COVID as a black swan: building organizational resilience

Photograph of Paula Frey / Smith, Nasya, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

COVID-19 has proven to be a major stumbling block to news outlets. No one could have predicted the pandemic or the extent of the destruction it would wreak on their businesses. 33% of U.S. newspapers experienced layoffs in 2020, according to Pew Research Center. The havoc was not limited to the U.S. The impact from COVID-19 had on Singapore Press Holdings’ advertising revenue led it to lay off 140 employees, reported the Straits Times in Singapore.

Yet, with organizational resilience, a company can expect to pull through this black swan in the form of the pandemic. The World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) held a webinar on building organizational resilience led by Paula Fray, CEO of frayintermedia, who was the first female editor of South Africa’s Saturday Star newspaper. 

Strategic resilience is not simply about rebounding from a setback, or coping with huge challenges, but rather continuously adapting. It’s survival, not reaction.

“A resilient organization is one that is very comfortable with change. It’s an organization that recognizes that the media sector is one that needs to be prepared for change,” said Fray in the webinar.

Fray outlined five key factors of a resilient organization, citing a Deloitte report: such an organization is prepared, adaptable, collaborative, trustworthy, and responsible.

A prepared organization is proactive, planning for both short and long-term eventualities – making sure there are plans in place to mitigate the risks and damage of crises.

In the aftermath of COVID, many organizations may now have contingency plans in place. However, Fray says the danger lies in being complacent, saying that “the danger is that we’re not constantly reviewing the plans.”

There is reason to be prepared: according to a study done by Deloitte, 85% of the executives who survived the fallout of COVID were prepared for the pandemic.

An adaptable organization indicates a workforce that is flexible. As businesses moved online to Zoom and bedrooms turned into makeshift offices, the need to have versatile employees became ever more important. However, a flexible organizational culture molded by the management is integral as well. Only then can a versatile workforce realize their full potential.

The subsequent shift online also required a flexible workforce, as people moved increasingly to social media for stories.

A resilient organization is also collaborative, or one that recognizes the traditional management model of media houses is no longer effective.

“Silos within the organization, like ‘this is advertising, this is news, this is management,’ can no longer be effective,” said Fray.

Faster decision-making and holistic risk mitigation are key as both risk and opportunities can be identified from a multitude of perspectives and not from insular divisions.

“Product innovation is critical, and … you can’t have that without a collaborative workforce,” said Fray.

A trustworthy organization is also one that is resilient.

“You need to ensure that there is a relationship of trust between employees and the management and leaders of the team,” said Fray.

In a COVID-stricken landscape, Fray says empathy is also key.

“When your staff are going through a difficult time, the process of managing requires you to be more than a hierarchical leader.”

Another factor of imbuing trust in an organization is formed by the leadership leading with empathy and transparency in communication. COVID also increased and transformed the mode of communication between the managers and staff – not only are the traditional newsletter and emails, but also informal chats between managers and employees now about topics such as mental health.

“A trustworthy organization … is about having a two-way relationship between the management and employees,” said Fray, “those who really succeeded during the pandemic were focused on improved communication and transparency with the stakeholders.”

The fifth characteristic is responsibility: the leadership takes responsibility beyond simply the bottom line. They need to be able to adapt and pivot so that they are able to meet the needs of the organization – in doing so, they also need to balance all of the needs of the stakeholders.

The next step forward in a post-COVID world and all its challenges is the need to be a future fit media organization. This means building agility in the media environment, building self-awareness, and for staff to be comfortable with failure.

This can only happen by learning from the lessons of COVID-19, said Fray.

One lesson is that the staff of an organization are a critical ingredient to the success of an organization. All five factors mentioned earlier by Fray are dependent on the staff being key partners in the building of a culture conducive to these characteristics taking hold.

However, the staff themselves will not participate in this building process until they themselves are confident enough to add value.

The key, then, is to build up the confidence level of your staff. To do this, individual resilience comes into play. Institutional resilience builds upon its individual counterpart.