BLOG published on 31 Mar 2020

The Coronavirus and Public Service Media: Why digital transformation matters now more than ever

There’s a quote on a slide I often use when speaking about the urgency of digital transformation. It’s not from any Harvard Business School academic, Silicon Valley tech guru, or ancient philosopher, but rather from the boxer, Mike Tyson. It goes:

‘Everyone has a plan…until they get punched in the face’.

And we thought we knew what getting punched felt like. Before, I was speaking of the impact of the tech giants, content fragmentation, constant connectivity, political instability, funding crises, and, of course, the explosion of digital technologies. Digital transformation was the most important issue, I argued. And then 2020 came along.

In the new reality of Coronavirus - with millions of people retreating to the safety of the online world for their news, entertainment, education, communication and remote working - the imperative of digital transformation has gone from important to absolutely critical. 

For Public Service Media (PSM), the ability to rapidly deploy workable tools and processes for connecting with both audiences and colleagues remotely, effectively, and at speed will likely be the difference between success and failure in what has quickly become the new normal. Fortunately, due to the very nature of our industry, PSM are incredibly well placed to adapt to this situation. The public, politicians, health and education systems all need PSM in the most literal, urgent sense.

The responses EBU Members are making are impressive: many industries are not faring nearly so well. It is significant, encouraging and motivating to see that PSM employees are rightly categorized as ‘key workers’, essential for keeping society going in these testing times.

There is another important aspect to recent events which we can acknowledge without being celebratory: there is an insatiable demand for content right now. Moreover, PSM are uniquely placed to deliver this because the emphasis is on trusted information, informed analysis, educational content and high quality entertainment. 

But the challenges are great, and our organizations have to adapt. And whilst the Membership of the EBU is incredibly diverse by every definition, no one is starting from zero. Some Members have an enviable level of digital maturity, whilst others are earlier in their journey. All acknowledge the scale of the transformation challenge, and recognize that wherever they are today, there is still much to do. 

Before the crisis arrived, the most common situation we observed was one in which organizations fully understood the importance of digital transformation, but that have, until now, been taking their time, whether due to the complexity, scale, cost or the potential disruption involved. These Members have not necessarily been hurt by taking a measured approach. Their efforts have often concentrated on small wins, keeping pace with the curve or even slightly ahead in places, learning from others and keeping internal disruptions to a minimum. In some cases, this has meant delaying difficult decisions even when recognizing they are inevitable, if not yet critical. 

This approach is, by and large, one we can understand and endorse. It suits many organizations where radical change would be too disruptive, means are limited, and conditions restrictive. Starting small and thinking big is a powerful principle for digital transformation. Once an organization has some tangible success stories, it will be in a much stronger position to start transforming at scale. This way, when difficult decisions are needed, leadership will have proof of concept and purpose to refer to. PSM have particular legacy issues which mean the ability to fully pivot is limited, so incremental change is a more realistic, pragmatic approach. If organizations can find a way to continuously build and transform in different areas that are part of a bigger plan, they are more likely to find success - and probably spend their money a lot more wisely - than if they go for total transformation all in one go. 

But the Coronavirus pandemic has removed the luxury of choice. At the EBU, our own adoption of collaborative digital tools was on a slow, organic roll-out. Up-take was good but inconsistent. The shift had its own sporadic pace. Now it has been forced upon us at incredible speed (I would love to see the statistics for internal emails, as I am certain they have dropped by staggering percentages as we all move to chat features inside Microsoft Teams and various quicker, more informal tools). But most significantly, the habits we are forming now will define how we work and communicate with one another far into the future.

For PSM, transformation has been also been brutally accelerated. The first impact has been internal and some areas, such as the means to enable remote working, will have taken huge leaps forward. Long-term we can expect savings to follow as the number of inefficient face-to-face meetings are replaced with quick digital exchanges. We will all have the opportunity to reflect from a position of experience on remote working and exactly how we use our offices and facilities (two comments: keep track of the numbers now so as to have the right data for making decisions later; and two, whilst remote working suits many very well, this is also an opportunity to better adapt space and methods for those it doesn’t). And we will all view work travel through an altered lens. 

The crisis is also accelerating the transformation of PSM's digital offer as the public turn online for fast, trustworthy news, educational content, and of course entertainment to distract themselves from it all. Digital teams are working flat out to deliver for audiences that have rapidly evolving needs and expectations. It may not feel like it, but this is actually a valuable opportunity to scale-up development teams, data and AI capabilities, processes automation, multimedia production and the online offer itself. These changes will also stick once the crisis passes, which can only be of benefit in the long run. 

There will also inevitably be negative knock-on effects from these forced transformations. For all of us, money will have been spent because it needed to be rather than because we wanted to. When things level out, there will be down-stream repercussions in areas such as systems integration. More worryingly, there are examples of clearly regressive steps such as converged newsrooms being pulled apart as teams are separated to prevent the possible spread of infection. Completely understandable, but difficult to watch. And as we reduce activities to those that are critical for serving the public in these uniquely challenging times, innovation labs, creative vehicles and experimental projects will all take a back seat for a while. This is as it should be, for now. 

But we must not allow these short-term defensive actions create long-term negative costs. The first stage of crisis is reactive, the second stage is management, and the third stage is returning to normal, whatever that may turn out to be. This crisis is still building, but it’s critical to start planning now to ensure we maximize the positive gains from the situation and negate the impact of our defensive decision making.

If you have stayed with me this far, I would like to invite you to join this conversation. The EBU community has been highly proactive in gathering best practices for managing this crisis, and the DTI would like to start planning for our return. I would like to start by simply gathering your thoughts and theories about what this means for the transformations our organizations are going through. Please write to me directly at The second stage will be to bring these ideas together in conversation and find a way to share them more widely in the form that best suits the situation.

These are testing times, and we must all adapt our plans. One thing we can say with certainty is that the cost of digital transformation failure has gone up exponentially. But I am confident we have the collective knowledge, will and means to come through stronger than ever. 

Written by

Dr. Sasha Scott
Project Lead, Digital Transformation
+41 22 717 20 15