By Carlton Houston, RTDNA Contributor
All it takes is a severe weather warning to remind me of May, 2013. I was the news director at KFOR in Oklahoma City. Our crews were returning to the newsroom after a long night covering a deadly tornado. The expressions on their faces told stories about close calls with dangerous winds and flying debris. A live truck operator spent a harrowing few minutes huddled with strangers inside a hardware store as the storm roared nearby. Everyone was tired, but safe.
In tornado alley, millions of people depend on news teams to provide warnings and live pictures. But we cannot forget about safety of the photojournalists and reporters who carry out that important work. News organizations in the heart of tornado alley set a great example, reminding all of us about three valuable leadership lessons: Listen, adapt and empower.
Listen To Your Staff
It sounds really simple… but it’s easy to overlook when there is always another deadline to post and produce content. After an outbreak of deadly tornados in May 2013 the leadership team at KFOR held a series of listening meetings. The staff did all the talking… and the managers took notes. The feedback led to some important improvements internally, including equipment inventory and updates to our communications systems. We also instituted some safety guidelines that required two people per vehicle during severe weather. No one would ever cover storms alone.
Adapt The Game Plan
More than 150 people died in the 2011 Joplin Missouri tornado. Covering that disaster carried an emotional toll. In that case, leadership teams from many stations had to shift from editorial decision-making to finding necessities like food, shelter and even counseling for crews in the field. We also had to be flexible to replace crews with fresh teams even if they insisted they were okay. The lesson here: Support the needs of your team and they will take care of the news.
Empower The Team
After the deadly 2013 tornado outbreak, we empowered our team to make important decisions in the field when it comes to safety. For example, we gave every member of our team absolute power to cancel a live shot and move to a safer location… at any time… no questions asked. Of course, new technology gives crews excellent information to stay out of the direct path of dangerous storms. The “cancel” rule was another important step to reinforce our team’s commitment to safety.
These leadership lessons can apply to all of us as we support the courageous journalists on the front lines. Perhaps your newsroom is covering a violent protest, a hurricane or wildfires. We don’t have to wait for the next disaster to lead our teams to safety and ultimately deliver the information our communities depend on.
Do you have any good leadership lessons for news teams facing severe weather? We'd love to add your comments.
Carlton Houston is the assistant news director at WUSA 9, the TEGNA CBS affiliate in Washington DC. Houston is a veteran of tornado coverage having spent eight years leading newsrooms in Tulsa (KTUL ABC) and Oklahoma City (KFOR NBC) and is a former board member of RTDNA. Follow Carlton on Twitter @Carlton_Houston