BBG Watch Guest Commentary
BBG Watch has received several comments from current and former Voice of America journalists regarding the the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) hosted panel of six award-winning media executives discussing “digital storytelling techniques as a means of engaging audiences in rapidly changing media environments.”
One current VOA journalist, disappointed not so much by the panelists, but by the way the senior management arranged the discussion, wrote:
VOA STAFF REPORTER:
“Another High School Assembly-style Presentation for BBG Journalists — without any BBG Journalists
How condescending for BBG to bring in a panel made up entirely of outside journalists to talk about ‘storytelling in the digital age.’
As if there are no reporters, hosts or programmers at VOA or RFE/RL who have anything to contribute to such a discussion.
Which there are, of course: dozens, at least, with talents, skill and understanding of digital storytelling to match that of any outsider.
But BBG’s instinct is to genuflect to celebrity news figures, and invite them to school BBG reporters and programmers, rather than to respect their own employees’ talent and experience.”
Six award winning media executives, including Soledad O’Brien and Morgan Spurlock discussed engaging audiences in this standing room only event hosted by the Broadcasting Board of Governors on October 30, 2014 in Washington, DC at the Broadcasting Board of Governors and Voice of America headquarters.
A former VOA journalist observed that while members of the panel certainly had very impressive credentials in digital media production and marketing in the United States, few of them appear to have long-term substantive international media experience and international news program production experience for countries without free media. That is where many BBG mission oriented news programs face strict censorship from central governments, local authorities, and at least some local media businesses, influential community leaders and community organizations.
This kind of media restrictive international environment is far different from the political, media and business environment in the United States. BBG mission-oriented news programs are also different from largely non-controversial, entertainment oriented programs that can be much more easily distributed and sold, even in highly media restricted markets. BBG’s international audience is also different in many poor countries in terms of how affluent its members are and in their use of technology.
On the other hand, the current senior leadership of VOA, VOA website, VOA news production, and VOA social media outreach are certainly in a sad state. Audience engagement through social media is minimal. VOA is even beaten many times over by the U.S. State Department’s social media outreach. Any good advice from outstanding experts such as the panelists participating in “What’s the Secret to Media Brand Loyalty? Storytelling in the Digital Age” discussion, even if some of them do not have extensive international media experience, would be helpful if it can be applied. The Voice of America is full of highly talented journalists, as are other BBG media entities, who are quite capable of using these ideas and in fact use some of them to the extent poor senior management will allow it.
BBG Watch found the panel inspiring and useful for any digital journalists producing programs for any type of market. Panelists offered many interesting observations and ideas that can be universally applied.
But, according to a working Voice of America journalist who prefers to remain anonymous, there is not much hope that the current senior VOA leadership is capable of applying any of these lessons.
BBG Watch occasionally publishes guest commentaries. This one is from a current Voice of America journalist who prefers to remain anonymous.
Views expressed here are only those of the authors and not of BBG Watch, its volunteers, or sponsors.
We invite those with opposing views and others who want to comment on this or other issues followed by BBG Watch to submit their op-eds for consideration.
Why didn’t you ask us before?
By A Voice of America Journalist
You have to give the Broadcasting Board of Governors credit for thinking outside the box. The Board is doing everything it can to try to change the toxic management culture at VOA. It is at the same time trying to bring the agency into the 21st century. And it is trying to keep it afloat, hoping to convince Congress not to shut it down. It somehow convinced respected media and broadcasting executive Andy Lack to take the new CEO of U.S. international media job, a position that will require superhuman effort to succeed at, given the deep and systemic problems at VOA. (If Lack fails, it will be tough to convince Congress not to shut VOA down; having Andy Lack take over is a double-edged sword.)
The BBG, as part of its efforts to pull VOA back from the cliff, recently convened an impressive group of marketers and storytellers for a presentation called “What’s the Secret to Media Brand Loyalty? Storytelling in the Digital Age.” VOA employees were promised they would learn from “award-winning media and marketing experts how to tell stories to a global audience in this digital age.”
Among the six panelists were television programmer Ben Silverman, Pepsi’s chief marketing officer Frank Cooper, III, and Charlie Corwin, co-chairman of Endemol, the largest global production company in the world. Many VOA employees attended the presentation. The cost in lost productivity alone is likely in the tens of thousands of dollars.
The panelists meant well, and indicated they had tried to learn a little bit about the agency in the short time they had spent here, but they clearly had no idea of the challenges facing VOA, many of them caused by the agency’s current senior leaders. Silverman suggested we tell stories “with an edge and emotion.” Can you imagine the reaction of the newsroom’s current leaders if you tried to report a story with an edge? Silverman’s suggestion is excellent, but he has no idea how a story executed in that fashion would go over with the current regime, which values blandness above all. He also recommended “telling stories that are not being told.” Newsroom managers regularly shoot down ideas if they have not heard them before or have not seen the story elsewhere. Again, great suggestion, but not one that can be implemented under the agency’s current managers, who are not known for being cutting-edge or courageous. The same can be said for Spurlock’s suggestion that we “push into the fray.” That is the last thing the agency’s meek managers want to do. It’s laughable.
It was a good effort, and effort is to be applauded. But it will, in the end, prove to be a complete, monumental waste of time (one wonders how much it cost the agency). I hope that doesn’t mean the Board will stop trying, but it is at this point asking too much of the current leadership to be original, edgy and boundary-pushing; they just don’t have it in them.
Perhaps the Board’s long-term goal is to present excellent ideas and let the world see how utterly unable the agency’s current leadership is to execute them. That may be the plan (if so, good plan!). But this panel was a case of throwing pearls to swine if the goal was to help the agency’s managers improve. The current managers and senior leaders of the agency are simply incapable of new ideas or of implementing the good ideas of others.
Success happens when people are inspired, and incentivized to explore, be open and to think about the future. Sadly, VOA is hobbled by uninspiring, risk-averse, punishment-oriented bureaucrats who have created a management culture that is timid, accusatory, loathe to take responsibility and unwilling or unable to support content producers. Where successful media organizations have leaders, VOA has clerks.
This Thursday in the side room of the Cohen building cafeteria, VOA Director David Ensor, in a transparent attempt to show his soon-to-be-new-boss Andy Lack that he listens to his underlings, will actually sit down and eat lunch with all comers to discuss the panel.
In an email on Monday, he wrote “If the BBG panel last week has you thinking about new ideas for storytelling and branding for VOA going forward, please join me…(to) discuss them. The impressive panel of experts assembled by (BBG) Chairman (Jeff) Shell gave us plenty of food for thought. I would like to follow-up with those interested.”
Better late than never, I guess, although why didn’t you ask us to lunch before now, David?
In any case, thanks for including us in the conversation, but we’re reporters. We are drowning here. We’re trying to practice good journalism. Can’t you and your fellow incompetent agency leaders at least try to handle the branding issue for us? We do want to tell stories better, have more impact, reach more people. But it’s tough to do with the managers and “leaders” we have now. You really want to help us? Get us people who will support us, guide us and encourage us, leaders who have guts and ability. That’s more important than any panel.
The following Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) News Release was posted online on October 31, 2014. As of 6:00 PM EDT, Monday, November 3, 2014, the BBG post – news release on the panel discussion shows 0 (zero) Facebook “Likes,” one (1) Tweet, and 0 (zero) “Google+” shares. The BBG website posts do not allow for readers’ comments.
BBG NEWS RELEASE
BBG Hosts Panel On Storytelling In The Digital Age
OCTOBER 31, 2014
WASHINGTON – The Broadcasting Board of Governors hosted a panel of six award-winning media executives to discuss digital storytelling techniques as a means of engaging audiences in rapidly changing media environments.
As part of the Board’s October meeting, Emmy and Golden Globe Award-winning show creator Ben Silverman moderated a discussion on developing stories, creating engaging content and connecting with the audience. Journalist and producer Soledad O’Brien, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, marketing executive Frank Cooper III, and media executives Charlie Corwin and Howard Thomas Owens offered ideas and observations, and praised the staff of the BBG networks for their creativity, dedication and sacrifices to inform people around the world
Chairman Jeff Shell introduced the panel to a standing-room only crowd including hundreds of journalists from across the networks, saying, “We have a lot to learn from each other.”
The 90-minute discussion included views on the need for authentic voices in content on any platform, the importance of integrated digital engagement, and successful show formats that make information on serious topics such as economics and health entertaining.
“Mobile is everything. People would rather give you their wallet than their mobile phone,” observed Cooper, who is Chief Marketing Officer of Consumer Engagement for PepsiCo, Inc.
“I encourage you to push the culture of change and evolution,” Ben Silverman told the audience, adding that one shouldn’t be afraid of failure. “We’ve all learned that without failure we won’t evolve, learn, and shift.”
O’Brien discussed the value of “convening a conversation with your audience,” both through digital platforms and in live programming in order to convey that “their voice matters.”
In addition to hosting the panel, the Board voted to create a Special Committee on the Voice of America in the 21st Century. The Board expressed their appreciation to Lynne Weil, who will leave the agency in early November, for her service as Director of Communications and External Affairs.
Shell opened the meeting by highlighting the dangers the agency’s journalists face on a daily basis.
“We are operating in media environments where authoritarian countries, struggling to control both information and their citizens, seek to censor objective voices and crack down on civil society, including independent press,” he noted before highlighting threats made to BBG journalists in Azerbaijan, Cuba, Crimea, China, and Syria.
He congratulated the agency on recent successes, including the launch of a new Russian-language television program co-produced by VOA and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the successful delivery of news on the Hong Kong protests to mainland China, and the comprehensive and unwavering coverage of the Ebola crisis.
A recording of the October 30 meeting, including the panel discussion, will be made available here.