding is proof that his motivation has nothing to do with protecting the young students of the NEC from a long-rehabilitated sex offender, and everything to do with getting rid of Benjamin Zander. It is obvious to any intelligent person that there were diplomatic ways of dealing with the crisis, if in fact there was any crisis. He could, for example, have called Zander and the photographer into his office and explained that he’s “received letters” from parents who were frightened by the former sex-offender “photographing” (naked??) NEC students. After pointing out how the survival of the school depended on assuaging the fears of parents (“I’m not in a position to do otherwise-look at the Catholic church”), he could have explained that the photographer would have to go, WITHOUT ANY PUBLICITY, with assistance from the NEC in finding new employment.
    No! This is quite opposite. This is character assassination, humiliation and brute force. Zander is a very powerful presence in Boston’s musical landscape, and the only way to get rid of him is to do a full hatchet job. Woodcock is behaving like a squirt, an upstart “David” bringing down a formidable “Goliath” by crude intimidation. bringing down someone more worthy and with a very long record of productivity to the community. HE is the one who has to go, not Ben Zander