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How a DIY Newsroom Cuts Through the COVID Chaos

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COVID-19 has provided many lessons on how to make an impact with our messaging in a time of crisis. It also has shown us that, frankly, we need a new system for how we go about our business as professional communicators.

In the best of times, communication 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 a lot of grey. Therefore, organizations can waste time, money and effort as they seek the best way to connect with communities of interest and customers.

COVID, however, has taught us the hard lesson of cutting to the chase — to zone in on the fastest and most direct route to audiences.

The June 2020 IABC Virtual World Conference asked speakers to frame presentations around the “shift” they saw in communications. I spoke about a new format called the “DIY Newsroom” which, as I reflect on it, has much to offer communicators in a world with COVID (hopefully, we will soon be able to say “post-COVID”).

The DIY Newsroom reorganizes resources and processes based on the principles and practices of newsrooms to produce powerful and strategic communications.

Why a newsroom? Simply, newsrooms are at the top of the content food chain. Content is their reason for being, and they are organized for the sort of chaos we have seen in 2020. And why DIY? Well, COVID, again, has shown us that if we want to control our message, we need to build self-reliance.

The DIY Newsroom is not so much about infrastructure and electronic gadgetry, although these are the physical features of a newsroom. Mostly, it is about developing a way of working.

I capture that in my SMART framework, which I created based on more than 30 years of working in and studying newsrooms around the world.

The five SMART steps synthesize and systemize what many of us already do:

  • Strategy constitutes the blueprint for building a DIY Newsroom.
  • Media determines the weapons of mass communication to be deployed in the battle for hearts and minds.
  • Authenticity is the secret sauce for creating content that makes a heartfelt connection with customers and prospects.
  • Results are how we gauge success.
  • Team is about mobilizing the X-factor — the people who run our new-look operations.

There is devil in the detail, which I outline in my book, “The DIY Newsroom.” However, COVID-19 has given us a very personal crash course in certain aspects while revealing existing capabilities.

Here are five insights from the pandemic aligned to the attributes of the DIY Newsroom:

  1. We have a need for speed.

To be a first-class communicator in a crisis with no playbook, we have pushed our craft to the limit. Communications in 2020 have been high-octane with no time for procrastination.

  1. We have the DIY know-how.

We have not had the usual on-site, daily operational support around us, be it colleagues or third-party support. Congratulations, we all earned a Ph.D. in the science of self-reliance, learning to communicate from anywhere (often home) and anytime from our own resources.

  1. We have the skills.

This is more than creating a cool virtual background on Zoom. Many communication professionals have extended existing skills or learned new skills as workloads and requirements exploded. Some of us have even rethought our media ecosystems amid the tumult. Congratulations, we can add “certificate in street smarts” to our qualifications.

  1. We have the tools and tech.

Building a DIY Newsroom does not cost big bucks. In “The DIY Newsroom,” I outline the equipment needed to get our mojo on — mobile journalism. A cell phone and pre-set workflow means we can produce and deliver professional content in the field like reporters do. We can also establish a high-functioning news studio that produces quality video and other products at low-cost, and we can do it from home.

  1. We Have the Mandate

Trustworthy and authoritative information — that is what communicators are put on this earth to distribute. Many organizations, in these darkest of times, have turned to communication teams to help them stay connected with their audiences and customers. It is our time to shine.

Real World Examples of the DIY Newsroom

A friend of mine runs the Australian arm of communications for a New Zealand aged care provider, Ryman Healthcare. With only a small team, Ryman epitomizes the spirit of the DIY Newsroom and has developed its own little media empire. It produces 150 publications per year and is managing a growing Facebook presence and other marketing.

A newsroom approach can be applied in the public sector, too. I have been helping the Australian government in its response to COVID-19 in a particular community area. When I began, the pandemic had taken its grip, and you could smell the panic on the floor. But in a matter of weeks, I saw this transform to positive action. Under the pressure of the crisis, the department prioritized objectives, swarmed skills and executed what needed to be done.

I saw an organization that was willing to act, within the constraints of public service standards and values, in ways it had not before — similar to a newsroom. This included moving with lightning speed. Clearances for communications, which even in the private sector might have once taken days or weeks, were volleyed back within hours, sometimes minutes. Communication plans were approved and implemented within days.

Imagine the longer-term benefits of embedding these attributes in our communications processes.

A Reason for Optimism

As exhausted as we are from this hellish year, we can be optimistic. Increasingly, people are looking for and trusting in information from their employers and the business community.

Edelman, the public relations firm that issues its much-anticipated Trust Barometer findings each year, asked workers in 10 countries what they thought were the most credible source of information about COVID-19. Almost two-thirds responded they would believe information from their employer ahead of that from government websites (58%) and from traditional media (51%).

That puts communicators in the box seat as the primary source for information. What is happening generally in the attention economy along with the fallout from COVID-19 provides the impetus for a communication reboot.

For the journey ahead, though, we need a new set of wheels akin to an electric car — something that is resource friendly, can drive itself and has all the mod-cons. DIY is the ultimate empowerment for communicators, allowing us to do it our own way to be heard, not herd.

At the 2020 Virtual World Conference, Stuart presented “Be Heard With a DIY Newsroom.” Review recorded sessions by purchasing one or more of the conference recording packages. View all available recording packages here.

Stuart Howie

Stuart Howie is a communications consultant and IABC member based in Canberra, Australia. He is a former journalist and editor and the author of “The DIY Newsroom,” which was named Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards.

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