Archive for March, 2012

This week I had the honor of interviewing Jim and Kate Lehrer as a part of the Alan K. Simpson-Norman Y. Mineta Leaders Series at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. Over 425 students from universities across the nation and abroad, their academic advisors, corporate supporters, and special guests, were in attendance.

Noted presidential historian, Michael Beschloss, has called Jim Lehrer a “national monument” for his contribution to TV News, and Kate is an award-winning writer of fiction. And so our conversation moved from the story behind the PBS News Hour, to the dramatic impact of new media on the journalism profession, to the role and future of books.

For Jim and Kate, life and work has been an active partnership. It all began when they met in Dallas, Texas. Jim was a newspaper man soon to move to noncommercial  television as the executive producer and host of a whole new concept in TV news. Kate was an English literature graduate from TCU in Fort Worth, Texas, and was instantly attracted by Jim’s intelligence and his surprising interest in literature.

The new concept in TV news was actually a simple one: Bring newspaper journalists together at the end of the day to sit around a table and report on what they found covering their beats… which included city hall, the public schools, higher education, neighborhood associations, the arts, and more. And it was this idea that would later form the foundation of a long running national broadcast. It would be an ongoing collaboration of Jim and colleague Robert McNeil. And from the very beginning it would be committed to balanced reporting, respect for the integrity of each guest, and dedicated to reporting stories in-depth. All of this has never changed.

As for the impact of new media, the Lehrer’s find it generally positive. Jim is a first amendment advocate, and  aggressively defends free speech.  In answer to a question from the floor he said he believes “candidates have the right to label a portion of health legislation as “death panels,” if they wish,” because he is confident that other points of view on the issue will follow. As for social and new media, the News Hour is working hard to utilize all the tools, so long as the original culture and integrity of the program can be maintained.

We agreed that our collective challenge will be to make sure that each person in today’s media world realizes he or she must become an active editor. Each one of us can choose only the media we agree with if we wish. Or, we can challenge ourselves with all points of view and sources of information.  In the end, we agreed that “media literacy” courses on the topic in public schools and universities are a good idea.

Both Jim and Kate write fiction, and they also talked about how important it was in their lives.  Both agreed that writing fiction allows “getting at the truth” in a way that day-to-day journalism does not. However, Jim’s latest book, Tension City, is a nonfiction “inside look” at the presidential debates.  Jim has moderated eleven of the debates, far more than any other journalist. He believes debates are a very important opportunity to see candidates perform under pressure, which the job of the presidency will require of them every day.  The title came from the senior George Bush, who used those words to describe his entire experience!

Our time together went by far too quickly.  There was so much to talk about, and so little time.  But it was seventy-five minutes I will never forget.  I was in the presence of one of the giants of broadcast journalism, and an award-winning author. And together they demonstrated the power of life partnerships when setting out to do great things.

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When television became the dominant medium it changed everything.  It changed how we arranged our furniture. It changed how families interacted, how politics are conducted, how religious denominations communicated, and even how we think and what we know.  Now the “new media” revolution is changing everything again!

Today there is no way to tell facts from fiction. And it’s all too easy to select only the channels or websites or blogs that reinforce our preconceived biases. Whatever’s easy and satisfying. There is so much information out there that it’s easy to become helplessly confused.  What is really going on in Afghanistan anyway?  I get news reports everyday and I still don’t know! 

I need to be my own editor but I don’t know what that means, or how. And what’s more, no one has yet shown me the need… convincingly.  Well, the need is now, and it’s getting serious! 

We are becoming a polarized society, and it’s too easy to fall into the trap of feeding our own narrow beliefs.  Solving real problems requires knowing and respecting all sides of all issues.  It requires being able to represent our cause, but then when the time comes to cooperate  in taking steps to move the society forward. The concept of “compromise now and eventually win the day” has been lost.

Early in my academic career I launched an initiative called “The Media Project,” which sought to show the public just how television was changing everything.  I spoke to teacher in-service conferences urging them to add units of study on media literacy in their humanities and social studies courses.  I spoke to parent-teacher organizations urging them to teach intelligent uses of television at home. Turn it on, but also turn it off! I asked school systems to consider adding whole courses on the topic.  All of this was aimed to simply get people to understand the power of media, and how to manage its use in their own lives.

Since then my life moved off in the direction of helping organizations make themselves better understood.  This route required accepting the realities of how media revolutions change everything, and then figuring out how to cut through all this information clutter with a unified message. It’s not easy. And only partial success is ever possible, and even that takes intensive interactive communication over time.

When I put my academic hat back on today I find myself once again thinking we still need a nationwide media literacy eduction program. In fact, we need it more than ever. We need it in our public and private schools, as a part of the core curricula in universities, and maybe even offered and promoted by the media itself.

Only a better educated public can make democracy work. And it is becoming more and more clear to me every day that understanding how media influences and changes everything should be a vital part of  everyone’s education.  And it’s not just the programming content, it’s the constant use of the technology itself that changes how everything works around it.

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The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) is offering one of the first (and maybe the first and only) opportunities for advancement professionals in higher education to engage with colleagues about the internal  barriers that prevent all of us from doing what we know how to do.

Some have cautioned me that enrolling for such a seminar could actually have its own political issues. For example, they assert that attending such a seminar could have negative consequences when you openly signal that you have political issues with the institution. Or, possibly the person who needs to sign off on your attendance is your political problem. If either of these apply to you, let CASE know. You might even ask for the invoice to read “Seminar on Becoming a More Efficient Manager!”  Truthfully, that is what it will be about.

Terry Flannery, Vice President for Communication at American University, will share her experiences expanding her overall influence at an institution that has been dealing with past leadership issues; B.J. Davison, Vice President for Advancement at Frostburg State University, will show you how to survive being the primary change agent at your institution; and I will share all my “lessons learned” in the “100 years” I have been working at advancing our work in many different institutions.

People in all types of organizations tell me over and over again that addressing political issues is the major problem they face. Politics determine who gets ahead, and who doesn’t. Politics determine who gets support for their ideas and projects, and who doesn’t.

The more I hear about these situations the more I realize that we have not addressed this topic as a course of study  in any of our academic programs. We have also not addressed it in staff development sessions at professional  conferences. And so now, CASE is taking the initiative. 

We hope to have enough of you join us for this inaugural problem-solving experience. Please let us know how to frame the topic so you can attend. Contact our CASE conference manager, Ed Groves, at  groves@case.org , for more information, or to give us your suggestions on how to meet your needs on this topic.

There is no doubt about it. It is a key topic on the top of all our minds. We simply must determine how to work with each other to address it.

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It is not unusual for volunteers on the board of an organization to suggest that it might be time to change its name or identity.  They can often  think that the name is too long or that it does not say what the organization does clearly enough. Or, it might be that they just don’t like it. To the inexperienced, it seems like changing a name is a relatively simple and easy decision to make. A new and upbeat name will certainly bring new life to an old institution. Experience teaches, however, that it is probably the last action that should be considered.

There are many reasons not to change a name: First of all it is much like starting a whole new organization from scratch.  A new name has no identity until it is developed over time. It therefore is very expensive to do.  It costs a lot of money, takes a lot of staff time, and requires enormous amounts of communication and advertising to get the word out to everyone. All the history of your institution goes out the window with your name, and now you face what amounts to a new start-up.

Another reason is that all donors and supporters relate to the old name and know what it stands for well enough to be engaged. Many of them are tied to its traditions, operational style, mission, and vision. With a name change they can now feel disenfranchised and uncertain about the future. Foundations, government agencies, and even some individuals that support mostly established and proven organizations  may now feel that this one has become insecure and unstable. It certainly is now communicating that it is no longer comfortable with its long-established identity.

This is not to say that many organizations would not benefit from an uplift.  But rather than a name change, consider abbreviating it.  For example, will it work to use the letters in large type as the main name, and retain the traditional name under it in smaller type?  For some organizations its letters can become it’s name. Or, if possible, just shorten the name. Edit some of the words, but keep most of it.   

Another approach might be to slightly update the logo and brand design.  Changing these too dramatically, however, can have the same negative “start over” repercussion of a name change.  And many old timers might not like it. But a slight update in design can take the familiar and give it a bit of a contemporary or forward-looking twist. Small adjustments can indeed signal a new day and establish a new spirit for most organizations, especially when accompanied with exciting and newly inspired leadership.

Usually, if you do a pro and con discussion exercise with your group you will list more cons than pros. But sometimes a new start with a new name might be the best answer. It’s very rare, but it could happen when an organization has been allowed to fail too long, or when a consolidation requires that a new name be found.

In general, however, changing the name is the last thing you should consider. Simply put, it will usually end up meaning that you, your colleagues, and your volunteers, will be starting up a whole new organization.

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How many times have I slaved over every word of a sensitive email blast to staff that announced a new salary scheme, or a benefits package, or revised budget priorities for the coming year? With all my effort to be totally fair and absolutely clear certainly everyone will understand the content, all questions will be answered, and the institution’s commitment to transparency will be fully realized… and appreciated! Right?

This is what I actually thought early in my career. So when a colleague this week complained to me that a very important carefully worded email produced complaining phone calls and negative responses, I recalled an extremely hard lesson learned about management communication.  

Plainly put, people won’t read these memos from administration, and even if they do, they won’t read them carefully. And they certainly won’t absorb them with an open mind.  Most will skim them, at best. And yes, as we have noted many times in other posts, they will comprehend mostly only what they want! 

After receiving memos like this many employees will even continue to deny knowing things they now know. They won’t accept knowing them because they did not actually hear them in person  from their manager. For many people, important transactions like this are  “not real” unless delivered in person. For them change producing information rings hollow and lacks credibility without eye-to-eye contact.

And what’s even more disappointing  is that for some, being able to say “they never told me,” or “that memo was totally confusing,”  becomes a license to reactivate their continuing complaints. And this, of course, is how old rumors gain steam. Now, a well-intended email, one that sought to clarify the situation, has actually backfired.

If an announcement is important, experience teaches that you must meet with your staff to inform them, and they in turn must meet with theirs. And these meetings must take place on down the line. You must rehearse the facts of the message, and furnish a fact sheet for immediate and later reference.  A narrative or “white paper” that requires reading and comprehension will not work. These meetings must embrace and insist on feedback, response, and discussion. 

No doubt an interactive process such as this will produce better results than emails alone.  But even so, some misunderstanding will always continue and must be dealt with over time. Effective communication is an ongoing process. Success only happens with repetition, dialogue, and time.

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