Seattle Post-Intelligencer – A case study in ‘radical transparency’

posted by Brendan Hodgson

Yeah, I know, it’s a blatant rip-off of my esteemed colleague’s blog title. But it pretty much says it all.

(source image from SeattleP-I / Hat tip to Lost Remote)

When the SeattleP-I announced earlier this month that it was going to shut its presses if it couldn’t find a buyer within 60 days – and potentially move to an all-online P-I, it did as it should and made it a breaking news story (you can see staff here writing the story even as the news is being broken). Moreover, they posted a video of the announcement by Hearst’s Steven Swartz to the newsroom staff (where the reaction of managing editor David McCumber pretty much said it all) and published the letter to employees. 

And they’ve done more: McCumber started a blog called Sixty Days to chronicle this critical moment in the life of the publication, while staff and others created a blog and a wiki to discuss the future of news reporting in the Seattle region and to seek out options to ensure its survival. If nothing else, it is a classic example of the degree to which social media has become permanently entwined into our landscape whether breaking news, commenting on it, or being a participant in it.

I am intrigued by this event for many other reasons, not only those outlined by Swartz as he clearly struggles to deliver his message (Note – it is a must listen re. the reasons behind the downfall). I am intrigued also by how this was communicated to staff and to the public at large. Granted, as a news organization, the SeattleP-I reporters clearly had a responsibility to report this news – and to do so to the best of their ability re. clarity, depth, lack of bias, accuracy etc. I am also intrigued by the words and actions of employees as they respond to this news via Twitter and other online channels – much as many other employees of other organizations have done and are doing during these difficult times.

However, it also raises questions: Is the level of transparency shown by the SeattleP-I staff (both management – willingly or no – and editorial) a model that could/should be emulated more aggressively by other non-media organizations as they handle difficult news that could impact staff as well as other external audiences? Is there value in not only communicating difficult decisions and actions in such a visible format, but also providing staff with the resources and tools to discuss such actions and add their voice to the discussion that would take place regardless if it was in-house or elsewhere on the web? Do the benefits outweigh the risks – real or perceived?

Should HR and internal communicators be looking at this and questioning traditional approaches to downsizing, re-structuring or the complete shuttering of businesses - approaches that often lean toward denial and obfuscation until the last minute, emails and letters bereft of emotion, and external strategies that often pit management against staff in increasingly visible he said – she said’s. In a world where such displays of disappointment and outrage - online and off – are increasing, being seen to acknowledge it, to encourage dialog around it, and to build from it are likely better for any organization’s reputation in the long run than trying to pretend that the world is anything but sunshine and milkshakes.  

As an aside – a sidebar in one of McCumber’s posts caught my eye:

– Just a few minutes ago, this email appeared in my inbox:

Dear Media Industry Professional,
I am writing to ask for your help with the second annual PRWeek/ PR Newswire Media Survey. This survey asks journalists and bloggers about the changing media environment and how it is impacting their specific outlets, job duties, interaction with PR professionals, and more. The survey results will be published in an article in the April 6 issue of PRWeek.

You know, I think I’m going to pass on that one.

I don’t blame him one bit.

Add a comment