Editors note: This article by Harlan Mandel is republished from Media Development Investment Fund. Subscribe to MDIF newsletter here.
In March 2020, we published a list of recommendations to help media limit the adverse impact of the impending coronavirus crisis on their businesses.
Now, eight months later and with the media industry globally still overwhelmed by an economic tsunami, we are sharing a follow-up set of recommendations.
This time the list is entirely based on lessons learned by our independent media clients as they navigate the crisis in countries like Ecuador, South Africa and India. It draws on their experiences of strategies that can help media make it through the current ‘crisis management’ phase of the pandemic and prepare themselves for the new reality that will follow.
Cut costs; hoard cash
- Be vigilant – if you are in a country where you have managed through the first wave of the pandemic, the second wave is on the horizon; if you are in a country that is struggling with an unrelenting first wave, there is no guarantee that a period of calm awaits you. In all cases, media need to move beyond the short-term ‘crisis management’ phase into a more prolonged period of ‘adapting to a new reality’.
- Review cost-optimisation regularly. Cash flow and working capital are most important. Analyse how each business unit is doing compared with initial projections; having the information to hand, with detail and KPIs, will allow you to respond more quickly and pivot if something is not working out. Challenge every cost: look at each division, investment, contract and loan. Aggressive cost-management will be critical throughout 2021 as markets try to recover.
- Plan your cash carefully so that you don’t land right back into distress when temporary cuts are reversed. Delay cash-hungry projects and new hires to keep cash and avoid unnecessary risk.
- New expenditures should be matched by shifting costs or reducing costs in deprioritized areas. Even if you expect new expenditures to produce new revenues, still offset the costs elsewhere – you can’t afford to be wrong, and timely collection of proceeds may continue to be a challenge for some time.
- Focus on the core of your business that you want to protect at all costs and allocate resources accordingly. Identify the talent you can’t do without and make sure you don’t lose them.
- If you receive grants, be strategic and use them to address business challenges. Focus on projects with clear paths to revenue generation or cost management in order to build a stronger organisation when markets recover.
- Many governments have provided programs to temper the impact of salary reductions and job losses – make sure to make use of such programs as long as they do not compromise your reporting.
- Act quickly and be flexible: decision-making and agility are critical. Decide what needs to be decided fast and what can wait, so you are focusing on the right thing at the right time. Prioritize decisions that can save you the most money or increase revenues the most – now. And it bears repeating, timely collection of data on an ongoing basis so it is at hand when you need it is essential for quick decision-making.
Keep hunting for revenue
- Don’t stop experimenting with alternative revenues. For example, webinars may be an option as they can provide bigger audiences than live events with lower costs, or a business unit may be able to conduct surveys and analyse data for clients. Don’t always play a defensive game. Remember, even a bad market provides room for innovation.
- Plan how to capitalize on increased readership, don’t leave it to chance. If you have subscriptions, focus on building them to compensate for falling advertising. This single focus may also help to build a shared purpose for the whole organisation – editorial and business.
- Consider a new pricing strategy that includes services like webinars and specialized newsletters; it can help attract new clients and position your organization as a full-service, solutions-oriented partner.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel. Some MDIF clients and other media have found unexpected ways of generating revenue which could be relevant to your own operations. Seek out information to see how they may be adapted to meet your needs. Now is the time to collaborate as opposed to working alone.
- Maintain relationships with existing advertisers and other clients even if they are not immediately bankable – it will make it easier for them to return in the future.
Content remains king
- The pandemic has reinforced the importance of quality journalism in the public interest and provided an opportunity for deeper audience engagement. To take full advantage of your distinctive content and targeted services, audience listening and analytics are essential. Invest in developing an internal data capacity and an ability to communicate metrics across the team in a way they can understand.
- Why does your audience keep consuming your content? It’s important to identify your strengths and to keep developing them. If you’ve had a surge in audience, understanding why and how they got there will help you create a strategy to retain them.
- Look again at content and how the newsroom works: Is it time to close products / sections / services that don’t serve your audience? What adds to your value proposition? Are you prioritizing features that really add value for your audience? Experiment and innovate and test – the crisis has sped up the need for this – but decide on your own company’s terms; don’t do something just because a competitor is doing it or because it impresses other journalists.
- Consider limiting the coronavirus content you provide for free. Be strategic in what you produce and what you share – keep vital information open to everyone but consider putting added-value content behind a paywall if you have one.
- If you haven’t already reduced your COVID reporting, it may be time to start returning to things you used to do or find new areas of interest. COVID isn’t everything. Look at the data and see how your audience’s interests and needs are changing.
Your team is not immune
- Be transparent with staff, clients and audiences: build communication and trust – loyalty at this time is imperative, particularly to staff. Be open about problems; everyone can contribute to a solution, but you as the leader must take the final decision.
- Lead from the front – executives and managers should be the first to take salary and benefit reductions.
- As the pandemic continues, leaders need to take time with people, recognizing the drain and the drag on their energy and resources. Take care of people and talk to them regularly. Set a team meeting schedule and stick to it; it helps morale / loyalty, as well as supporting editorial quality by continuing a dialogue between reporters and editors. Try morale-boosters, like virtual happy hours.
- Think about how you can take care of staff. Consider introducing a peer-support system or even a mental health support program.
- Inducting new staff is difficult – don’t underestimate how hard it is to join a company during lockdown without being able to meet new colleagues. Give thought to how to replicate your on-boarding process virtually. Proactively organize time for them with management, key colleagues and also peers that they may not otherwise have contact with. Give extra time to showing them the ropes and attuning them to your company’s culture.
Looking to the future
- Take a step back. If you haven’t done so already, this could be a good time to assess the changes you have had to make as a result of COVID-19. Which of these could be beneficial to make permanent? Where are the gaps in your organizational management that the pandemic has revealed?
- Think about business consolidation, both whether you may wish to initiate it or what you will do if you are approached. This may be M&A activity or less high-profile considerations, e.g. could sales teams be merged (or ad sales outsourced if it’s a non-critical activity)? Could high cost resources such as property or printing facilities be shared by more than one business?
- Remote working may provide a model for the future for some, though it doesn’t suit everyone. Evaluate the pros and cons of the experience in terms of costs, productivity and wellbeing.
- Plan for the post-pandemic world. Consider how trends will change so you can position your company to exit the crisis strongly.
- Your competitive landscape will have changed. Prepare a thorough market analysis to understand how. New competitors? New customers? New audience habits?
- One of the recurring themes of this media crisis has been collaboration. It allows for scale and impact with great efficiency. Are there projects or programs you and your team can collaborate with?
- Review lessons learned from this crisis and update or create your crisis management plan. One thing you can be sure of: sooner or later, you will face another crisis.
We hope these recommendations will help you navigate towards better times and improved fortunes in 2021.
Harlan Mandel, CEO, Media Development Investment Fund