Leadership Advice

Managers, it’s Election ‘Murphy’ time

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

Think about a time you couldn’t wait to come to work. What was the story, the project, the event that was so motivating?

Whenever I ask that question in my news management workshops, one answer always surfaces: Election Day.

So many factors come together to cause journalists to work with rigor, resilience and joy.

  • No event is more essential to democracy.
  • It is national and local, affecting everyone.
  • The whole world is watching.
  • Every person involved in coverage is documenting history.

They want more than anything to be a part of Getting. It. Right.

That’s why, no matter how well your team has performed up to this moment, as the countdown to Election Day (or week or month) is measured in single digits, it’s time to invite Murphy into your planning. As in “Murphy’s Law” — the adage that posits that if something can go wrong, it will. 

In my newsroom, Murphy’s Law meetings were automatically built into the days before big event coverage. News managers would huddle for our Murphy review, then the whole staff would gather for one more.

The goal isn’t to scare people. It’s to think about what every stakeholder needs and to ensure we’ve backed up every system. Sometimes, we get so involved in the mechanics of our plans that we forget to test them from the “user experience” side. 

True story: My station hosted a live Bill Clinton town hall meeting the weekend before the 1992 presidential election, put together on short notice. We thought we had everything buttoned up, dealing with the Secret Service security demands, recruiting scores of undecided voters, designing an equal-time hour of coverage for George Bush’s simultaneous whistle-stop train tour across Wisconsin, and arranging the statewide network for live broadcast. Only at our Murphy meeting did someone ask, in the midst of all the tech talk… 

“When all the town hall participants arrive, will we have anywhere to hang up all their coats?”

I loved that moment. It proved the value of thinking about the small things that can cause distraction or delay at the very moment a program needs to roll out smoothly.

Today, your Murphy meetings need to think even more deeply about every “user” who produces and consumes your coverage. Here’s a checklist of topic areas to think through.

  • Roles and responsibilities: Every staffer should know their duties and line of report
  • Decision-making: At any moment, everyone must know who can make the call on personnel, safety, legal, ethical or expense questions that could surface.
  • Communication: How do we handle one-to-one and one-to-many messaging, what are our priorities, which channels do we use and why?
  • Digital strategy: What does the audience want and need, and when?
  • Mobile strategy: What does the mobile audience want and need, and when?
  • Social strategy: What does the social audience want and need, and when?
  • Safety and security protocols: Let’s be careful out there.
  • Legal support: Are we set in case of disputes on access, trespass or FOIA?
  • Technical tools and backups: What needs a pre-test, a rehearsal, or a redundancy?
  • Power: No, not clout – Where are the batteries, lights, generators?
  • Staff rotation: How do we avoid burnout if the story extends for days?
  • Transparency: How do we let people know our process for coverage decisions?)
  • Care and feeding: I always save the best for last. How will we nourish our highly motivated, hard working team – including those working from their homes?

Take my list and build on it. Huddle now with Murphy and your managers — and then with Murphy and your whole team. 

Walk them through the key points of your planning and ask them to think of their roles and those of their colleagues. Ask them to think as though they were their neighbors or their grandparents. Think like people entirely different from themselves with different news consumption habits. Think like people who have little access to media, maybe even little interest, except for right now. Think like people who want to see their lives and concerns reflected in your coverage.

Invite them to ask questions – none of which should be considered dumb. You may discover your own “coat moment” — and more — in the process.

Then, when Murphy time is over, do one more thing. Remind your staff of the importance of this election and their role in it. Let them know that every single person on the team truly is a part of history and every contribution matters. 

The whole world is watching.

Correction: This column originally misstated the year then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton held a town hall meeting in Milwaukee.

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Judy Stark
Judy Stark
10 months ago

One election night in a newsroom, someone had made arrangements to take one of two elevators out of service for maintenance. This was in the days when we ran hard copy from the newsroom upstairs to the composing room. Fortunately we had an executive who acted fast, pressed the “What were you thinking?” button and got the elevator back in service and the maintenance man rescheduled.