How to Think Like a Reporter During the Coronavirus

Years ago, a crusty editor taught me a valuable lesson when I was a newspaper summer intern. OK, he screamed it to me across a crowded newsroom, instantly quieting the usual deadline bedlam into an awkward silence. When I had somehow botched a short blurb about the local post office closing for a holiday, he shouted: “Just write in plain English!”

That memory remains seared into my brainpan.

I spent more years than I care to admit working in newsrooms. I learned a lot about communicating with large groups of people. Always writing in easy-to-understand language is at the top of the list.

Right now, that’s more important than ever for internal communicators. The news they’re sharing with their audiences – employees – is crucial. In the wake of the global pandemic, their messages are protecting the health and well-being of their people.

I don’t presume to tell comms pros how to do their jobs. After all, many studied journalism in college and may very well have worked in newsrooms before jumping to the corporate world. But here are some things I learned as a reporter that might reinforce what you already know in this crazy time for all of us.

And I promise not to yell.

Don’t Bury the Lede

Yes, it’s spelled lede. I don’t know why. I didn’t make the rules.

But whatever the message, get right to the point. Maybe in the past, you thought you needed to be exceptionally creative to get employees to read the post about the annual benefits enrollment. Not now. Employees will read everything you share about the organization’s response to the coronavirus (COVID-19.)

Just give them the facts – quick.

Be Timely

Working at newspapers taught me to respect daily deadlines back when the dead-tree edition was still a thing. (Those presses were going to roll whether or not you finished your story.) But then the importance of quickly getting news out only increased with the emergence of the internet. We had to post breaking news to the website immediately – and continually update the story as we got additional facts.

When you have new information that your employees need to hear/see/read, share it. NOW. You can’t wait to craft that perfect message. It has to go out ASAP. I’m fully aware this is probably common sense to a communicator. But you also need to be pushing reluctant executives, whose default tendency might be to fret about that kind of speed. It’s like being a reporter who presses his or her editor on the need-to-know importance of a story. Leaders often have good reasons for being more methodical. Still, they need to weigh the pros and cons of that approach.

The Five W’s (and How)

This is the sacred tenet of journalism. Stories are supposed to answer these basic questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Every message sent to employees should, at least in theory, be able to address each of these.

Before you tap “send” on something, you should be running these through your head. Put yourself in the shoes of someone reading this. Will they come away with the information you’re trying to share, or become more confused? Even better, have a colleague take a quick peek. As newsrooms began to shrink in size and the number of copy editors dwindled, reporters at my newspaper would “back read” each other’s stories to make sure there were no glaring gaps. The last thing you want to do now is post information for employees that leaves more questions than answers.

Now, you might be thinking: Hey, but didn’t you say to share as quickly as possible? How can I do that if I’m waiting for all the answers?

That brings me to my next point . . .

Don’t Know Something? Then Say It

The pandemic is a fluid situation. It seems like everything is changing on the hour. So, if you have an important but incomplete message, share what you know. Tell everyone that the company is focused on gathering details and will pass along more information once there’s a plan. (“We’re examining whether or not to close our retail stores, and we hope to have an answer for you shortly.”)

My colleague Becky Graebe likes to say that it’s OK not to have all the answers. But when you don’t, you have to say so. I saw the same sentiment recently from Ally Bunin at Russell Reynolds Associate, who wrote that even if you have nothing to say, say that.

It builds credibility with employees (and shows them respect) when you’re being completely transparent.

Whether or not there was a lot of news, newspapers would still hit the doorstep every morning. (OK, maybe the shrubs, depending on the delivery guy’s aim.) When people are on edge, it’s a good idea to have a regular cadence from the company so that employees know the organization is monitoring events. People are hungering to know as much as possible.

Here’s what Gallup said about how the world’s largest companies are dealing with the crisis: “Corporate leadership is communicating frequently – daily, weekly or as available – to address their organization’s COVID-19 response, advice, policies and protocols.”

It’s a Content Mix

Yes, these are worrisome times. Uncertainty reigns. Yet the role of communicators is not just to inform. They’re maintaining connections throughout the company and, yes, helping keep spirits high.

Even in the worst of times, not every story on the front page of a newspaper was doom and gloom. You would find fun reads sometimes called “Hey Martha” articles. (As in, “Hey Martha, did you read this story?”) Right now, I’m seeing some of our Dynamic Signal customers doing this especially well. Communicators are sharing positive, uplifting stories, and photos of employees who continue to do their jobs in difficult situations while keeping smiles on their faces.

Those kinds of snapshots matter as we all cope in this extraordinary moment. Your words can convey comfort, understanding, and empathy.

Listen to Feedback

There’s a reason why news organizations give readers a place to make comments on articles. It’s not that journalists like being told there’s a typo in the second paragraph of their story. Instead, legitimate feedback can make us better, more responsive, and improve the information that we’re providing. The questions asked in comments can be the basis for the next post.

It’s valuable to helping communicators do their jobs better.

Avoid the Jargon

Remember how we started this conversation? About the importance of writing like a normal human?

It’s never a good thing to be writing leverage, optimize, empowers, and, well, you know all the business buzzwords. Just speak like a regular person. Don’t sound like a press release. These are your colleagues, co-workers, friends. Talk to them that way.

I’m sure that I forgot other useful reporter tips. (Please, feel free to share ones that you know.) It’s truly a crazy time. None of us have ever lived through something like this.

But this much I do know. Communicators are the newsroom for their organizations. Thinking like a reporter can only help make everyone feel more informed.

For all of Dynamic Signal’s coronavirus-related resources, visit here. 

Post Author

Mark Emmons

Mark Emmons is the storyteller at Dynamic Signal. He previously was a newspaper reporter at the Detroit Free Press, the Orange County Register, and the San Jose Mercury News. He reluctantly uses the Oxford comma.