The One Criticism You Never Want To Be Told

It’s a fact of life, in news, that your work will be criticized a lot.  It can be hard to take, but you must if you want to succeed in the business.  However, there is one criticism you never want to be told:  That you blame others for your mistakes.  If you do, you will quickly be labeled a  complainer, trouble maker and bad at your job.  You cannot afford to have this label.
So what do you do to get around?  For starters check out our recent “Take Ownership” article.  Next, do not complain, about how the newsroom runs, to other staff members.  I recognize this is a tough one, because news people are infamous for their after hours gripe sessions.  It is VERY hard not to engage in the complaining and you may even feel alienated at first.  But believe me, it is worth it to not get involved.  Remember a key staffer will be at the gripe sessions:  the newsroom snitch.  Any complaints you make will be reported, and if you directly complain about how others are doing their jobs, and that it’s keeping you from doing yours, I guarantee that it doesn’t matter whether you have a valid point.  You will be labeled a complainer who passes the buck.  Also, there are many times your coworker is not your friend, says a few more generic complaints to get you rolling, then uses your words against you later in front of management.  End result:  You look like a complainer.
Blamers do not get as much leeway.  They do not get a benefit of the doubt.  If you are known for passing the buck, management will build a file on you quickly and work to get you fired or banished to the one shift no one wants, so that you hopefully just go away.
The final thing you can do to avoid this horrible label is this:  When you have a complaint in your mind, think of proactive solutions you can help implement.  That way if you get cornered at the station party or management backs you into a corner with an intense line of questioning, you can try and deviate the attention away from you and toward a solution that builds team.  If my EP just disappeared when I had to make key decisions, and I got called on the carpet, instead of saying “Joe EP is never around to ask.”  I would say, “I think I need to go over potential pitfalls in my rundown a little earlier when Joe EP is less busy.”  This raises the issue that Joe EP is not around, without me calling the person out as slacking off.  If management asks “Where is Joe EP?” say “Not sure, at that time of day. I just try to execute what I am asked as best I can.”  Let the managers duke it out.  Meantime you look like a solution finder instead of the dreaded blamer.
If you sense you are already labeled the complainer, stop your gripes immediately and have a clear the air session with your immediate supervisor.  Look that person in the eye and say, “I am here to help this newsroom by doing my best each day.  I want you to know I am glad I am here and will do all I can to help.”  Then do what you are asked and keep your mouth shut.  You can turn this reputation around as long as you do not let it linger long.  It is worth the extra effort, remember being labeled a “complainer” can be a career killer in this ever competitive business.

How To Deal With Conflicting Messages.

Unfortunately many newsrooms struggle with clearly defining their news philosophy.  This can be very confusing and frustrating for the journalists in the trenches.  So how do you survive when your ND, AND and EP all have different philosophies?

The first step is looking at who has the most hands-on influence on your work each day.  If your EP is next to you in the trenches all day, and the AND and ND only sometimes step in, do what the EP asks.  If you call in to the AND for script approval each day, do what that person expects.  This will not protect you every newscast, every shift, but it will lessen your being in the middle of conflict.

If you are executing what that main manager asks and another manager steps in and asks you to change it, it is ok to say “I can do that, but (EP/AND/ND) asked me to do this. Which should I do?”  If the person now asking you to do something opposite outranks the other manager, do what he/she decides.  But you should mention to the lower ranking manager that you changed it specifically at the other manager’s request.  Most of the time, the lower ranking manager will acquiesce.  If you are told to change it back, tell that manager that you need management to come to a consensus on this issue.  You really do not have a choice.  If the manager just storms off, do what the highest ranking manager asks.  Make sure you document what happened in case you are asked later.

If you are called in to the news director’s office and asked why your reports or newscasts are not meshing with the stations news philosophy, do not lose your temper and yell that everyone needs to get on the same page.  (Yes, it is true, but remember from the “Taking Ownership” article, you still have to be a team player and leader even when you are put in extremely unfair situations.)  Instead, say “Can you please define that philosophy for me in a sentence or two, to make sure I am clear on it.”  Often the ND will then say what the philosophy is.  Say “thank you for clarifying.  That will help me bring up specific coverage questions as we design our coverage each day.”  Then try and get the hell out of the office.  If you cannot get out, and are asked “Now I want to know why you did not understand that?” simply say that there are some conflicting messages but you will do all you can to be true to the news philosophy just defined to you. Again, try and get the hell out of the office.

The one thing you must do no matter what is document when you are told to execute different things.  Try and show a pattern.  That way if you get a bad review and truly feel you are in danger you can use this information to try and show that you are getting conflicting messages and need clarification so you can fully do your job.  A response to a review that includes documentation like this does get serious notice.

If you are brought in to the AND’s office and you and the EP are grilled about why you are not executing certain things, stay quiet as much as possible and let the EP handle it.  After all, this issue is really between the managers.  You can only do so much.  If you are pushed by them, it is o.k. to say  “I want to give you all 110 each day.  I need a consistent message to do that.”  Then, leave and let them have it out.

The biggest thing to keep in mind, as frustrating as dealing with these mixed messages can be, is that you can survive it.  Most of the time, managers are more at risk in a “confused” newsroom than staff.  If your EP is rebelling against the AND and ND, a time will come that the EP pays for that.  Same with an AND who wants to work against the ND.  Just do the best you can and try and let your frustration go, with the knowledge that the odds are in your favor and that you will end up best off.



Smack Down! How To Handle An Email Lashing From The Boss.

If you work in TV news, and have never received a harsh email from your ND or AND, then you have not been in news long.  Since no boss is around you 24/7, chances are you will be emailed a strong critique at some point.

These can seem out of the blue, especially if you have a really “with it” EP or a protective AND.  They often stop the (expletive deleted) from rolling down hill.  Yes, it is true, most of the ND’s rants do not actually get to you.  So when one does it can be disconcerting and downright unnerving.  But that smack down can also be a big opportunity for you, if handled correctly.

So let’s talk scenarios.  Morning crews tend to get these email “lashings” the most often, because frankly, email is often the only way to reach you if the ND has a lot of meetings that week.  So you work your tail off, and come in the next day to find a scathing email listing all the ways your performance stunk the day before.  As much as this stings, you have to look for whether there is something the ND wants you to implement immediately.  Sometimes the ND spells it out for you.  Other times you have no clue.  Either way, implement the changes you can realistically implement, then after the newscast sit down and read the email again for deeper perspective.  Did the numbers tank?  Is the big boss in town?  When’s the last time the morning crew and the ND sat down and talked philosophy to make sure everyone is on the same page?  Truth be told, these zingers do not often truly come out of the blue.  Most of the time, they are actually a signal that you and the manager involved are not getting or making time to “check in” and see that everyone is on the same page.

After you get a scathing critique, the best thing to do is come up with an action plan to change things, then schedule a meeting to make sure the boss likes those changes.  This can also mean that you should stay late a little more often so you can potentially take 5 and visit with the ND occasionally.  It is harder to send a scathing note when you actually see the person regularly.

Night siders if you get a nasty note, take the time to go in and talk it through with the boss.  When I say talk it through, I mean ask for specific things the ND expects from you, then listen and say “O.K.”  Do not go in angry ready for a fight.  Whether you agree with the critique or not, you need to make sure that you are implementing what the boss needs.  Be ready to explain why you made the decisions you did.  You could be asked.  Often there are simple misunderstandings that are easy to correct.

The most important thing to NOT do in these cases is share the note with the entire shift and turn it into a massive gripe session.  Morale is a touchy thing in newsrooms anyway.  If the ND sent this as a mass email, try and stay out of the complainers box, and get to work on making any changes you need to make with your performance.  The more you sit in on the gripe sessions, the harder it will be to remain objective and glean constructive criticism out of the email.  The easy thing to do, is gripe and give up.  The smartest thing, is to try and turn the critique into a positive and push yourself.

One final note:  Sometimes the ND has just hit his/her limit and uses these emails to get frustration out.  There is no agenda, no loss of confidence in you.  The ND simply ran out of places to vent, and you were a convenient target. If that is the case, do not demand an apology.  Should your boss be more mature than that?  Yes.  But, truth be told, you probably take your bad day out on someone else some of the time as well.  We are human, it happens.  As long as it is rare, let it go.  This is a relationship you need to foster.  Sometimes that means being the bigger person, even if you rank lower.  Do it with grace and humility and chances are the boss will return the favor.  Don’t know about you, but I was always happy to know that I could have a bad day and the boss would have my back, because I had his/hers in the past.



Not In True Confidence: The Danger Of Becoming The Boss’s Confidant.

Because the TV business is so small, the lines can blur sometimes in work relationships inside newsrooms.  Too often managers, especially first time managers, really want someone to talk with and choose an employee.  If this isn’t a clear indication that more mentors are needed in the TV news industry, I don’t know what is.  When you move to a new town, take on a leadership role and work insane hours, it can be hard to meet people.  You can’t confide in your boss because you have things to prove.  But going the employee route is really unfair.

That’s the element we are tackling with this article.  I get DM’s and emails all too often from journalists wondering what to do when the boss starts dishing on the newsroom politics.  This is a catch 22.  If you say, “I don’t want to be part of this” you can make an enemy out of that manager.  BUT getting access to this “knowledge” can lead to you blurting out inappropriate tidbits when you feel backed against the wall.  So let’s talk through what this scenario really means.

Being the Confidant:

* Does not protect your job

* Does not make you more powerful in the newsroom

* Does give you great insight into inner workings of your newsroom

The biggest misconception is that being the confidant means you have more job security.  Many assume that means they must be considered very solid in their own job and that they are “safe.”  Not true.  I witnessed many managers have a session with their confidant, then later throw that same person under the bus in a managers meeting.  This is not an absolute, but it does happen more often than not.  At their core, many managers know using an employee as a sounding board, is not smart on many levels. Instead of correcting the situation, they would prefer the confidant disappears.  Maybe that means putting you on an opposite shift.  Maybe that means dumping you all together.  Do not assume that the manager is protecting you, as he/she confides in you.  In that regard you could really be at a disadvantage.

So this next point now becomes more clear.  You are not more powerful in the newsroom.  In fact you can be more alienated and vulnerable.  Your co-workers do not like that you may know more about what’s happening than them.  If you are labeled a favorite, it is like being the teacher’s pet in school.  A certain percentage will not like you just for that.  They fear you are “reporting” what employees are saying about management in general.  It is never good to be known as the newsroom snitch or a supervisor’s spy.

Your best defense: Listen and never give advice back.  You do not want to snub the manager, and potentially open up wrath, but you DO NOT want to end up in the middle of all the political firestorms.  Listen, and only tell the manager:  “I have full confidence you will handle everything well.”  Then get away as fast as you can.  The manger wants advice and reassurances.  The same statement over and over is a delicate way to encourage the manager to find a new way to cope with the issues.  Long term, you just do not want to be the confidant.

While you are getting the scoop, use it to figure out how the management team deals with each other.  Knowing who the pot stirrer is, who the blamer is and who the martyr is can be very helpful when they come to you asking for something.  Quietly try and sort this out for your own advantage and keep it to yourself.  Stay out of the politics.  If other co-workers ask if you are the confidant, say only that you are just doing your job, and being told how to do it better.  Let the co-worker take that how they wish.  You do not want pressure from the staff to be the person that tells management all the issues in the newsroom.  Nothing good will come of that.

One final but crucial thing to keep in mind, never use the knowledge you have to attempt to curry favor with the ND or another manager you fear is out to get you.  Do not let on that you know anything.  Do not ever bring an issue up with the ND then say, “Well your EP told me (fill in the blank).”   Knowledge is not power if you share that you have inner insight.  It can make you a liability.  Stay out of it all.  If you have an issue that is driving you crazy, DO NOT use your inside knowledge to push your own agenda.  You will pay for it.  Do not say “I know you were warned about these live trucks needing this part by the managing editor on June 10th.” or “I know you were told this reporter is consistently making fact errors by the EP on multiple occasions.”  If you must bring an issue up, make the argument the way you would with no inside knowledge.

Bottom line, your goal needs to be delicately getting out of being the manager’s confidant.  You want to give very little in the way of advice, so the manager moves on.  Long term, as tempting as knowing the station gossip is, you will be better off.  There are too many ways you could set yourself up for trouble.