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In the digital age, leaders need to think like journalists

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

If your work puts you in the midst of thorny public discussions, or if you're in the business of constantly feeding new ideas into the marketplace, your rules of communications are changing fast.

"Spin", the standard practice of relentlessly turning everything into a platform for one simple message, has turned toxic. The tools of "spin" now set eyes rolling – glib tweets, rosy press releases and canned statements. Most audiences are too well informed for that kind of manipulation.

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In the post-spin age, public leaders who think like journalists come out ahead. Not least because serious news organizations are inviting thoughtful leaders to help shape the debates they curate, even as old-style press releases gather digital dust in their e-mail queues.

For five years, the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto has been training leading professionals from around the world to help major media cover their fields better. Our results have been stellar. One alumna (a physician) has been nominated for Pulitzer Prize, another (a humanitarian aid professional) shared a nomination for an Emmy Award, and a third (a criminologist) won national recognition for his first piece of investigative journalism – all in their first year of work as journalists. Altogether, our fewer than 60 Fellows in Global Journalism have had more than 600 stories published in major media, before even graduating.

"The notion of making experts into journalists is both simple and revolutionary, and it's working," the American Press Institute U.S. newspaper said of our approach last year.

The lessons we teach don't just work for journalists; They're just as important for any leaders – corporate, public or not-for-profit – who want to be involved in the public debate.

Lesson One: Your audience is turning from spin to journalism

The same audience that's now rejecting spin because it's patronizing, is actually spending more time with smart journalism. The Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in 2015, audiences grew for most of the "digital native" news sites it studies; half of those sites saw more than 10 per cent growth in one year – and the pace hasn't slowed. People are turning to smart journalism because it respects their intelligence and judgment.

To be sure, it takes guts for leaders to think like journalists. It means publicly embracing the fact that nothing is black and white – not even the issue on which you have a strong view. It means offering a steady stream of fresh, evidence-based arguments for the public to chew on, without forcing any conclusions.

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But the payoff is bigger than anything you can get from spin: because smarter public conversations, in and of themselves, drive smarter long-term results.

And serious media are increasingly turning to outside leaders for help because the news business has changed in a radical, if poorly understood, way. Media companies once competed for mass markets by building huge scale. Having lots of infrastructure, reporters, bureaus, and clients gave speed. And because scale was expensive it also kept newcomers out. In the Facebook age, though, scale is self-destructive. Speed is no longer anyone's competitive advantage and the mass market that once paid the costs of huge scale has been sliced into niches that can only pay for smaller operations.

Instead, savvy news companies are competing to serve specific niches. That means curating thought-provoking conversations with leaders from those niches, who know how complicated the issues really are. In this new world, leaders and professionals who think like journalists have a huge edge over anyone still trying to use glib one-liners and press releases.

Lesson Two: Journalism thinking belongs in the C-suite

The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 67 per cent of the 33,000 people it surveyed in 28 countries felt CEOs spend too much time talking about short-term financial results, and 57 per cent wanted them to speak more about long-term issues. Shaping the public debate is C-suite business.

It's also about sustained intellectual engagement, not media hits. Anyone can appear once or twice on TV (my 12-year-old daughter has three times). ‎But we know from social science that only repeated impressions have impact. Raising smart, fresh ideas every month requires two kinds of journalism thinking in the C-suite.

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First, you and your team need to stay ahead of your competition in finding compelling ideas for the public discussion. Journalism thinking is the discipline of consistently finding ideas that are counter-intuitive, timely, highly relevant, under-reported and meaty. Hitting on those ideas month after month is as tough as golfing par, hole after hole.

Second, you and your team have to know how to get a wide range of senior news leaders excited. Editors used to sit in the wings while public relations professionals spun reporters lower down the chain. But as beat reporters get laid off, top editors themselves are stepping into the spotlight: curating contributions, reshaping coverage to build credibility with niche audiences, and constantly priming the pump for smart new ideas. You may know your issues, but editors are your gateway to the marketplace. Deepening the public discussion sustainably means getting news leaders excited over and over again.

The bottom line is simple: Spin builds walls to keep that public conversation out. Those walls are now crumbling, inward.

Thinking like a journalist is about trusting the public conversation enough to step into it, because smarter conversations inevitably lead to smarter, sustainable results.

Robert Steiner is director of the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs in the University of Toronto, and is course director of "Communications and Advocacy in the Digital Age" an Executive Education program at the Rotman School. He has been a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, a business strategy consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, and a communications advisor for two Canadian prime ministers.

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