When A Magazine Loses Its Way: Larger Lessons from the Canadian Geographic Fiasco

Posted by on Jul 23, 2015 in Communications, General | No Comments

cg logoCanadian Geographic (CG) magazine and its owner, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS), are having a very bad month. First, there were hard questions about the curious role of RCGS Chief Executive Officer, John Geiger, during and after the search for John Franklin’s doomed flagship, HMS Erebus. This week, the crowd-funded news site Canadaland revealed in a series of posts that CG suffered several serious ethical lapses: failing to indicate that a magazine feature was actually paid for by an outside organization, spiking and then rewriting a story in order not to offend a “partner,” allowing the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to review and shape content for educational material distributed to classrooms across Canada, and breeding a caustic culture for employees.

For many Canadians, Canadian Geographic is like a family heirloom. They grew up with the magazine, learned about the country through the magazine’s features and maps, and then took out subscriptions for their kids. The Society itself, under the patronage of the Governor General, has made incalculable contributions to geographic knowledge. The revelations of the past month are not going down easily.

The revelations are not going down easily for me either. I have been writing for the magazine for more then 15 years, and was a senior editor for three years. I saw many of these troubles first-hand, and resigned in December 2012 after the magazine crossed what I considered a “red line.”

It’s clear that these episodes would make a great case study for journalism schools and media studies classes, but my interest here is to draw out lessons that may be of interest for organizations outside of the media bubble.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN BOARD MEMBERS ARE ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL

Almost all the accusations of betrayal are being directed at the magazine’s senior leadership, and that’s understandable. I would argue that these sorry episodes are partly an indictment of the RCGS’s Board of Governors. Ultimately, they are responsible for the welfare of the organization and for how it fulfills its mission. Over the years, I believe some of RCGS governors were made aware of staff concerns about the influence of sponsors on magazine editorial but did nothing. They saw the turnover on the masthead and asked no questions (ironic considering the chair of the board for many years was an experienced journalist and newspaper editor). In governance circles, this is hardly unusual. But often there is a price to be paid down the line: when board members fail to question management assumptions, shy away from fierce conversations, or just mail it in, they signal to management that there will be no accountability. And when there’s no accountability. . .

WHEN YOU’RE A MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE, RISK ASSESSMENT IS FOR LOSERS

With no accountability, hubris takes root like a dandelion. Organizational leaders begin to think they’re invincible and untouchable, and push the envelope with ill-conceived initiatives. They fail to properly assess the risks that may arise from their actions, an underappreciated skill of effective leaders. At CG, the business model is built largely on a foundation of partnerships with government departments and agencies, industry associations, and corporations. CG is not alone among media properties in following this path, yet it is a model requiring a delicate touch. My hunch is that CG leaders got into trouble by operationalizing their sponsored content model too aggressively and with no guiding framework or principles of engagement that aligned with their mission. Whatever had to be done to close a deal, they did. As a result, they lost sight of those whom they ultimately served. Failing to disclose that a magazine feature was actually paid for by a “partner” or letting an industry association shape educational material to suit its interests shows a stunning disregard for foundational principles of operating a magazine or non-profit. CG leaders must have assumed that readers, Society Fellows and members, and teachers wouldn’t find out or care. Did they assess the potential risks in the event their assumptions proved to be wrong? These are the risks they must now confront: a loss in donations to the RCGS; revolt by Society Fellows and members; the cratering of brand equity of the magazine (already diminished over the years), its educational arm, and Society itself; plummeting staff morale; and gun-shy partners no longer wanting to be associated with damaged goods. If CG leaders were to run a risk-benefit analysis today, would they make the same decisions?

FOR SPONSORS, KNOW WHEN ENOUGH IS ENOUGH

CG refers to its sponsors as “partners” yet it is usually not a partnership of equals. Particularly in the case of sponsorships by industry associations, it is easy to identify the senior partner from the junior. In such cases, the sponsor can push for concessions, such as the opportunity to shape storylines or approve content. But expecting a magazine to abandon its editorial independence and ignore its core mission is obnoxious and, I would argue, bad business. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers must be pleased to have the opportunity to get its message out to classrooms across Canada. I suspect they did not fully calculate the all-in price of the CG sponsorship, namely yet another reputational hit. A really savvy sponsor with a long-term view would write a cheque and actually insist on a hands-off approach to controlling content. In my time at CG, I worked with one federal government agency that took this very attitude. They did not want to know what stories we were working on as part of the partnership and had no interest in reviewing content before publication. They didn’t expect us to hide their involvement.

WHEN YOU’RE CAUGHT OUT, TAKE THE OPPORTUNITY TO PRESS THE RE-SET BUTTON

Crisis communications is a tough business. More often than not, it’s a question of mitigating losses, though in rare cases organizations have been able to turn a reputational hit into a positive. Unfortunately, I don’t think Canadian Geographic is doing itself any favours with how it is responding to this week’s revelations. I’m afraid the statement it posted yesterday, which fails to address the damning evidence presented by Canadaland, will make matters worse with the groups most invested in its future. Here is another way RCGS leaders could have responded: “In challenging times for the media, partnerships with respected organizations give us the opportunity to present important stories and educational materials to Canadians. We understand that concerns have now been raised that some of these arrangements may have undermined the editorial integrity of Canadian Geographic and its educational arm. To ensure our most important partners — subscribers, Society Fellows and members, teachers, and Canadians interested in their country — are respected, we will ask an outside consultant to review our editorial processes and recommend changes. Most importantly, within the next month, we will develop a framework that will guide all of our dealings with partners, and post this framework on the RCGS website.” It’s not an ideal response but one that would point a way out of this world of pain.

In the weeks ahead, I look forward to seeing how the Board of Governors and CG leaders react. The board can use this incident to tighten its oversight, better define how to work with partners, and make these decisions transparent. Subscribers, teachers, donors, and Fellows will be watching closely as well.