Stefan Eiriksson, Director General of Iceland’s RUV, talks to Marie-Soleil Levery, EBU Member Relations for the Nordics.
I took over as Director General of RUV on 1 March. Within two weeks of my arrival the pandemic had fully escalated across Europe. My biggest challenge was to adjust everything to this whole new situation in just a matter of days. Whereas there was no total lockdown in Iceland, very strict rules forced RUV to activate our continuity plan for maintaining operations as soon as possible.
I was lucky to be able to call on my background in crisis management and pandemic response. In 2002 I was working in the Ministry of Justice and that year we started the work with the Icelandic Ministry of Health preparing for a pandemic as the SARS virus was then a threat to the world. That experience also helped me when I was Chief of the Reykjavik Police for eight years, dealing with civil protection issues, among other things. In Iceland we are not unfamiliar with natural threats such as volcanos and earthquakes, which force us to be almost constantly prepared for what could happen next. Even right before I joined RUV, as Deputy Mayor of the City of Reykjavik, I was involved in a huge operation because of the pandemic. I went from an emergency meeting with the City of Reykjavik directly to RUV to pursue the emergency.
Communication increased in multiple ways. We were fast to adapt to Teams, Zoom and all types of virtual communication tools in Iceland but also externally with our partners, such as the EBU. The transition was extremely well managed and all of us ended up getting more information and having more contact than before, thanks to the tools we were using but also thanks to people who were well-prepared to make the adjustment.
Keeping the flow of information going was vital to our success, with half of our employees working from home, and the other half on-site, in studios and working in the field to cover the news. Being transparent on how we made decisions led to an open and frank conversation internally. We had regular meetings for all our staff, up to three times a week, and ran a survey on how the situation has been managed internally after the first wave last spring. People were very satisfied with the flow of information, either in virtual gatherings or in emails sent daily in the first weeks.
Without a doubt. We learnt that we needed to keep the flow of information at a high level, constantly. To inform our people more and be more open and accessible is a learning we will take from this.
A crisis on this scale sharpens your focus and makes decision making and prioritising easier. You focus on one key issue, which is tackling the virus, and based on that, decisions line up easily. Delivering news and information came first during times of uncertainty, as well as keeping a cool head, minimizing drama and stating facts. Productions addressing people’s changed realities was also an easy prioritization: home schooling through television and physical therapy for people not able to go to therapists, gyms or pools were some priority areas of focus. Entertaining people during tough times also became an easy priority.
There are two challenges at the top of my mind right now. First is the financial situation, now and for the coming months. RUV is partially state-funded, via a tax, and partially by advertising revenue that has dropped dramatically during the crisis, is still very low and will stay low for the foreseeable future. Managing uncertainty around levels of advertising revenue and whether RUV will get any support from the government is not easy, especially because we have responsibilities by law towards Icelanders in terms of civil protection and must keep them informed on issues such as pandemics, earthquakes, volcanos etc. To keep providing the same level of services with lower revenue is a very difficult challenge.
The second challenge is about the pandemic itself: how long will it last, how will it affect the nation in the long run and how RUV can support people through the crisis. This is also a priority for me.
I could not agree more with Tony Hall. He describes exactly what happened in Iceland. Trust in RUV and in news has never been higher, the population has high expectations for us but is also extremely grateful for what has been done. We keep a close dialogue with Icelanders and ask what they wish to see or listen to. This is a good opportunity for us to underline the importance of Public Service Media in Iceland and in Europe in general.
Commercial media are of course critical of RUV, mainly because we are partially funded by advertising, which appears to them as if we are taking away a revenue source from them. They also perceive RUV as too big an organization. I disagree: RUV’s size and budget are assessed and defined according to the Icelandic Parliament’s requirements. We are as big as the Parliament wants us to be because we have serious responsibilities and a clear role in regard to the wellbeing of the nation in a broad sense.
However, I do not see the other media as competitors. I see RUV as a necessary ally for other media, other TV stations, radios and even newspapers. It is important for RUV to support them in their role and in delivering their output. Although I did not have much time to develop our relationships yet, this is the position I am building for RUV towards our colleagues in the media and broadcasting industry.
This is never an easy question. Of course, if we had access to all the information we have now, we would have done some things differently. What we have learnt is the importance of being prepared, keeping continuity plans updated, going through them regularly.
Also, be quick to react. As leaders we do not know whether this is the right decision or not, nevertheless, do react, do not wait. In March, we may have waited a day or two before reacting. Responding to change in a situation is very important.
There are many positive things to learn from this. At RUV, our staff is grateful for what has been done internally. Our continuity plan is all about keeping them safe. It’s only if our staff are safe that we can distribute news and information and deliver continuous operations of our services.
Creativity was in their hands too. Giving your staff the freedom to do things in a different way, to try and come up with new solutions, is key. And they have been fast and very creative: in the first weeks of the pandemic we designed a new website for children at home; we created new TV shows; merged radio programmes, even broadcast from our living rooms as we are doing for this interview!
First, it is important to show empathy towards your staff and the public. Share your understanding of the situation, be open and accessible and when you have informed to the fullest, inform some more. Every question is an important question when it comes from your staff.
Then be prepared for different types of challenges, be prepared for the unknown at any time. Because you never know what is going to happen next.
Finally, react quickly, do not delay, just do something. You will of course make some wrong decisions, but the worst decision in a situation like this is to do nothing.