How media managers should share bad news

Jill Geisler teaches and coaches managers worldwide and is affiliated with the Poynter Institute. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the What Great Bosses Know podcasts on iTunes U. CJR editor Liz Spayd asks her questions each month on media leadership issues.

Liz Spayd: It’s hard to find a newsroom, with a few exceptions like maybe BuzzFeed, that don’t have financial challenges to weather. The buyouts at The New York Times are among the latest. Do you think management does a good enough job of revealing information to its employees about how the business is doing and how it could impact the journalists? How much is helpful and how much is too much, particularly if the news isn’t good?

Jill Geisler: You’ve just identified one of the core challenges of management. Supervisors have conflicting obligations. As stewards of the organization’s business integrity, they are obliged to protect trade secrets and strategy. As leaders who want to be candid and known for their personal integrity, they want to share as much information as possible with employees. In that tough spot, they often have to lobby their own bosses for “permission to speak freely” with the newsroom.

And even when they get that permission, they still struggle — for good reason. The waters may be calm now, with new products in development and new revenue streams foreseen. But the future is consistently unpredictable, and managers are often asked to take part in a company’s scenario planning. Those “what if” projections could involve future reorganization or downsizing, triggered by the economy or changes in the industry. Multiple scenarios are often discussed, none of which may end up happening, but all of which could affect journalists in the newsroom.

In those sessions, the best top editors are fighting for good journalism — and journalists — and lobbying for increasingly scarce resources. If they broadcast the play-by-play of those meetings to their employees, they can alienate other managers as well as their own bosses. Most critically, and a frequent worry of the editors, is that they may provoke needless dissent, even panic among the troops. Yes, it’s information, but it’s intel-in-progress, uncertain and unsettled — so managers carry it around in their heads and hearts until it’s better formed. Ask anyone leading a newsroom today: It’s a burden they hate — and one they carry privately.

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That’s why managers often talk more about what strategies are being conceived for future success and they talk about the downside risk of failure. Still, the best among them communicate early and often, with a combination of optimism and realism. They won’t lie. They share updates on important metrics, projects, and budgets, and they put that news in context. That’s critical. The publication may be up by 3 percent in revenue, but against what budget projections? The company may be launching an exciting new venture, but what will it take to sustain it? Providing that context helps people see a complete picture, for better or worse, and feel respected, not manipulated.

We also know that many managers have to share truly lousy news. Again, the best do it early and honestly. They don’t insult people with asinine management tropes like “cuts will make us stronger and smarter.” They share specifics about the what and the why. They do it with genuine empathy and understanding that this business decision affects real people. Then open the door and invite people in for the one-on-one conversations they really need when times are tough.

Liz: Related to that, is there anything you can offer up on how much an up-tempo mood in a room affects the quality of journalism produced? I know from my days in a big newsroom that there’s nothing like a huge news story to drive people toward their best work. I would guess that the art of shaping the collective mood is always a concern of bosses, especially in down times. Tips on how to make that happen?

Jill: Managers need to understand the power of what’s called “emotional contagion.” A leader’s authentic enthusiasm, empathy, and good humor can go viral in a team. And there’s ample proof of a payoff. One study, “Why Does Affect Matter in Organizations?” crunched a whole array of research and concluded: “The evidence is overwhelming that experiencing and expressing positive emotions and moods tends to enhance performance at individual, group, and organizational levels.”

So my best advice to managers is to hone your skills at “reading the room.” That is, taking the emotional temperature of the team — and responding accordingly. It’s especially important in tough times. Who needs a shot of energy? Who’s stressed and deserves a rest? Who’d benefit from a challenging assignment that’s a reminder of why we got into journalism in the first place? Who’ll get a thrill out of a chance to learn something new?

And who just needs to hear you say “I believe in you”?

I used to say that my job as a news manager was to get calm when everyone was nervous and get nervous if they became too calm.

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Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.

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