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How about having “The Press” inside the enterprise?

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I know I’m going to regret this … and I promise, I will connect it to practical business concerns.

Last week’s possibly satirical discussion of non-human entities we’ve created and given power over us to (“Who needs Skynet,” 2/12/2018) led to a lively discussion in the Comments section, including a controversy in juridical circles as to whether, when the First Amendment mentions “the press,” the protections are supposed to apply to the technology and its use or to the institutions commonly referred to as “the press.”

Or both.

My own conclusion: Failing to recognize the press-as-institution puts us at serious risk. Imagine politicians or lobbyists who don’t like what a member of the press-as-institution publishes. Without imposing any restriction on any individual’s use of press technology to disseminate information or opinions, those politicians could pass laws that drive that press organization into bankruptcy in retaliation.

But, if we do want to recognize the press-as-institution and protect it from governmental retaliation we’re faced with the fascination challenge of defining it.

Strict originalists face an even more challenging issue: As written, the First Amendment only protects speech and publication. It doesn’t even mention the activities needed to discover and gather the information the news media publishes.

Dumbass opinions, in this view, would enjoy constitutional protections. The careful research needed to publish accurate information would not.

Which got me thinking about The Post, its recounting of how the Pentagon Papers were brought to light, and how, in the end, revealing how the American public was misled into the Vietnam War arguably strengthened our government in the long term.

Which gets me to a point I’d like you to entertain even if you disagree with the above conclusion.

Unlike our government, there’s nothing in how corporations are chartered, organized, and run that provides any protections that would allowing employees to play a press-like role in their management.

I’m not talking about whistleblowers and the discovery of corporate wrongdoing. I’m talking about something far more mundane and potentially useful.

Imagine you discover a function within the company you work for is guilty of chronic but concealed idiocy. Nothing illegal or immoral, mind you. Just stupid.

Speaking of stupid, now imagine you try to bring the issue to the attention of a member of the ELT (Executive Leadership Team for those of you who haven’t heard the term before). Think they’ll thank you for your trouble?

Not most business executives, who largely rely on their chain of command for most of their information about What’s Going On Out There, supplemented by management dashboards and computer-generated reports.

Which often means they know much more about unimportant matters than about, for example, the stupidity factory you uncovered.

As I’ve mentioned from time to time, one of the most important skills for any business leader to develop is organizational listening. In the past I’ve suggested developing a variety of mechanisms, ranging from formal metrics to informal internal networking to accomplish this.

But this whole conversation about what constitutes the press leads me to wonder if a business would benefit by establishing the internal equivalent of the press-as-institution.

I’m not talking about adding a First-Amendment-like policy to the manual. While the results might be fun to watch, the most likely result would be a very poor signal-to-noise ratio.

I’m talking about establishing a formal internal news-gathering function, focused on discovering what managers don’t want the ELT to know and that ELT members might not want to know.

One of the most important (and most easily abused) functions performed by the press-as-institution is deciding what information is worthy of publication. Whether you get your information from newspapers or broadcast or cable news, you rely on them not only for the information they provide itself, but also to let you know what subjects you should be paying attention to.

A corporate internal news-gathering function would play a similar role. It would be a known place for employees at all levels to report what they’re aware of and think the ELT should be aware of, without incurring personal risk. It would also be responsible for sorting through it all, deciding what matters, and, when the situation calls for it, researching an issue in more depth.

It would have a regular slot on the ELT agenda — it wouldn’t need to fight for air time.

The ELT would be responsible for paying attention — for reading its metaphorical newspaper. And for instituting and enforcing the one rule critical for this organization’s success:

Don’t shoot the messenger.


This isn’t something I’ve tried with a client and can attest to. I know of no business that’s tried this. If you do, please post a Comment to tell the rest of us about it. If you don’t, post a Comment anyway.

Comments (28)

  • Isn’t this kind of like the old Suggestion Box, which has been such a tremendous success that most of you young-uns have probably never seen one? The idea was always a good one but the politics of it prevented any useful benefit.

    • Same intent as the suggestion box. The differences are: (1) suggestion boxes weren’t followed by active information gathering; and (2) most of them were pass-along functions – they didn’t lead to filtering, integrating, and synthesizing the suggestions.

      • In “Quality Is Free: The Art of Making Quality Certain”, Philip Crosby had a Suggestion Box as an integral part of the proposed quality improvement campaign; that campaign included explicit promises to the employees that suggestions submitted would indeed trigger “active information gathering” and “filtering, integrating, and synthesizing the suggestions”. The campaign also included, later on, announcements of good results that had been triggered by those suggestions. After the initial big campaign ended, the whole thing would then be repeated (at a maintenance level) forever.

        One important point that would be emphasized in soliciting suggestions: If you’re reporting a quality-impairing problem, it is NOT necessary for you to have any SOLUTION to it, though that would certainly be welcome if you DO have one; what is important is to make the Quality department AWARE of the problem. A suggestion as plain-and-simple as “the milk in the employee cafeteria is not fresh” counts as a useful suggestion.

        Crosby also stressed: Zero Defects is NOT a motivation campaign, though it is often mistaken for one and mis-implemented as one. The key missing piece in “Zero Defects as motivation campaign”: Error Cause Removal; the cause of errors, Crosby claims, is only very rarely lack of employee motivation to do the job right, but is usually some SYSTEMIC problem that can be fixed.

        Crosby’s idea of what the Quality Department should be doing seems to correspond to your idea here of press-institution-inside-the-corporation.

        Note that Crosby claimed his ideas work equally well for manufacturing enterprises and service enterprises; I imagine he’d count software companies as both.

      • David: I think it is Toyota that says “Not finding a problem is a problem.”

        Bob Lewis talks about companies that demand “accountability” that translates to “pass the buck.” And “the poor SOB who points out a problem suffers.”

        I think it was in Tom Peter’s “In Search of Excellence” told of a company that had weekly recognition of probkems being solved. Usually small problems and small cash awards (~$20). It nurtured a culture of problem-solving.

  • I don’t think this would work. Let’s say I work alongside “Stupid” (or in my case “Person who spends half his time on non-work activities”). Boss doesn’t care. Easier to ignore faults than document and deal with them. Beside boss has me (and others) to take up the slack of Stupid. Big boss might care if he/she knew about the inefficiencies. So I write an anonymous press release. Undoubtedly Stupid — not being too stupid to know when a knife is being waved around — figures out it is me or similar co-worker. Bad blood ensues (more than current since I do not like taking Stupid’s job but he likes me for doing so).
    Immediate boss gets peeved. Stupid probably just gets a slap on the wrist, mends his way for a month or so, and then goes back to bad patterns. Where is the upside? Anonymous reporting of criminal activity — including theft and sexual misconduct — sure. Reporting of Stupidity? Not going to cut it.

  • An interesting idea. My caveat is that the largest Enterprise I led was about 80 people. I had heard of MBWA and practiced it carefully. It always surprised me how much I learned.
    An ELT that needs an internal press is already in trouble being all executive and no leadership or team.

    • Dana….you beat me to the comments.

      What I have observed about MBWA is time must be taken for “Leader” to no longer be a disruptive presence. Like anything worthwhile, it is not a “did it once/did not work.”

  • Interesting again your desire to define the press as an institution, something the First Amendment doesn’t do.

    “Congress shall make now law abridging the freedom of the press…” just totally sounds to
    me like “we need a whole bunch of legislation to determine what the press-as-institution is”. /sarc

    As an employee, your role is to work within the structure of your company. Since you’re not one of its citizens and can leave at any time, I don’t think free speech is an issue. You are right, however, that a company that listens to honest appraisals from their employees will do better than a company that does not. It may not be a constitutional right, but its a good idea.

    I’ve been in the situation of being brutally honest with my employer (team was getting disbanded, nothing to lose) and in the situation of being asked my opinion where there was only one acceptable answer (left that company shortly afterward).

    I gotta agree that communication is key to success and organizations with open communication lines would do better. Note, I didn’t actually end up laid off in the situation where I was brutally honest.

    • Okay, so about my concern that according to your definition of “free press” information-gathering isn’t protected by the 1st Amendment. You’re okay with that?

      • Information gathering does not require a recognized press organization. Anyone can information gather. Individuals can file FOIA requests just as well as press organizations.

        I just simply don’t get why you think the press needs to be some government credentialed thing….

      • A challenge for you: Find one place in anything I’ve written where I suggest the press should be a government-credentialed thing.

        C’mon. Arguing with a straw man is one thing. Just making stuff up to argue with is something else entirely.

      • Under a “free press” that applies to all activities and to all people, not just news publication, there is no ability for the government to target information-gathering for the purpose of suppressing the publication. That is suppression of expression by other means.

        To compare a similar freedom, Freedom of Religion does not trump generally applicable laws. Your religion may require you to consume peyote but the Government doesn’t have to make it legal for you. But if the government outlawed religious articles in a targeted way, that would run afoul the First Amendment (this is the case law anyway, don’t squint too hard at the text trying to find that distinction).

        So the government can outlaw hiding a tape recorder in a room to pick up a conversation even if you intend to publish the results as news because that is a generally prohibited activity. (Perhaps you could argue that the government could prohibit hiding tape recorders under a press = institution understanding by saying it is counterbalanced against a right to privacy, but that is a weak argument, since a right to privacy proscribes government activity, not private activity. I couldn’t think of a better one, perhaps you can).

        They couldn’t outlaw you talking to someone to gather information as that would infringe on the free speech rights of the communicator, if nothing else.

      • I think you’re making this up. Listening isn’t talking.

  • This sounds like a thoughtful way to co-opt the office grapevine into something productive. I like the idea.

  • Contrarian opinion as a card carrying member of the ELT. I think it is wrong to use the same brush that all ETL are bad and an employee runs news organization is good.

    Some of us ELT folks really do care and do address issues. We are actually annoyed by the unofficial press within our organizations that spreads misinformation, gossip, and rumors. The ELT needs to stay in front of the story so to speak and communicate early and often. The ELT also needs to be transparent and answer questions and address issues.

    It seems that an employee runs news outfit lets the ELT off the hook and creates more problems (that a lousy ELT will in turn ignore). How about we start eliminating the bad ELT members first.

    Note I believe that corporations are not democracies (or republics) and therefore you could never have a “free press”. I’ll grant you Bob that there are many poorly run corporations, but your last two columns haven’t given credit for those that are actually pretty well run and have high levels of employee engagement.

    Based on last week, I look forward to angry replies from the commentators!

  • >Dumbass opinions, in this view, would enjoy constitutional protections.

    To a liberal, a conservative piece is “dumbass”; and vice-versa

    >The careful research needed to publish accurate information would not

    Sounds like today’s “fake news”…

    > It would also be responsible for sorting through it all, deciding what matters

    Surely you’re kidding?
    Someone else decides what’s news???
    Who is this beast? And which prejudices is s/he predisposed to?
    Wow. Nuttin’ else…

    • Fake news? Seriously? And while I agree that confirmation bias is rife on all sides of the political spectra, there are also plenty of uninformed opinions out there being shouted and re-shouted without an ounce of fact attached. There is a distinction to be made between an informed opinion and dumbassery.

      • Re: uninformed opinions. Yeah, have you seen CNN lately?? 😉

        YOUR reliable news source, is my example of tin foil hat wearing loons.

        You aren’t going to change this by constant appeals to authority, especially when it appears that the authorities have been rigging the game.

  • What struck this immediately is this is exactly what the Central Intelligence Agency was founded for (according to Harry S Truman, the guy who created it). Given the way it turned out in subsequent administrations, its creation is one fo two regrets he ever had in life (his philosophy was that regret was a waste of time, but this and hiring someone — whose name escapes me — were the two that he had).

  • I liked your post a lot, but it seems a bit utopian. Google strikes me as far less authoritarian than most companies its size. Yet James Damore was summarily fired from Google for voicing constructive criticism in what he believed was a safe company forum created to serve a role somewhat similar to your proposed internal journalism institution.

    And one other point. I doubt the press as institution separable from technology was even conceivable when the Bill of Rights was promulgated. Most publishers were the owners of the very labor intensive machines that printing presses were back then. Often they were also the men who physically operated the presses.

  • Pluses: Potentially huge increases in productivity, sales, and product development through decreased waste and increased synergy.
    Minus: Like complete socialism, it takes a nearly perfectly matched culture and social conditions for it to be sustainable. (It’s working well in Denmark; not so much in Greece)

    1. Is ownership/top management completely behind it?
    2. Who is(are) the publications editors/administrators? Their responsibilities:
    a. Outlaw comments about people. This is about dysfunctional processes, as I think you were saying in your column.
    b. Stay on topic, stick to verifiable facts. Nothing else gets published.
    3. Maybe don’t use it for new ideas. Too easy to become the target of immediate rejection through ignorance, fear, or loathing, group or personal. Better to find a manager to champion it for/with you.

    If the organization, or even a department, deeply values this approach as part of its mission, then it will find an effective way to protect and institutionalize its “press”.

    Otherwise, try something else.

  • Interesting concept. I assume the press would be a cost center? Where would their budget come from? And I wonder if marketing departments are more or less “the press”? I would guess not since they are considered part of the business and tote the line. Where I work, Marketing publishes periodic newsletters and highlights business initiatives in their communications in addition to their core functions. But never anything analytical or critical.

    On a side note, your discussion of how politicians might retaliatory-ily pass laws to drive a press organization into bankruptcy reminds me of a not too distant administration that decided certain types of businesses were not worthy of business loans (under guise of high potential for fraud). I understand laws were made that threatened (maybe not the right word) banks which dispensed loans to those businesses.

    • Paul: Actually, not a “cost center*.”

      Future ROI Center. Bad processes cost the company in costs and revenue.

      *I am not a fan of the “cost center” concept. Everything needs to be Current Cost (Operations), Current Revenue (Sales), Future Costs (Information Technology), or Future Revenue (Marketing). This is what “Business Alignment” is.

      I recommend “The Power if Role” by Ric Routh

  • I recently was listening to an episode of the podcast “You Made It Weird” from Dec 10, 2014. The guest was Irish philosopher Peter Rollins.

    (I promise this is related to this week’s topic!)

    In a wide-ranging conversation, Rollins and host Pete Holmes spent more than a little time on the role of humor in society (Holmes is a professional comedian, so it was bound to come up). Rollins pointed out that we use humor to bring to the surface uncomfortable truths that no one wants to talk about. Not that all humor does this, but contextual, situational humor certainly does. (I highly recommend listening to this particular episode to get a better feel for the thesis, as Rollins states if far more eloquently than I could.)

    What’s the relationship to your latest column? A significant source of the truth that we don’t want to hear (especially if “we” means management or the ELT) can be found in the humorous stories and cartoons (especially the custom-edited ones) that are being passed around the office. I confess to being one who originated many such items in my former places of work. One way to listen to your organization, then, is to listen to its humorous stories about itself, whether in oral or cartoon form. If you’ve got the guts, put up a bulletin board in the coffee/break/lunch room just for the purpose of posting such things anonymously (with no security camera pointed at it!), and go read what’s been put up on it at least weekly. People will speak truth in humor that they’d never dare speak formally. Further, as “humor” doesn’t lend itself to false allegations in the same way that rumors do (because it’s not funny unless it’s generally recognized as true–at least in the content of the punchline, even if the names have been changed).

    Oh, and be sure to hire at least one natural comedian in each department…

    • Reminds me of the role of the Court Jester (Fool). Entertaining, plausible deniability if hit too close to home, monarchs ignored at their own peril

  • I have to agree with Dana and Gregory. A leadership team that needs its own TLA (to preclude listening) may also be in trouble.

  • Early federal decisions on free press protections make it clear that the protections were pretty broad. “The press” didn’t refer just to those in the business of disseminating news, it applied to anyone who had, or could get access to, a printing press. It was taken for granted that there would be plenty of stupidity published, and it was thought that Americans would be smart enough to do their own analysis and to separate good ideas from bad. This is the whole “marketplace of ideas” concept where you have a protected right to make a fool of yourself.

    • No argument there. As I’ve been saying, if you’re among those who consider the literal words of the First Amendment to be binding, it protects speech and publishing, but not the information-gathering that leads to speech worth listening to and publishing worth reading.

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