The Kentucky Press Association Undertakes Strategic Planning to Develop a Dynamic Future Path Forward

KPA strategic planning –  persistence, forethought and commitment ensures outcome exceeds all expectations

By Susan Gaffney-Evans and Junie Merkle

When the Kentucky Press Association began its strategic planning process under the guidance of Dr. L. Darryl Armstrong, the challenge seemed daunting.  A large board of directors, spread over the state, had very little interaction with the KPA staff headquartered in Frankfort. In addition, the board represented newspapers of all sizes, from the very small to the very large.

Founded in 1869 in Frankfort, the Kentucky Press Association (KPA) is the nation’s tenth oldest state press association with 24 daily newspapers and roughly 121 weekly newspapers.

In 2008, realizing the need for change in a changing world, the KPA board hired Dr. Armstrong of ARMSTRONG & Associates Behavioral Public Relations to guide them in developing a strategic plan to help them become innovators in a struggling industry.

Over the past three years in a series of consultations, Armstrong has guided KPA in developing a well-researched strategic plan of action that extends through the year 2013.

As a part of the strategic planning process, Armstrong helped the KPA board and staff to identify threats to its business model as it existed.   Those immediate threats included:

  • Declining revenues
  • Inability to quickly access members for lobbying purposes
  • Shifting dollars from print
  • Online publications that are not a part of the KPA
  • Readers who want to be entertained as well as informed
  • The public’s lack of trust in journalists.

“Dr. Armstrong guided the organization in establishing definitive goals that addressed each of these concerns,” explained Chip Hutcheson, past KPA board president and publisher of the Princeton Times-Leader.

After the board identified these major areas of concern, Armstrong guided them through  several exercises encouraging  a brainstorm of ideas.

David Thompson, KPA’s Executive Director explains, “He just asked us to come up with or ideas and  share them and not to worry about whether they were doable or sounded silly. So that’s what we did, and we came up with a creative list of things to work with and he guided us from there through a process that helped us understand better how to accomplish what we decided to do.”

Further strategic planning research provided by Armstrong to the planning committee and board included:

  • The development of a KPA opportunity map using  computerized polling technology that assured anonymity to the participants
  • Interviews with KPA staff and key stakeholders
  • A survey of the KPA membership with 30% of the 300 members responding
  • A  review of the issues of 49 of the 50 press associations
  • Facilitation and computerized polling of the KPA committee, staff and Board members, using a set of assessments designed from the research projects plus the expertise and experience of ARMSTRONG and Associates

After extensive discussions of how the KPA needed to move forward, the planning committee settled on five strategic areas on which to focus their future efforts:

  • Web assistance in design, training and sales
  • Bridging print and digital models
  • Hiring and retaining good employees
  • Becoming a “major” tool in marketing newspapers and digital products
  • Developing online news, sports and information content for its members.

According to Taylor Hayes, a past board president and publisher of the Kentucky New Era, the board’s vision is not only about what they do for its members, but also about taking care of the organization.

“We have to meet the needs of our members, but also meet the needs of our organization in order to stay relevant,” explained Hayes.   After much discussion, the KPA board and staff crafted new vision and mission statements to support its goals for the future.

The KPA’s new vision statement:  “The Kentucky Press Association will be its members’ source of excellence in the gathering, dissemination, and facilitation of news and information through multiple platforms.”

The KPA’s new mission statement:  “The Kentucky Press Association will maintain a stable, secure, and solid financial operation to perpetuate the organization’s vision to:

  • Uphold the highest ethical journalistic and business standards.
  • Collaborate with its members and other media to better understand the needs and interests of its consumers.
  • Be a leader in integrating and linking the Internet and social web technology with its members and their consumers.
  • Search out and promote new strategic partnerships for its members’ benefit.
  • Provide a platform for relevant training, exchange of ideas and resources.
  • Use a marketing plan to re-brand itself and members to the public.
  • Be its members’ voice to the Kentucky General Assembly.”

Finally, the committee identified risks that could jeopardize the KPA’s strategic planning success. Those risks included fear of change and the unknown, a business model dating back to the 1970’s, the “always have done it this way” mentality, a failure to adapt to changing needs, and lack of follow-through.  In addition, KPA’s lack of internal and external collaboration was pinpointed as detrimental to the whole process of change.

The committee then ranked its priorities. KPA becoming a major tool in marketing for newspapers, as well as developing an online news source, both ranked as high priorities.

“One thing we kept hearing from our members was that we (KPA) needed to be more of a resource for news, they wanted something other than the Associated Press news feeds,” explains Executive Director David Thompson, “So we started a news content service on our website, the first of its kind in Kentucky.”

The KPA has one staff member  reviewing newspaper sites twice daily and posting them on their newly redesigned website.  As a result, the KPA can now provide more news stories for its members to publish in their papers.  To date, 51 newspapers have agreed to participate in the KPA news content service, including the Lexington Herald-Leader.  This allows newspapers access to news stories they otherwise may never have had access to and to publish regional stories that may interest their readers.

In addition, the newly redesigned website has become a conduit of information of new technologies and new ideas for the various Kentucky newspapers.  Since Kentucky is pretty much a rural state with a lot of rural newspapers, some of which have very small markets and one, two maybe only three employees, ”the day to day routine of getting the paper out becomes the focus”, Hayes explains. The small owner/operator simply does not have the time for researching innovative approaches.

Now KPA is sharing new ideas and new ways of producing  a newspaper digitally. KPA is ”bringing the digital age to the newspapers that don’t have those capabilities, and could otherwise not afford the time and energy to figure out how to publish a digital newspaper.”

Another key component that Thompson and his staff implemented is visiting every newspaper in the state, which had not been done since 1999.

“Three of us divided up the newspapers and visited every newspaper last year just to talk with them about what the KPA is doing and  what it should be doing. This has tremendously improved our relationships with our members,” said Thompson.  His goal is to visit every newspaper once every two years, even though the plan only includes visits every three years.

“We’ve always had 100% membership from the newspapers in the state, but never 100% participation in projects,” explained Thompson.   “This year 85 new newspapers entered in our contests, which shows increased participation and interest,” he continued.  “Some newspapers are entering our contests that never did going back to 1983 when I started working for the KPA.”

Dr. Armstrong stressed to KPA the need to learn how to collaborate not just cooperate with others even competitors.

Thompson said a major accomplishment  based on the collaboration approach was recognizing the need to reach  out to other media groups, including groups such as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Coalition of Health Care.

“We also embraced those who were seen as our competitors in the past, such as the Kentucky Broadcasters Association and the Kentucky Communicator’s Association.   We realized it is okay to embrace and collaborate with your competitors and when possible and of mutual benefit to all parties work together toward a common goal,” he says.

Because of  this strategic planning project, the  press association has a new logo that reflects turning the page into the future.

Thompson notes with pride “We also rewrote our bylaws and articles of incorporation. For example, the treasurer had always been a part of the executive committee but had never been able to work up towards presidency.  We changed that, and it’s been well received by the membership.”

Taylor Hayes says that the strategic planning  project and resulting plan exceeded his expectations.

“The staff got excited.  That is the reason it is successful.  The people who need to be patted on the back are Thompson and  his staff.  We as the board didn’t do it.  They have to carry it out.  And if they didn’t get excited and enthusiastic about the strategic plan, it wasn’t going to happen,” Hayes concluded.

Chip Hutcheson agrees that the key was to get the buy-in from the KPA staff.

“That was achieved primarily because the process was well thought out, and we developed and set attainable and measureable goals that were clearly stated with mutually acceptable deadlines,” he explained.

“The process shows that, while some people think this industry may be dying, the KPA took a giant step toward showing that newspapers can adapt to a changing and challenging environment and be stronger at the end of the day,” said Hutcheson.

Jane Sizemore, publisher of the Kentucky Standard in Bardstown and a KPA board member sums up the experience.

“Before we established a working strategic plan for KPA, our course was changing drastically each year as a new president would take over. With Dr. Darryl’s help, we have established a working strategic plan that propelled us to become innovators in a struggling industry. With his help, we addressed a lot of issues and fears that we were, frankly, afraid to face,” Sizemore said.

“There were some uncomfortable moments for all of us, and some doubters who just couldn’t figure out how this would work. Dr. Darryl gave us the tools and brought the expertise to the process to help sort through our ideas and make them actionable goals that we could achieve. He brought everyone, including the KPA staff, into the planning stages to have buy-in and ownership of the final strategic plan. By doing so, the KPA staff quickly embraced the plan, she noted.

“ We have excelled beyond what anyone expected us to accomplish. We now have a clear focus and purpose that carries over year to year as both presidents and board members change,” Sizemore said.

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