February 17, 2018

Columbus Library Budget Cuts Announced

Yesterday we officially announced how our library will cut back to adjust to a 31% reduction in state funding, or — in actual dollars: $8.5 million. I’ll share the facts first, then the back story and my marketing observations.

First the facts:

Staffing (effective September 6, 2009)

  • Institute a 5% pay cut for all salaried employees
    • 209 full-time; 5 part-time
    • Restoration may take multiple years (est. 3-5 years)
  • Reduce hourly workers’ hours by 10%
    • 261 full-time; 298 part-time
    • Restoration likely to be regained in a shorter timeframe
  • Institute a systemwide pay freeze through at least 2010
  • Eliminate 60 currently vacant positions, bringing the total to 160 positions cut since 2002
  • Keep benefits eligibility the same for employees with reduced hours

 Branches (effective September 6, 2009)

  • Close all branches on Sunday. Main Library will remain open four hours on Sunday.
  • Reduce open hours by 18%

Operations (effective immediately)

  • Materials budget cut to 1988 levels
  • Operational efficiencies/reductions implemented

Response from the public has been varied, with many questions centered around why Sunday and not another day. Of course that decision was made after much study and analysis of customer visits, but that information slipped below the radar. We plan to address that in future messages to customers.

Responses from staff has been one largely of relief. Probably every single person employed here — including myself — envisioned a scenario where the ax fell on us. Thankfully a combination of many factors softened the blow: our Board and leadership team worked through hundreds of scenarios to find the best one to meet the numbers we had to meet. Efficiencies and a dedication to innovation had us well positioned to adapt.

But now the budget creep has spread to other states. Here’s the latest from Michigan, where the governor is proposing abolishing the library budget altogether.

The Back Story
Making a coordinated announcement was — as always in these situations — a challenge. Sequencing of information was paramount: our Board had to approve the change, the media was relentlessly curious, our staff had to be informed, then our customers notified. Board meeting was 8 – 10 a.m., our staff meeting was 10:30 a.m. Seemed like a good plan except….

All reporters wrote their stories on Blackberries and filed their web stories within minutes of the board approval. By the time staff met at 10:30 word was filtering out. And yet, no real context-setting had happened, no explanation of the decision-making process had been shared. So it was a harried few hours, which included nearly instant posting to websites and social media outlets the moment our staff meeting concluded.

Marketing Observations
1. You may remember the signs on all of our doors warning that this branch may close.
How do we balance that alarming message with one that — as one customer commented — may feel like "yawn."

For us that meant synthesizing the message to two key points: Closed Sundays and Reduced Hours. That hits the mark of "may close" because, in fact, the branch will now be closed days/hours it was open before. 

2. Social Media. This new(ish) forum is changing marketing. Not just the fact that the media ran with our message before we were able to share it with our staff, we now must focus additional energies on following what people are saying in social media forums in response to these announcements. Honestly, this is less a challenge than an outstanding opportunity — think of it as instant polling. We were able to get an immediate read on what customers were thinking and where we needed to go back and clarify.

3. The love of this community for our library blows me away. Three days of coverage in the local media leading up to our board meeting. I have never seen anything like it. (photo courtesy of Columbus Dispatch.)

4. Most importantly to me: the message we have been hammering for several years about our strategic direction has paid off. Reading through the media reports and the customer comments, I can see how the laser-beam focus of our message has been digested and is being repeated on our behalf. 

Now, on to the next chapter….

Alison Circle About Alison Circle

Alison Circle is director of marketing communications for Columbus Metropolitan Library. Previously she was an Account Director at Jack Morton Worldwide, a global branding agency, and her primary client was Target Stores. Prior to that she was the National Marketing Director for Minnesota Public Radio and "A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor." She has advanced degrees in English and Fine Arts, and is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.