Unprecedented with James Brindle

Published 5th March 2021

We spoke to James Brindle, CEO of The Journalists’ Charity. James spoke to us about the challenges he has faced running charity through the pandemic.

A background into you and your business? 

I was a journalist for 18 years working across radio, TV and digital media. I began my career at the BBC before moving into the commercial sector where I became a CEO at 32. After leading two successful business launches and a range of other high-profile projects, I decided I wanted to make a different contribution in my career. That decision brought me to the Journalists’ Charity, a national organisation with Royal patronage founded by the literary icon Charles Dickens. The charity is the nationwide leader for providing help and support for media professionals and works to celebrate the role of journalism.

Define leadership and what being a leader means to you.

Perhaps it’s best not to form a narrow definition of leadership, but to think of it as embodying a collection of attributes that can vary depending on the task at hand and the circumstances of the time. Ultimately, being a successful leader is about being able to harness the right attributes for any given situation or environment.

Who are your Leadership role models/inspirations? 

It’s easy to focus on strong leaders during times of success and positivity. But leaders also provide inspiration when they show how they can emerge from adversity - like Hilary Clinton following her 2016 US presidential election defeat. Despite experiencing such an enormous public disappointment, Clinton showed grace and restraint in the period that followed the loss, continuing to inspire women to pursue a role in politics and leadership. Meanwhile, Sir Gerry Robinson has shown great versatility by successfully leading a number of very different organisations, bringing his diplomatic, gracious and decisive approach to highly challenging situations.

What impact has Covid-19 had on you? 

The impact of Covid-19 has certainly been a test of mental resilience, pushing my resourcefulness to the absolute limit. It’s highlighted the importance of structure and routine to staying positive and focused, but it’s also helped to illustrate how the little things in life matter and can keep you going during very difficult times.

What impact has covid had on your business?

Like with many other organisations, the impact of Covid-19 had an immediate short-term effect on the charity both financially and logistically. The pandemic created a crisis that turned lives upside down overnight, with hundreds of individuals left with nowhere else to turn. Our organisation adapted quickly in order to deliver a rapid response to journalists in dire need. In the longer term, it made us reappraise our asset portfolio and look at a range of situations in terms of financial modelling.

Are there any people within your support network who made a big positive impact on you as a Business Leader during those early weeks/months?

During the beginning of lockdown, I put together a nationwide campaign to celebrate journalism. It was based on the idea that journalists were working tirelessly to keep the public up-to-date on Covid-19 despite facing a very uncertain future. Even though the nation was embracing a warlike spirit of togetherness, there were a number of baseless but vocal attacks on journalism which seemed wholly unfair and didn’t reflect the dedication of journalists working across the country, from local papers to the national news. My colleagues across journalism came together to support our mission with a message which ran in every national, and most regional newspapers. Piers Morgan and Robert Peston were some of the high profile names who gave their support, as did our patron, Her Majesty the Queen. All the major newsgroups played their part in a great team effort.

What was your internal comms strategy at the start of lockdown? Has that changed? 

Our strategy at the start of lockdown immediately switched into a crisis response mode. Not only did we urgently reconfigure our internal systems to allow us to work remotely, but we also made sure we were set up and ready to provide emergency help and support to the hundreds of individuals we knew would come to count on us. The situation has fluctuated during the lockdown, but we stay nimble and remain ready.

Although our method of communication has changed, the frequency has probably increased and there’s certainly a heightened sensitivity around the potential failures in communication as a result of working remotely. I’m really conscious about colleagues feeling left out or not being kept in the loop. 

What have been the Unprecedented decisions you have made? Those where there was no playbook.

We rolled out a national marketing campaign with messages that were only appropriate to a time of extreme crisis. Although the organisation existed during both world wars, there’s probably never been a more serious situation for our industry than that created by Covid-19. As a charity that exists to help individuals who often have nowhere else to turn, our instinct was to shout loud and clear about the help we offer – even though the practical and financial implications of doing so were completely unknown at the time.  

The word pivot was used unprecedently in May/June. What have you done to innovate or differentiate you or your business? 

We have been reclaiming our rightful position as a unique blue-chip national charity that offers an amazing service to one of the most important industries in modern Britain. As one of the oldest charitable organisations in the UK with an incredible history, we are celebrating our heritage whilst also looking to our future. We’re engaging in a major industry engagement drive to boost awareness and profile in all parts of the country, and we’re about to unveil an ambitious new initiative to support young journalists. We’re also taking a radical look at the medium to long term picture with a thorough evaluation of our finance and assets portfolio.  

What were the 3 biggest (or best) decisions you have made in 2020?

  1. To celebrate the incredible role being played by journalists and journalism during lockdown and beyond by leading a major nationwide campaign.

  2. To commit to offering a rapid response to applicants needing financial assistance because of the impact of the pandemic – making this possible saved homes and perhaps lives too.

  3. To be ambitious in developing new ways to deliver impact – developing a new initiative that will occupy a niche within existing support mechanisms.

What remain your 3 biggest challenges?

  1. Uncertainty – the unpredictability of financial markets and the fundraising landscape makes forecasting and planning difficult if not impossible.

  2. Covid restrictions – the inability to visit workplaces makes it very difficult to engage and build awareness.

  3. Asset management – there’s some hard graft ahead to make sure we’re in the best shape and future proof.

How have you/your business evolved from a digital/tech perspective?

Broadly speaking we’re embracing digital technology to try and raise awareness and reach our target market. For example, we’re using uber clean graphics and QR codes to try and engage with individuals without having face to face contact. We’re using expert insight and intelligence to ensure we’re using social media platforms effectively. We’re regularly reviewing, renewing and expanding our digital platforms and we’re moving towards a fully cloud-based IT solution with the relevant software to help us work more effectively.

How have you (your business) coped from a mental health/stress perspective?

We’re a small team and we stay in regular contact where colleagues are encouraged to share their feelings. We’ve been very open in acknowledging that it can be very difficult to find solutions during a time of very heavy restrictions, but we have been as open-minded as possible when it comes to offering support and being flexible as an organisation. 

What are you doing to retain your superstar / Leaders of the future?

Making sure individuals are integral to horizon scanning, decision making and developing the organisational mission promotes a sense of inclusion and empowerment – something which many businesses completely overlook to their detriment. It’s also a way of offering personal and professional development which comes at no physical cost.Making sure individuals are given time, support and personal encouragement is also vitalso they feel recognised and truly valued.

The pandemic has caused many of us to reassess what is important in our lives. In what ways have you recalibrated your own priorities and goals.

It’s fair to say that we typically view time as something we can generally manage, quite often we deliberate and procrastinate feeling safe in the assumption that we’ll be in control of when we eventually make something happen. The restrictions imposed because of Covid-19 have taken that luxury away and this highlights how important it is to observe that well-used cliché about making life matter, seizing the moment, and not putting something off that you could do today. I simply want to do more of the things that matter as often as possible without making excuses to put them off. It’s perhaps easier said than done, but it’s not a bad ambition.

If you’ve been inspired by James Brindle and the story of how The Journalists’ Charity has worked through the pandemic, connect with him on Linkedin and follow him on Twitter.

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