How a DIY Newsroom cuts through COVID chaos and puts communicators in the box seat as primary source
COVID-19 has taught us a bunch of stuff on how to cut through with our messaging in a time of crisis.
It has also shown us that, frankly, we need a new system for how we go about the business of professional communications.
In the best of times, communications is far from a perfect science. If anything, it resembles a dark art - one where the right solutions are never quite clear until delivery.
As early adopters of new technology, communicators are at the cutting edge. As such, we do a lot on the run, which also means we work in a state of perpetual befuddlement as we compete in the Attention Economy.
Amid the various models of content marketing, public relations, corporate affairs, digital and social marketing, and traditional PR and advertising, there is much grey.
Organisations can therefore waste time, money and effort as they seek the best way to connect with communities of interest and customers.
COVID has taught us the hard lesson of cutting to the chase - to zone on the fastest and most direct route to audiences.
The politicians’ response to Australia’s bushfires remind us that despite the sophistication of modern media operations our leaders are vulnerable to cocking up communications just when we are relying on them to be on their game.
Communications is one of the Attention Economy’s dark arts. But time and time again, our leaders, who lack no support in this area, fall prey to making some of the most basic communication mistakes.
At Political Central, we saw the usual mixed bag of approaches and communication performances. Some leaders, such as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews understood what was required of him. Others, notably Prime Minister Scott Morrison, were slow to step up to the plate.
That has been well raked over, but it’s worth reiterating six principles of crisis communications.
The tone of messaging in crisis comms is nuanced. Do you want to calm the farm or up the ante?
1. People want information
Facts. What’s happening, where is it happening, what do I need to do? Simple, unadulterated information.
Disseminating this information is easier said than done when you’ve got a catastrophe unfolding across a vast country like Australia, plus an array of authorities and agencies involved. The aim ought to be to coordinate the big messages at a national level, and to deliver those quickly and effectively.
Distributing emergency information is not unlike what firefighters require on the frontline. The fireys need access to water, trucks, hoses and clear roads to get to where they need to be. Similarly, communicators need the right information, equipment and pathways to get their critical messages to citizens.
In emergencies, we want those with the most authoritative information to be able to pump their comms directly and quickly to audiences. (The Australian Broadcasting Corporation and social media have played a life-saving role in this regard.)
2. Leaders must get out front
In times of crisis, we want leaders to be just that. To get out front and to tell us how it is in an unadulterated way. To tell us what we need to know. To be transparent about what they don’t know. To warn us or to reassure us depending on the situation.
It was surprising that some of our politicians failed to weigh the severity of the situation and stuck to their summer plans. And I’m not just talking about the PM.
But what we learn from history is that, well, we don’t learn from history.
>> FREE CHAPTER FROM THE DIY NEWSROOM: Below, read about the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Newsrooms, including their inherent readiness in times of crisis.
3. Even amid crisis, there’s time to plan
Unless there’s an incoming missile, you can do more than just react. And if we fail to plan we plan to fail - one of the 7 Titanic Mistakes of Communications.
The bigger the problem the more strategic you need to be.
My advice? Get the smartest people in the war room. But go out of your way to listen to the quietest. In a crisis, you want to lean on those who are the most measured and most sensible. That’s certainly been my experience in newsrooms which are structurally “organised for chaos”.
Being strategic means assessing and agreeing what you’ll say, when you’ll say it and how you’ll say it. Then reviewing this as required - perhaps hourly. At a practical level, someone needs to handle the admin to ensure everyone who needs to know the messaging understands and follows suit. Never assume.
The tone of messaging is a nuanced aspect of crisis communications. Do you want to calm the farm or up the ante?
Even at the highest level in the biggest crisis, it’s really just a simple checklist of the basics, and then decomposing it from there. Of course, much of this work can be done in advance through contingency planning. You’ve done that, huh?
The rightful place for comms professionals in a crisis is shoulder-to-shoulder with the emergency services.
4. Common sense is not common. Tap the experts.
Just when you need them the most, communications teams can be shut down by leaders who reckon they know better.
I think of Bob Hawke and John Howard as leaders who had an uncanny ability to read the public mood. But they were known to be good listeners and were not arrogant enough to still take on board what the experts around them had to offer.
How often, though, do we see CEOs and leaders go out on their own, or go off script, and it ends up as the predictable train crash?
The boss carries the can and should have the final say. But first they need to understand they have a duty (if only to themselves) to canvass the subject matter experts around them and to evaluate the advice before exercising, hopefully, astute judgement.
Hindsight is generally pretty useless. That said ...
5. When all else fails, there is Comms 2.0
When the boss or your department has stuffed it up right royally, you can still recover some dignity and respect, perhaps even reclaim a political point or two. Apologise. Do it quickly. Make it authentic. Do it on a platform and to an audience that matters. There’s great value in stopping to listen in a crisis too, which can then shape future empathetic communications.
Audiences are willing to forgive even if they won’t forget your epic comms fail. Today, however, comms folk have to accept that haters on social media will keep on hating whatever you do. They’re hardly worth engaging with depending on their influence on your core constituency. Usually, they are just the squeaky wheel and preaching to their own gaggle of grumpsters.
6. Be authentic.
All communications serve to support a greater story. Your media release, social media post or video might have a specific purpose, but when you step back you’ll see that each comms is part of a bigger narrative or context. It’s why authenticity matters, and old-school spin and PR does not work now.
That’s the exciting part of working in communications today because it is far less about sugar-coating the unpalatable and more about real storytelling.
Indeed, with so much at stake in a crisis, the rightful place for communications professionals is shoulder-to-shoulder with the emergency services.
* Stuart Howie is the executive director of Flame Tree Media, a Canberra-based communications consultancy. Stuart is author of The DIY Newsroom, which was named Social Media and Technology Book of the Year at the 2019 Australian Business Book Awards.
Local government is the poster child for a sector hiding its light under a bushel – and it’s time for it to shine.
Many residents and ratepayers rate their councils lowly. We know that because even the councils say it.
I have checked in on some of the community engagement statistics for various councils, and there is nothing to write home about.
Education professionals are our unsaluted warriors.
Politicians, C-suite executives and celebrities moan how hard their jobs have become because of these busier and more complex times lived under the spotlight of social media.
I wonder how they would fare on the front line of education.
Consider our headmasters, teachers and staff who are increasingly under siege as they try to shepherd Generation Now through a battery of internal and external attacks.
Not too long ago, communications and marketing teams at schools could focus on building a school’s brand and delivering basic messaging.
Now, every day presents a challenge.
Year of reckoning for Facebook, Zuckerberg and social media: 4 insights for communication professionals
Have you noticed the world spinning a tad slower since the Facebook algorithm changes?
My feed has more personally relevant posts now and less noise from those outside my inner circle.
That was the intention when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that users’ posts and engagement would gain greater prominence at the expense of “public posts from businesses, brands and media”.
Facebook wants to favour content that prompts conversation and users’ active participation rather than stuff that just gets liked for the heck of it, including previously popular video. Sounds like less cats and more discussion touchpoints.
Already, time on Facebook has dropped marginally - and Zuck seems fine about that.
At times, my news feed resembled more an eclectic mish-mash of news and product information than a space for personal interactions with buddies.
But these changes have challenged the approach of many content marketers who had crafted strategies for clients around social media, especially Facebook, as well as media players who embraced distributing news via the platform. To be fair, though, users will be asked to indicate media they trust, which may improve the ranking of those outlets.
The stodgy stuff of reinventing business models and how best to use data is consuming the world’s top media executives in 2017.
The new shiny toys of immersive reality and 360-video are receiving plenty of attention and funding, but for the most part big media is focused on getting its house in order.
That is about returning to purpose and applying a traditional sales funnel approach to convert window shoppers into fully-fledged subscribers and then maximising revenue per user. Joining the dots between data and customer conversion is critical.
Funnels? Data? Boring, huh? But for media today these are the smarts, along with amazing tech, helping companies emerge from a fog of uncertainty.
I got up close and personal with the latest global thinking by spending two weeks in New York, the self-appointed epicentre of media today.
I took a study tour of iconic media organisations, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and Google, along with lesser-known but impactful start-ups PlayBuzz, Navito and Lotame.
The tour was a prelude to the International News Media Association world congress held at the New York Times Centre, attended by media executives from 40 countries, and book-ended by a workshop that built a playbook for print.
The message from New York: start spreading the news, media is fighting back. And I will address that in more detail in another blog.
For those of us in the business of communications, I identified nine themes to absorb and which will help you better understand the landscape as is stands.
One of the reasons newsrooms are such a great model for maximising communications performance is that they are the perfect example of what I call the Goldilocks principle – not too much process, not too little, just the right amount.
I have seen project management offices and consultants foist all manner of systems, processes and checks onto newsroom operations. And to be candid, I have probably been guilty of that too.
Such things are an anathema to editors and journalists who have a finely tuned “B.S” radar and want to get on with their busy jobs, not be weighed down by spreadsheets, meetings and ticketing systems.
I have an amazing doctor. He is terrific at his job, knows my history, communicates simply and, to top it off, is a good bloke.
Most important is I have confidence in the way he practises medicine. Which is kind of what you want when it comes to your health. Everything else runs second.
Similarly, when feeling the pulse of your business you want a no-nonsense, fact-based method that gives you an honest appraisal. Nothing beats a clinical, intricate look-see.
After decades of overseeing newsrooms and seeking to optimise their performance, I have found there are about 20 essential aspects for any health check of your communications to prove meaningful.
The object is to forensically understand your current state, from which you can then review and step-out a you-beaut communications/content strategy.
Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.