Leadership Report 2011- Best practice #3

3. Overcommunicate

In the “good old days,” many a top executive had trouble understanding why something he had said once would not be heard, understood, absorbed and acted upon by the newsroom.  Good luck with that, even in times of stability.

Change management requires consistent, clear communication as well as a feedback loop that tells the leader whether or not she is getting through.

“Clearly, overcommunication in the extreme” is crucial, said Michael Skoler, vice president, interactive at Public Radio International. “I’ve sometimes communicated things multiple times and have thought it was sufficient. But people often have to go over the basics, things I thought were agreed upon and understood. When things are changing, it takes time for people to understand that and absorb it.

“You have to constantly reiterate what the key practices and thinking are about the new world. An example of that is that I’m constantly talking about engagement, but after a year of talking about it there was still a lot of confusion about what engagement meant.”

Skoler focused his 2010-11 KDMC fellowship on engagement, developing strategies and benchmarks for deepening internal understanding of new tools and practices so that PRI can excel at engagement in order to bring new voices into the national conversation.

Carlos Sanchez, editor of the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald until mid-2011, said it’s also important to be clear about what’s changing and what’s not.

Carlos Sanchez

Newsrooms tend to see smaller adjustments as indicators of shifts in - or even abandonment of - larger strategies. But often, changing tactics drive toward the same overarching strategy.

“Tactics change constantly as the industry changes,” Sanchez said. “But strategies should remain steadfast. As long as you have a good strategy, the tactics can change day to day. Staff will feel grounded.”

Training is a key part of any communications strategy.

If you train people to work differently, they will start to think differently and you can create a self-reinforcing loop of thought to action to behavior and back to thought and repeat.

“As a leader, your message begins to resonate more clearly when you have training,” Sanchez said.  “You begin to get feedback from staff that they’re confused, so you work to explain it and the staff ultimately gets it. The component I was unprepared for is that the staff grows more comfortable with the leadership and thus speaks out more and gives suggestions, says, ‘This idea might not work,’ etc. It might be viewed as criticism, but I viewed it as a benefit that you have a staff that’s comfortable enough to challenge you.”

Sherry Chisenhall , of The Wichita Eagle, says training continues even though her newsroom has barely any budget for it.

“Everyone forgets that training isn’t necessarily a highly structured thing. I have people who can teach other people how to do things,” Chisenhall said. She cites Lynda.com as a low-cost training alternative for strapped newsrooms.

“You have to create a culture where no one makes fun of you for not knowing how to do something,” she said.

Today’s communication also has become more open, says John Yemma, editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

“I guess that every editor right now is faced with an existential threat to your news organization and journalism in general. I try to prevent myself from getting romantic, but when I started, it was a very stable business. It all worked so well. In that culture, yeah, you didn’t need to be as open because you weren’t constantly telling people their jobs are on the line and we need fresh thinking. I think that in these times, this threat that journalism is under has forced openness. Anyone who isn’t open is acting like they know what works, and that’s foolish.”

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Leadership Report 2011


Michele McLellan

This report was written by Michele McLellan, a journalist and consultant who works on projects that help foster a healthy local news ecosystem. As senior leadership consultant for [email protected], McLellan helped develop KDMC leadership programs in 2008-2011. She also blogs about key leadership best practices at Leadership 3.0.

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