If you have ever stepped inside a busy press office before you’ll know there is a sense of unrivalled urgency that a normal office could only hope to replicate. With stories unfolding on some of the worlds most shocking, enthralling issues on a regular basis – snap decisions have to be made quickly so that Sky News can guarantee the public that the news they are reading is both up to date and above all, factually accurate.
Nick Herm, Chief Operating Officer at Sky News, recently spoke at The Chief Strategy Officer Summit in London, giving us a fascinating account of how he sees decision making in the newsroom and how key learning’s can be directly applied to strategic planning processes within a more traditional company.
Nick began his presentation by showing us a quick two-minute video where a journalist was risking life and limb to get real-time footage of a war zone. It showed the crushing realism of modern day journalism– a dangerous, terrifying world which is seemingly more akin to that of a solider than a businessman.
“No matter how bad your day or meetings are going, it’s unlikely somebody is going to shoot at you” says Nick. For him, the fast-paced decision making demonstrated by the journalist in the video, is indicative of the diverging strategic mainframes that separate that of a newsroom and a boardroom. “You have to operate on gut and instinct and you have to go for it”.
Herein lies the major difference between the two arenas – businesses are increasingly looking to move away from intuition, which is why to some degree we have seen the rise of analytics. CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty expressed her distain for initiative by saying; “When we make decisions by gut instinct, we often make the wrong ones”.
The active encouragement of initiative in newsroom decisions is not born out of choice; it’s born out of necessity. Nick recalls a story in 2007 where one of the news editors at Sky had to make an impromptu decision regarding the status of Benazir Bhutto who had served as the 11th Prime Minister of Pakistan up until 1996. With reports of her critical status after an attempt on her life circling, Sky News had information through an informant that she had in fact died.
The editor was left in two minds – stick, and risk being seen as a secondary source of information or twist, and be the first channel to put the content out. With Ofcom often hot on their tail, the risk of releasing incorrect information brings a number of hefty financial fines and more importantly, a loss of reputation.
One plus point is that feedback is incredibly quick, a notion that is only accelerated with the rise of Social Media. Nick explains that in a more traditional business context; “you might make a strategic decision and then not know until 1 or 2 years if it was the right one” – for the members of a news team this process can be as quick as a couple of minutes, a couple of minutes which can make or break an editors career.
Nick talked us through a number of different cases where the importance of quick, reliable decision making was paramount to Sky’s reputation, and none were more topical than that of a video of Oscar Pistorius at a shooting range. They were the first organisation to run the video – but they were facing a real dilemma of intent. Does a video like that distort reality? If you like guns does it mean you are more inclined to murder? In 2013, it was estimated that for every 100 residents in the US, there are 89 firearms – a remarkable amount of potential murderers, which is if the answer to the previous question was true.
Nick recognises this, “we got the footage of him on the shooting range, which on one level showed that he loved guns but by the same token you could say that if you got some footage of some young lads on a stag-do they’ll look the same - it doesn’t mean they are capable of murder”. It’s a very pertinent example because it shows how one quick decision could shape a persons life, and public perception of whether Oscar Pistorius is in fact guilty of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.
E-mail has almost overtaken direct speech as the primary form of communication, especially in larger organisations. People like to have things ‘in-writing’ so that they can put it in their diaries, making it easily referable to at a later stage. This just isn’t possible in a newsroom – communication is direct and face-to-face, using normal language that can be easily transferred into actions and quality, accessible content.
Despite there being real differences between the two arenas, it doesn’t mean that convergence between the two can’t ensue, far from it, lots can be learnt from the quick-fire decision making process’s prevalent in the newsroom. For Nick, there are “five valuable lessons from the newsroom” – all of which can help strategists make positive decisions. Firstly he says; “The average executive that you are presenting to on a strategic plan is about as impatient as a member of public that is sitting at home.”
To guard against this you need to get your facts right and use normal language that keeps people interested and involved in what you’re saying – and most importantly keep everything succinct. Nick says “when you’ve next got to present in front of an executive and you think that half an hour is too short, this is going to be difficult, think about a news correspondent that has to say everything in two minutes”. For Nick, keeping everything short and sweet makes everything more understandable.
Check and question your sources – make sure that the information you have is accurate and applicable to the strategic decision you are undertaking and never be afraid of questioning something if its source seems a little wide of the mark.
Nick affirms, “Sky News is about telling stories and telling them truthfully and using the facts”. There decision-making principles are without doubt transferable to a strategist’s world. The underlining point behind Nick’s presentation was to show that keeping things simple can be a competitive advantage and can make communication throughout the organisation a far slicker process.