Here’s why culture and values are becoming a strategic priority for digital publishers
Published: 27 Aug 2021
In many ways, ‘culture’ is a bit of a buzzword – it simultaneously says a lot, and very little at all. But addressing the challenges the phrase encompasses is critical for digital publishers to help lay the foundations for a better, more prosperous future for all.
“Culture is the thing we talk about most now. Culture is now at the heart of our strategy,” shared Emma Newman, CRO - EMEA at PubMatic, “And I think when it becomes a strategic priority, then it does get the attention it requires.”
Broken down into its component parts, culture is about ideas, about people coming together to collaborate, about a shared way of life. And critically, it’s about the values you hold and acting on them. We reached out to our 2021 AOP Awards finalists to understand how digital publishers can put their values at the forefront to support both their employees and wider society with their actions.
Like many businesses, digital publishers were challenged last March to shift work to a remote work model – but while productivity thrived, there were different challenges in being able to transition a work culture that thrives on the conviviality of the office into a virtual setting.
“We were fortunate to have gone into it with digital innovation, diversification, and a global viewpoint at our core,” explained Sophie Hanbury, Director, Syndication and Licensing Partnerships
at The Independent, a foundation for success which was echoed by Kelly Baker, Digital Commercial Strategy Manager at William Reed Business Media: “A combination of technological adaptations, additional resources, and human support has inspired a ‘can do’ culture where people and ideas can flourish beyond the ‘old world’ confines.”
With remote working so firmly entrenched in the global psyche, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when it was deemed by some as a risky strategy; surely if you let people work from home, they’ll sneak off to the beach? Instead, work cultures have thrived off the trust that has been placed in their employees. “We trust our employees to deliver,” stated Tom Dunkerley, CEO at Sift. “They performed amazingly through COVID; our productivity has gone through the roof.”
Despite the potential for isolation, in many ways the pandemic challenged teams to re-think the way they communicated and interacted, with many of our finalists highlighting how much better they have become at checking in with one another. “We’ve been really good at celebrating the successes,” Briony Hughes, HR Director at News UK, shared. “It’s been a difficult time, but we’ve also had lots of good things happen in that time… So, we’ve been strong at making sure that people know that, and that we’re thanking people.”
Improvements in the way that teams communicate – and the awareness of the emotional stresses of the pandemic – has also led to a renewed energy around supporting mental wellbeing within the workplace. “What’s accelerated when we’ve been working from home is the ‘always on’ concern,” highlighted Simon Entwistle, Partner at Lewis Silkin, and one of sponsors of the AOP Awards.
This concern was reflected by many of the finalists that we reached out to, with several suggesting mechanisms they had taken to support their teams. News UK’s Briony Hughes explained how the publisher reached out to their employees on a weekly basis to understand how people were feeling and to help tailor the support that each individual was receiving, while Simon Corbett, Founder of Global Dating Insights, suggested that they had actively taken a low or no-tech approach. “What we found was the team was working longer hours and at their computers more, so out strategy was based on getting them away from technology,” Simon shared.
Allowing everyone to thrive also needs to involve new ways of working. Benedicte Autret, Head of Strategic Partnerships – News & Publishers for UK & Benelux at Google, a TAB partner for the AOP and one of the sponsors for the AOP Awards, explained how the introvert training the team undertook helped to create a work environment where everyone is able to be at their best. “For example, you can have an open document while the meeting is being conducted, and introverts can write in the document,” Benedicte described, “or you can break down working sessions into smaller modules, with time in between so that introverts can reflect back on what they want to say in those intervals.”
However, digital publishers have a wider responsibility outside the walls of their own organisation. As media brands, publishers are at the forefront of societal conversations, about sustainability, misinformation, and hate speech. And one of the ideas that recurred most regularly through our conversations was around the focus on hiring diverse talent.
Gideon Spanier, UK Editor-in-Chief at Campaign, stated the importance of ensuring that their workforce are reflective of the wider population. “We’ve had the census in the UK this year, so that’s going to be interesting,” he mused. “How do our digital publishers’ workforces match up with the country at large? Also, we’re quite a London-biased industry – there’s the whole of the UK.”
Similarly, William Hayward, Welsh Affairs Editor for WalesOnline, highlighted that they are working to “hire people with less experience and fewer qualifications, but training them in-house in a way more akin to apprenticeships,” in order to help remove some of the barriers for people with lower incomes to get into journalism.
Ensuring a diverse workforce also ensures a diversity of thought which is critical to innovation and creativity within teams. But as media brands, publishers also have a responsibility to ensure that they’re leading the way on diversity and inclusion. “You’ve got to look at the site, and the make-up of that site and how it’s put together,” stressed Sift’s Tom Dunkerley. “We looked at all of the imagery to try and get better representation… then we looked at our speakers, our writers, and our freelancers, and did an audit of how diverse that group of people writing is. We’ve put some fairly fundamental changes in place.”
And of course, it’s having employees from a broad range of backgrounds is also an essential component in helping to ensure fair, quality journalism, which isn’t unfairly skewed by one dominant perspective. “With great power comes great responsibility,” stated Chris Kenna, CEO and Founder at Brand Advance, when explaining the importance of providing good information to your audience – and ensuring that this very information doesn’t inadvertently fund misinformation or disinformation. “Hate speech, false information around climate change... [we need to ensure this] is not empowered by any digital publication.”
WalesOnline’s Will Hayward agreed, citing the value of building trust in legitimate news providers. “I believe a key part is helping people understand how we gather news,” he continued, “For all large investigations, I have used social media to explain the step-by-step of how we gathered the story (while protecting sources) which has driven audience and engagement with our journalism.”
Here at the AOP, we believe this conversation is of critical importance in ensuing the future of quality journalism. On Thursday 30 September, from 9-10.30am, we’ll be hosting a CRUNCH discussion on understanding the increasing sophistication of misinformation and disinformation. SIGN UP to join the discussion on how we can work collectively as an industry to reframe the content agenda.
Internal values and culture are also shaping sustainable practices by digital publishers – both in terms of their editorial focus, and in terms of the organisational processes. Emma Newman, CRO – EMEA at PubMatic, highlighted that one of the business cases for sustainable practices is that it is an increasingly important factor for customers. However, as Robin Shute, Operations Director at Incisive Media, reminded us, there’s internal pressure for these decisions as well, as work cultures re-orientate to be more globally minded: “Staff want to know what you’re doing, because they really get this stuff. They’ve really bought into it – and for good reason.”
Jo Holdaway, Chief Data and Marketing Officer, ESI Media, also advocated for the importance of sustainable focuses, finishing with “at the end of the day, when you want to get that objective, it doesn’t matter who’s pushing you to meet that objective if you meet that objective.”
In the end, Kelly Baker of William Reed Business Media, summed it up most concisely: “The ‘Green / Sustainable’ initiative is no longer a trendy corporate strap line, but a major strategic consideration in determining social responsibility policies and identifying new emerging markets.” If you’re working to create a positive culture and to embed your organisational values in your strategy, having a clear sustainable strategy will be critical to remaining relevant in the long-term.
Corporate values have never been more important to the success of a digital publisher. A study from Cone/Porter Novelli showed that 66% of consumers would switch products to buy from a purpose-driven company – a statistic that leaps to 91% when focussing in on Millennial consumers. And Edelman Earned Brand Study from 2018 found that “nearly two-thirds (64%) of consumers around the world will buy or boycott a brand solely because of its position on a social or political issue.” A third research piece from the Cone Communications Millennial Employee Study showed that 64% of Millennials won’t take a job if their employee doesn’t have a strong CSR policy.
The business case for corporate values – and for ensuring that they live and breathe in your work culture – is clear. But ultimately, if you want to ensure that your values are truly brought to life in your organisation, they have to be embraced by the full leadership team. “It has to come back to the leadership team,” stressed Tom Dunkerley, CEO at Sift. “These things need to be on management and team agendas… It has to be authentic.”