March 26, 2020

The digital newsroom - where to start?

Author: Janina Stucki

The digitalization. Not only has it been influencing which channels we use to best address which target groups for years, it also places horrendous demands on the speed and quality of our carefully compiled and meticulously planned content. As a communications department with several employees, which - in whatever form - also has to account to a management and therefore wants to align its communication as strategically as possible, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep up. In the context of absolute information overload, it can sometimes be frustrating to have content that is perceived by the right people at the right time. Not to mention companies that - for whatever reason - are at times exposed to unwanted media attention.  

The tendency of larger corporate communications to organize themselves as a newsroom is no longer entirely new and attempts to do justice to this very circumstance. More and more companies are moving along with this trend and changing their communications department in favour of efficiency and effectiveness. Nobody can really make use of many years of experience - it simply does not exist yet. Even the view across the national border does not provide much insight. The form of organisation has existed in classic media houses for some time. But the organizational (and also content) demands on a journalistic editorial office or a corporate editorial office vary greatly.

As a result, the communications industry is basically in agreement about the usefulness of newsroom organisation. But nobody knows exactly how this should be implemented in a specific case. Every beginning is difficult, no question. The first companies in Switzerland decided to take this step several years ago. And as with most major transformation projects - especially when there is little experience and little expertise - the path is anything but straightforward. Depending on the size of the company, the complexity of its organizational structure and the number of employees, a partial implementation may be introduced first. Workflows and processes - vertical and horizontal, internal and external - must be redefined and rehearsed. Soon weaknesses become apparent, and here and there gaps have to be closed with smaller or larger reorganisation projects.

It is really not easy. However, depending on where a communications department currently stands in the transformation process, it can be useful to take a step back and consider the following principles:

1. holism - or seeing the forest despite all the trees

The larger a communication department, the more likely it is that the notorious "garden thinker" will creep in. This very human process is not primarily bad: we strive for simplification. To grasp the complexity of the world in its entirety would also be a very high demand and probably few people succeed. Simplification is good and it makes us capable of acting. But especially when it comes to reorganizing a department, it is important to take a holistic view of the situation. That is laborious and time-consuming. And many a communications manager will have thought "I can do this on my own - it's faster and easier". Well, dear communication managers, we hate to disappoint you, but no, you just can't.

2. the right project team - or making a joint effort

Putting together the right project team is not easy. Depending on how the department is organized and how large it is, it can be very demanding. To discuss this in detail here would go beyond the scope. But: Of course, every step of the process should be represented. The members should be well acquainted with the existing workflows and processes - but it is still worthwhile to include "newer" employees. Their view is often even more open and the experiences from previous jobs are even closer. (Newer employees are a completely underestimated source. No two organisations are structured in the same way, and it is possible to benefit from these experiences). It may also make sense to advertise project membership (taking into account certain criteria such as function, seniority, etc.). In this way it can be ensured that the most committed employees get in touch.  

3. inform - or what is going on here?

We humans have a sixth sense when it comes to perceiving impending changes. So that the rumour mill doesn't start to bubble, it is best to inform from the very beginning. What is particularly important here: Do not use any of the empty phrases at all! The more concrete, the better. Open questions or problems may be brought to the table. But please do not use metaphors for this. Uncertainties and fears should not be swept under the table, but addressed directly. A good face to the bad game is no help to anyone. Employees (even if they do not belong to the project group) should have the opportunity to get involved, ask questions, and contribute suggestions for solutions and posts. If there is a need for transformation, the employees will understand this - as long as they take the time to explain the reasons for it.

4. onboarding - or until everyone pulls together

Once the project has been worked out in detail and the new procedures and processes have been defined, the next and decisive step follows: the employees must be brought on board. The importance of this step cannot be overstated! If employees are simply put into a new organisation and a new role, it is doomed to failure - and resistance is building up. It is important to introduce employees to the new situation step by step and show them why and how something should be implemented. Employees must be able to develop an understanding of the big picture. Only then will they understand what expectations they have and how they can meet them. And it is a first step away from the "garden".

5. the right tools - or efficiency and effectiveness do not fall from the sky

It makes sense that the transformation towards a newsroom is accompanied by the introduction of a comprehensive communication management tool. If you already have such a tool in operation - all the better. In some cases, the tool may have to be used differently in the future or adapted to the new organization. But the fact that the employees already feel comfortable with the tool will make this step much easier. But if there is no convincing solution yet, it is high time now! If you want to turn it around, you've come to the right place. And sustainably. The possibilities are - yes, sorry - endless. There are so many tools that can make work easier. Make sure you don't get lost in the jungle. Searching indiscriminately can be misleading. Remember: Less is often more! The tool is designed to make your life easier, not more complicated - both internally and externally. Perhaps first define a list of criteria for the most important functions.
Something along these lines:
The tool should...
- Spanning the entire communication process from strategic planning to operational implementation & measurement.
- Support integrated communication: target group-specific, cross-channel & cross-team.
- Digitize the communication planning.
- Support in harmonizing strategy, planning and production.
- Be intuitively operable and easy to implement.
- …

If the list gets too long, try to make clusters and simplify or prioritize a bit. And then, unfortunately, you have no choice but to go on a search...