Role reversal: What Old Media Can Learn From Obama and Jarrett

The following post appeared as a guest post at Mediapost on February 25, 2010.

Valerie JarrettA couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to be a guest for a breakfast with Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor and confidant to President Obama, while she was traveling through the Seattle area. Planning for her travel, Ms. Jarrett’s staff proactively reached out to Northwest executives and organizations to meet and discuss our challenges and ideas.

And Valerie did something remarkable: She listened. Her breakfast offered an important lesson for those of us in the media industry whose job is primarily around broadcasting our message to the masses: to listen truly and deeply to reality as it is, rather than how we want it to be.

On dozens of different topics, Valerie Jarrett took in every word, whether it came from supporter or critic. She demonstrated (in a perception-is-reality sort of way) that every voice she heard was bringing her not only perspective, but potential solutions. She pressed each opinion to understand it and to ask — directly — for the best ideas. She demonstrated she was taking those proposals to heart, and moreso, and taking them back with her to the White House to do the most important thing – take action.

The challenges facing the Obama administration are great: the fatigued healthcare initiative; the burden of extreme deficits; and a public that has been increasingly losing faith their change agent. And after seeing this inner-circle advisor open her eyes, ears, and arms to criticisms and solutions, I walked away inspired with the sense that they have a good shot of figuring it out.

And acting. The thing with listening is that it’s only useful if you actually do something with it — and she did. A favorite example from the morning: When Ken Myer offered an idea for the White House to host a robotics competition on the south lawn as a symbol of the importance of science education, Ms. Jarrett said right on the spot that she’ll make it happen.

Back in the media industry, how many executives make the time to meet with our constituents — both our supporters and our critics — just to hear what’s on their minds? Even moreso, how many of us really listen when we have the chance? What impressed me most about Valerie Jarrett was that whether they flattered her positions or not, she wanted to hear reality from every perspective, and embrace solutions.

Too often in our changing media industry, leaders aren’t facing the brutal facts, much less acting on them. We are facing rapid shifts in the way content is consumed and what advertisers want for their dollar. And what many publishers are doing is the opposite of action: it is hiding.

There is hope. I loved reading¬†Kara Swisher’s account of how Carol Bartz hosted her most vocal critic in the company cafeteria to share her Yahatred openly with 600 employees. Summoning the beast to the inner sanctum was a clear statement to executives and employees to listen to their critics and hear challenging perspective, to take it seriously, and most importantly to act on it.

But at the same time, some old media companies just don’t want to hear it. I frequently see first-hand and hear stories from friends of how the biggest and oldest media companies are ignoring reality. One of the most striking examples was at last week’s breakfast. Frank Blethen, Publisher of the Seattle Times stood up and said into the microphone: “Contrary to popular belief, the newspaper business model is sound.” He might be the only person in America who thinks so. And if he does have the secret to solving the newspaper publishing mess, he must not be sharing it. But more than likely, he’s hard of hearing. Instead of openly listening for solutions to stabilize the business in the face of declining circulation, pages, and advertising, he is in denial. Too many from the biggest and oldest media companies are ignoring reality — and the results will be fatal for them.

For the future of our industry, may we be challenge ourselves to listen like Valerie Jarrett and Carol Bartz. Let’s bring in the toughest critics. Let them loose and have them take their toughest shots. For us, we can thicken our skins to take it, and be better for it. Focus on the criticism that makes us cringe, and use it to inspire new solutions. The more we see and hear reality – the more we invite it into our cafeterias for breakfast or lunch, listen to it, and ask it for ideas, the sooner we can innovate our way to success.

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