How to manage a high-pressure situation: lessons from a national newspaper editor

26 February 2019 -

Crisis workFrom delegation to taking time out, here's how to handle a stressful situation at work

Guest Blogger Chris Blackhurst

One of the most common myths surrounding news journalism is that journalists must hate it when a major event occurs. They must loathe being under enormous stress, working long hours.

Nothing could be more remote from the truth. The fact is that journalists adore these moments. As someone who worked in newsrooms for decades, and led them for some of that time, these are the periods we work for.

Of course, you’re dealing with a crisis. But usually – as with a hospital A&E department confronted with numerous casualties – a well-oiled system swings into operation.

Immediately, whether it’s print or broadcast news, the editor will dispatch reporters (and cameramen if it’s TV) to the scene; others are instructed to monitor social media, the news wire services and the TV bulletins; still others are told to build ‘backgrounders’ on where an event occurred, previous similar incidents, and any names that begin to emerge. The picture editor will have sent photographers, and monitors are being scanned for any “video grabs”; the chief reporter begins pulling together all the content coming across to produce one seamless main report.

Meanwhile, a cluster of senior news executives will assemble in the editor’s office. The news editor will relay what is known, while the comment and features editors will offer ideas for expert analysis. In front of them will be the plan for the paper and the schedule for the broadcast news bulletin. The editor will decide with the deputy editor how many pages are to be cleared, where existing stories are to be moved, and whether they should ask management for more space or airtime. The online editor will also be moving items around and in some cases, dropping them completely. The leader writer will be seeking to consult the editor on the paper’s likely editorial line.

All this happens within minutes of the first news flashes. Subsequently, a rhythm develops, of unfolding news, more huddled discussions and further decisions.

This is the first day. From then on, it quietens down, but the effort remains just as intense, as more detailed bulletins are compiled, press conferences are covered, “colour” features written, and opinions sought. It can be like this for days, weeks, months. If I look back, I can recall the responses to the death of Princess Diana, to 9/11, to terrible natural disasters, to assassinations, to political resignations and, to wars. It does not matter what type of incident has occurred, the resulting operation is pretty much the same.

To the untrained observer, it looks to be an incredibly smooth process. It’s not. Along the way there are outbursts of temper, and mistakes are made. Generally, though, inquests on the news organisation’s performance can be left to later.

HOW TO MANAGE A HIGH-PRESSURE SITUATION

These high-pressure situations occur frequently in the news media – more often than in other walks of corporate life. What lessons can be applied, for anyone confronted with managing such an episode?

1. Stay calm

It seems trite, given it’s an over-used phrase these days, but managers must stay calm. Everyone is looking to you for leadership, for command.

2. Delegate

Trust in the ability and willingness of others to step up. To interfere too much, to break the chain, is to undermine their authority and confidence.

3. Know your team’s strengths

It’s remarkable how often it’s those who make the most noise, who appear confident, but also turn out to be the ones requiring the highest maintenance when urgency kicks in. You simply have not got time to be comforting, reassuring and yes, praising, them.

4. Take a step back

When there’s a high-pressure situation unfolding then be in the cluster, in the huddle, listen to what is going on, take it all in – but detach yourself as well. Try and view what is occurring and how the organisation should react, objectively. Ask yourself: are we doing it right? Where are the gaps? If you were critiquing us what would you say? What are we missing?

5. Pay attention to those not caught up in the heat of battle

Some individuals may want to be part of a high-pressure situation but there is not room, others will be content to get on with their jobs. Either way, ensure they know they’re valued and appreciated. It’s important they continue to perform; otherwise you could have two crises on your hands, one of your own making.

6. Take time out

Once you find yourself staring at a document or a screen or in a meeting and not listening, you’re due a breather. No one can maintain the same ultra-high level of concentration for hours and days on end. If you’re ceasing to function effectively, you need to take yourself away, even if it’s for a short while. Clear you brain to sharpen your thinking.

7. Don’t complain

Do not complain audibly or in writing – even in ironic, jokey terms – about the strain you and your staff are under. Attempts at humour can get lost in translation, and jar badly with the magnitude of the occasion.

8. Keep a diary

When it’s all over, privately review your own actions, and what you and team did right and wrong, and take the senior members through it, and collectively, learn, for the next time.

Oh, and good luck.

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns, strategic, crisis and reputational, communications advisory firm

Image: Shutterstock

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