How Media Execs Stay Optimistic Through Company Crises
In the News
Tony Silber, Forbes
Veteran B2B media executive John French remembers the turmoil of 2009, when he first took over as CEO of Cygnus Business Media. The company had just emerged from bankruptcy. The prior management had been absentee leaders. Debt was crushing—about $180 million for a company with less than half that in revenue. The atmosphere was toxic. The private-equity owners had walked away, leaving the company owned by creditors. French's job was to sell the assets, a fact he shared with the employees.
Every day he came to work, he knew it could be the day the bankers pulled the plug or the workforce started to flee. "What was I supposed to do?" French recalls. "I was the leader. Was I supposed to just yell, 'We're all going to die!'"
Of course French knew the answer was no, but from that experience he developed a management philosophy built around optimism, realism and transparency. "I made a decision early on to tell the employees to trust that we're going to make the best decisions we can, and we're going to take into account their welfare as well," French says. "There were days where we knew our bankers' patience was wearing thin. There were days when we thought they would tell us, 'It's over, close it.'
Through those tough times French learned to focus his energy on another approach. It's possible to be positive, he learned, even in very challenging situations, if you pick your spots. "I didn't want to be perceived as out-of-touch, naïve, Pollyannish," he says. "But if I could be realistic—'yes, it’s going to be difficult'—and work my way back to the positive, I’d be a hero."
Those were tense days, he remembers. "When I came home, I'd ask myself, 'Is this worth it? But then I'd wake up and say, 'Just go do something," he says. "I'd pick a victory."
Under French's leadership, Cygnus persevered, sort of. It turned over its entire senior management team, overhauled its approach to digital media, reduced headcount by more than 30 percent, cut debt, and ultimately sold itself off five years later in a succession of separate transactions between August of 2013 and December of the following year.
Given the extended period of consolidation and disruption in traditional media, and the likelihood that many—if not most—executives working in traditional media companies have experienced something like what French went through, I decided to ask several of them to describe how they handle crises, and the importance of optimism in media management. Here are their responses, in their own words, edited for brevity.
Gemma Postlethwaite, CEO, SourceMedia
Having navigated through market downturns—such as leading PIRA Energy Group when oil prices collapsed—and many times arriving at companies with low or no growth, in all instances optimism itself was not enough. To inspire confidence you have to first demonstrate you understand the crisis or challenge. Then you need to clearly articulate how you plan to approach it, not just strategically but practically, and define not just your own role, but the entire organization's.
More often than not a crisis is an opportunity to simplify and focus yourself and your organization's goals Great things happen when teams are mobilized around true challenges. Optimism comes from knowing it, owning it and "actioning" it.
Larry Burke, founder and CEO of Mariah Media, owner of Outside Magazine
There have been many, many challenges for Outside over 40 plus years, when it can seem like all you have is optimism to fall back on. One that stands out was the first one. My small staff was cobbled together from various unrelated fields. They gave up better-paying jobs to join in the promise of Outside (then called Mariah). They didn’t know much either. I had little money or experience to launch a national magazine. I basically had an idea. That idea was totally at the mercy of my unfailing optimism. Knowing that I was grasping desperately at survival each day, I would start my day running along the beach on Lake Michigan at 6:00 a.m. in deep sand in summer, or snow and ice in winter, slaying the dragons of the day as my lungs and muscles tried to defeat me.
I did this solely to reinforce belief in the idea of Outside and refill my reservoir of optimism so that when I burst through the office doors at 8:00 a.m. yelling, “Get me my sword!” I was genuinely confident that no matter what the crisis of the moment, we would survive. I know beyond any doubt that optimism is infectious, attitude is everything, and it must be worn as a shield and proclaimed with confidence. I believed I could make everyone else believe. And they did.
Knight Kiplinger, CEO, Kiplinger Washington Editors Inc.
My father, Austin Kiplinger, was one of the most optimistic men who ever lived—cheerful and positive right up to his death at 98. Those genes served me well in the darkest days of the publishing meltdown during the Great Recession, when I was trying to keep spirits up around the office. Yes, that means calmness, clear answers, a smile in the hallway, and helping to foster a positive workplace where people can do good work. I didn’t sugar-coat problems, but focused on what was still going well and how we were dealing with tough challenges. I’ve always been a “glass half full” guy, and cheerful candor goes a long way.
Optimism can’t be just a smiley face. To be credible to one’s colleagues, it must be accompanied by good reasons for optimism—plans for dealing with adversity, assurances that resources are in place to stay the course. Even more important: Visibly fair treatment of one’s employees during a crisis. At Kiplinger, the pain always started at the top, not the bottom. It was felt first by shareholders (with trimmed and suspended dividends), then by senior management (suspended bonuses and raises), and finally—but only if deeper savings were needed—was the pain extended to the rank-and-file, with a pay freeze. Nothing builds esprit de corps like shared sacrifice.
How did the double dose of optimism and fairness work? Pretty well. Our company returned to profitability, the sacrifices ended, and best of all, the respect and loyalty we showed our employees was reciprocated.
Monique Reidy, publisher and editor in chief, Southern California Life Magazine
One of the more trying experiences I faced as a publisher involved a freelancer we secured on a three-month contract, who was paid a fee but did not deliver what she promised. In fact, she never answered her phone or emails during business hours, and eventually announced she was spending most of her time helping her boyfriend launch his start-up. When her contract expired, it was justifiably not renewed. She immediately filed for unemployment benefits and the Employment Development Department in California approved her claim.
This was disturbing considering she was a freelance agent and never an employee. Disputing the EDD respectfully seemed like the best course of action to take. When a business owner confronts a government agency that is traditionally more pro-employee than employer, the confrontation has less to do with logistics and everything to do with attitude. As the saying goes, it’s mentality that dictates reality. The situation could have turned into a self-righteous social-media campaign, but because the intent was to remain calm and gracious, that didn’t happen. An optimistic mindset was the only way to rise above that ordeal. After two long years, piles of documents and a voluntary audit, the claim was overturned and the freelancer had to repay the amount she was granted plus interest to the EDD.
Two lessons were learned through this experience. First, an optimistic mindset is a choice, and it needs to be repeatedly chosen. Second, treating even the toughest adversaries with kindness and positivity is not only appropriate, but can go a long way in helping them extend helpfulness in return.
Kerry Smith, senior vice president, Access Intelligence, and former owner/CEO, Red 7 Media
When you look back at the Great Recession, you reflect on decisions you made and things you might have done differently. But in the moment, in the maelstrom, there was no light at the end of the tunnel. You had to continue to plan to grow your business, but there was so much uncertainty. There were clients who owed us money and had their own problems, and were slow paying us. Or didn't pay us. There were commitments to future events that we were going to be held accountable for. There was advertising uncertainty. There was cashflow management, expense control and trying to grow the business—all at the same time.
We had been so confident in our ability that during that crazy time of uncertainty, it was a natural inclination to second guess yourself: 'Maybe we’re not as smart as we thought we were.'
And you had to serve the underlying market with the same quality and focus as you were fending off what was happening with the economy, paying loans, making payroll, all that stuff. It was challenging. What I did was shield people the best I could. I didn’t want everybody to think about that every day. I wanted them to think about the customer. I wanted to project we’re going to get through this together. We doubled down on areas that were working well and it allowed us to get through it.
Mike Marchesano, CEO, Connectiv, and former CEO, VNU Business Media
In 2001-2002, we were integrating Bill Communications and BPI Communications to create VNU USA. We started in June of 2001, just as the dot-com bubble was bursting. The secular decline in print was happening, but digital dimes weren't replacing print dollars. And then we had the trauma of September 11th, 2001. Everything was upside down.There was a lot of change in the portfolio. We had a significant headcount reduction—the combined company was north of 2,000 people at its peak, and we had to take it down to about 1,200. There were a lot of gut-wrenching decisions. We were affecting people with layoffs. It affects their families. But if we didn’t make those changes it would put the entire portfolio at risk. Everyone was questioning where we were going.
So my idea was to talk to the organization directly, in person, and regularly. We had offices around the country and in London. I would visit them and do town halls. I wanted to get in front of our teams and tell them about what was going well—our trade shows were doing very well, some of the print brands were doing well, some of our digital businesses were starting to take off. It was important to get in front of everyone as frequently as possible. Did everyone think it was terrific? No. But my view was that if we could reach even three or four people at each meeting and get them to buy into the fact that we had a strategy, then that was good under the circumstances.
Those were long days. You had to focus on things and address the issues as they came up. I went task by task, I had a compartmentalization strategy. For me it was a test of being true to yourself and your instincts. When I veered off course, it didn’t work as well.
Marvin Shanken, CEO and founder, Shanken Communications
In the 1980s, I was a much smaller company. Seagram Co. was the largest company in our field. It represented a third of our advertising revenue. One of my editors wrote a story about one of their vineyards, Sterling. He wrote that as the volume of wine produced goes up, the quality goes down. Seagram decided they were going to punish me and cancelled their advertising. They pulled all their brands and every dollar they had in all of my magazines.
The first day I was in shock. The second day I decided to figure out how to survive. I decided I would not only survive, I would get even. Seagram had the back cover with their Absolut vodka brand. So I went to the CEO of Stolichnaya and said, "Would you like any back covers?" And he said, "I would like them all." I went brand by brand and replaced all the Seagram business. I was not just as well off, I was better off, because there was more advertiser diversity. Six months later the executive vice president at Seagram took me out to lunch and told me they were ready to come back and needed all their franchise positions. I waited till the end of the lunch and I said, "Ed, go ---- yourself," and I walked out.
I always support my editors. If it’s true, we publish it.
David Shanker, CEO, EnsembleIQ
Optimism for optimism's sake is not a good thing. It needs to be founded in facts, based on prior experiences and from a good understanding of the issue at hand.
Back in April, six weeks after I joined EnsembleIQ, I needed to make organizational changes at the most senior levels of the company. While I believed they would be well received, I needed to plan out the communication. I used three key talking points. I conducted a town hall. I did an email to the company. I was steady in my convictions on why this was the right decision. And I always brought it back to the employee. They always ask that—always!
When I'm in a tough situation, I call it out. Identify it. Name it. Everyone deserves to know it is tough. I like to lay out the facts and make sure they are all understood. I like to be candid, direct and very honest. Employees respect that and see through leaders when they are not.
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