What comms can learn from the internal upheaval at the New York Times

It all starts with leaning on your values.

Tensions between workers and their bosses are as old as the idea of a workplace itself. It’s nothing new on the whole. But when it’s taking place in one of the most famous newspapers in the world, it tends to put the audience at attention. The paper with “All the News That’s Fit to Print” is in the middle of a bout of internal strife over how much the personal and professional lives of the Times’ journalists should mesh together, raising questions about how a standard bearer of news deals with its reputation internally and externally.

According to a piece by The Wall Street Journal, the Times’ brass is conducting an internal investigation within the newsroom over whether reporters at the paper leaked confidential information about the war in Gaza to another publication.

The investigation marks an inflection point for the New York Times, one that some are reading as a warning from leadership for newsroom employees to toe the line of the company’s editorial standards. One Times editor said that this sort of situation wasn’t something he’d seen before at the paper.

“The idea that someone dips into that process in the middle, and finds something that they considered might be interesting or damaging to the story under way, and then provides that to people outside, felt to me and my colleagues like a breakdown in the sort of trust and collaboration that’s necessary in the editorial process,” Executive Editor Joe Kahn said in an interview. “I haven’t seen that happen before.”

The report from the Wall Street Journal speculated that the leaks may stem from some reporters are politically and socially at odds with the paper’s brass, particularly on topics including the war and social justice.

But when you take a step back, this story applies to any organization. An internal culture war might seem like it’s solvable within the walls of your company, but unless you’ve got the right processes in place, you risk damage to your reputation to both customers and potential future employees.

It’s up to you to communicate your organization’s purpose to inform its identity in the market.

Knowing your part and communicating in kind

Ensuring that the messages your organization shares reflect its values should happen consistently whether you’re communicating with employees or external audiences. The Times is an institution that made honesty and clarity a hallmark of its brand from the very beginning. But when opposing forces from both the newsroom and the company’s leadership threaten that image, it’s time for a rethink.

As Kahn states in the story, skepticism and the normal push and pull between journalists and their higher-ups are signs of a healthy newsroom. But when employees are unhappy about the leadership’s stance on an issue and leak information, more than the information is at risk — your reputation as an employer and brand is as well.

Montieth Illingworth, CEO of Montieth and Company, stresses that leaning on your values must be a starting point for comms.

“Every organization must define, communicate internally and externally, and live by their values,” Illingworth said. “The time will always come when one or more of those values are tested. The organization may even be seen as failing to live up to them.”

Creating paths for dialogue

When passions are high, comms pros need to be extra careful about how to handle internal tension. In these cases, a two-way communication path between employees and leadership is a great way to open a constructive dialogue. But despite  how bogged down these conversations might get, leaders need to emphasize organizational values as a north star for everyone, regardless of the spot on the org chart.

In today’s workplace, purpose is incredibly important. That’s not just us saying so either, it’s borne out by the data. At Ragan’s Future of Communication Conference last November, Carol Cone, founder and CEO of Carol Cone ON PURPOSE, cited a Deloitte study that showed purpose-driven companies grow three times faster than their competitors.

With purpose in such a high place of esteem, leaders need to recognize that and speak with authority and alignment with their company’s given mission.

“Leadership must explain its decision-making with transparency and conviction,” Illingworth said. “Not everyone will agree with those decisions, but the organization has to be accountable.”

Being strategic and transparent about your decision-making process

While the final say in any decision that’s made might sit with leadership, that doesn’t mean that comms is without a role to play. Communicators can serve as a balance and advisor when it comes to decision-making, particularly those that affect employees so directly.

Steph Lund, CEO, North America for M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, said that the decision-making and comms advisory process should always be evolving.

“Organizations need to consistently look at their internal policies to ensure they are answering to and evolving in the right ways for their employees,” she said.

“Modern workforces need to adhere to different employee structures and set-ups and internal policies and guidelines need to be tighter than ever on communications, to manage this effectively.”

As part of that advisory role, you need to know when to advise leadership to speak up and when not to. For instance, comms can help leaders consider the DEPTH model to help determine if statements or actions are in line with a given pronouncement, or whether to speak out at all:

• Deliberate: Do we have a clear, articulable goal for stepping out on this?

• Educated: Do we know all we need to know about this?

• Purposeful: Does this align with our mission and vision?

• Tailored: Is this an issue that we can move the needle on—uniquely?

• Habitual: Is this something we have talked about before or intend to address going forward?

Transparency matters too. If your employees feel they’re being kept in the dark, that’s a great way to brew up consternation. On the inverse side of things, communicators can advise what transparency steps leaders can take to help create a better culture of two-way communication.

Sometimes internal strife happens, even in the oldest and most storied companies. Communicators can help guide the ship with a steady hand as an advisor to leaders and a source of vital information for employees. It’s up to you to lean into your company’s values and use proper judgment to figure out how to ride that line to a successful end.

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports and hosting trivia.


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