Collins | Can Corporate Culture Hold Fast Though A Crisis?

What happens when companies try to maintain — or even rebuild — their culture during and after a crisis? Is culture something that becomes so ingrained in a company’s DNA that for good or bad, it cannot be changed? Or can and will companies adapt their cultures for a reemergence after a crisis, or even a seismic event such as a merger?

As we continue our slow emergence from the COVID-19 pandemic, companies of all sizes in the media industry are having to navigate the reestablishment of their culture in the face of employees returning to physical offices, workers asking or choosing to remain in a work from home (WFH) setting, or a hybrid of the two. With all these factors in place, it’s no wonder businesses are scrambling to ensure they have an unshakable company culture as a guidepost.

In her article “Culture During the Crisis” published in the May/June issue of MFM’s member publication, The Financial Manager, Cindy Pekrul, former senior vice president and deputy controller at WarnerMedia, first, and wisely, included a definition of company culture, found in a March 2020 post on Aptly titled “What is Work Culture?” the article termed it “a collection of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that make up the regular atmosphere in a work environment.”

Further, the post states that healthy workplace cultures align employee behaviors and company policies with the overall goals of the company, while also considering the well-being of individuals. In other words, work culture determines how well a person fits into their environment at a job and their ability to build professional relationships with colleagues.

Many companies spend years, and a lot of resources, defining and refining their own cultures and ensuring the people they hire are a good fit within these definitions. When something like COVID-19 hits like a tidal wave, that company culture can come crashing down. But the media industry, which has weathered more than its fair share of disruption, seemed to be prepared. While it didn’t necessarily have solutions in already place, it quickly mobilized to leverage technology and processes to keep employees working and happy, starting mostly with WFH environments.

Interestingly, Pekrul cites Discovery Inc. early on in her article, which underwent a seismic adjustment of culture following its acquisition of Scripps Interactive in 2018. No sooner did the corporation emerge from that event, the pandemic hit and Discovery was forced to find efficient and quick ways to set up WFH situations that would allow the same level of productivity as its office environments.

“We learned a lot about our employees during this time,” Lori Locke, executive vice president and chief accounting officer at Discovery, told Pekrul. “As the pandemic goes on longer, we keep rethinking and will continue to rethink because the goal posts keep moving.” That was an understatement.


Since Pekrul’s interview with Locke, one of the biggest media stories of the year broke; on May 17, Discovery and AT&T’s WarnerMedia announced their intention to combine to form a standalone media entertainment company. The two companies must now integrate their possibly very separate cultures as they merge scores of entertainment brands and delivery channels. It will be incredibly interesting to learn how the two companies pull this off — though I believe they will be successful doing so.

But I digress. As media companies began instituting WFH options, they quickly discovered a number of snags — both with technology and with the human factor — that would cause challenges. Some had to ask employees to engineer and configure their own computer, phone and video platform set-ups. Certain employees were struggling with working from home, essentially in a silo and feeling as if they were losing connection with their peers and supervisors, resulting in decreased motivation and productivity.

As soon as companies were aware of the downsides of WFH, they went to work to correct its flaws, with the greater goal of reestablishing corporate culture. NBCUniversal, for example began hosting office hours and allowing team members to sign up for one-on-one sessions with company leaders to discuss their concerns. Antonella Ricciardi, senior vice president and group controller at NBCU, reports that these virtual office hours have been an effective way for leaders to stay connected to their teams and to engage with team members they don’t see on a regular basis.

There are a number of upsides to virtual work environments, and in some ways, virtual work has uncovered unforeseen advantages. Pekrul talked to vice president and treasurer of WarnerMedia, Cal Mostella, who commented: “Working virtually has leveled the playing field for those of us working in different locations. No longer do we feel remote.”

He added that he hopes the new modes of virtual communication will continue even after people return to the workforce, which allows employees who have never been centrally located to continue to feel as included as the rest of the teams.

One of the conclusions — and silver linings of the effects the pandemic has had on the media industry — is that many companies became more aware of their employees’ health and well-being, and went beyond the call of duty to make sure employees were being cared for on multiple levels. This heightened awareness is playing out in the form of closer attention to personal needs, increased communication, deeper connection, additional recognition, and greater collaboration.

WarnerMedia is a great example of a company that has focused on its employees’ wellness during the pandemic. It smartly leveraged its existing employee platform, “Props,” which is used as a real-time recognition and positive reinforcement program. There managers can send messages of encouragement and praise for accomplishments achieved each day, no matter how large or small. Employees are granted points and can give them to other employees. Points may be exchanged for rewards, charitable donations, and custom WarnerMedia awards.

Mostella, who championed Props early on, calls it “a virtual way for employees to feel like they are a part of something bigger and connect across teams and locations to celebrate each other’s accomplishments.”

Finally, onboarding new employees and introducing them to a company culture is extremely important — and can be challenging — during a pandemic. Managers have had to find creative ways to connect with new staff members during virtual sessions. And while ensuring their technology is working well is key, things like assigning the new employee a “virtual buddy” to help them navigate their new work culture and make them comfortable with their colleagues is even more important.

In some cases, managers may ask new team members come into a safe office environment, for a short period, to complete training. This also offers new staff the opportunity to get a sense of what their office setting will be like once they move to a non-pandemic work situation.

Clearly, the pandemic created an unprecedented shift in the ways companies have been forced to address culture and workforce strategies. Yet, in some ways the approach hasn’t changed much at all; its cornerstone is a focus on employees and their needs, balanced with the company’s mission and vision. And while each company takes its own unique approach, those that put an emphasis on employees’ work-life balance, growth opportunities and job satisfaction will only strengthen their cultures—no matter what may come.

If you are interested in learning more about media companies’ approach to WFM and corporate culture, plan to join the second keynote session of MFM’s virtual annual conference – Media Finance Focus 2021: Together Toward Tomorrow – on Tuesday, June 15, at 1 p.m. ET. TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp will be moderating a panel discussion covering what companies have learned about WFH and their plans going forward. Panelists include Julie Anderson, editor in chief for Tribune Publishing’s South Florida Sun Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel; James Jefferies, vice president of IT operations, Gray Television; Joe Mechlinski, CEO and founder of SHIFT; and Donald H. Thompson; EVP and chief human resources officer, Sinclair Broadcast Group.

Then, on Thursday, July 15, at 1 p.m. ET, during our final conference keynote, Dr. Gunnar Wiedenfels, CFO of Discovery, will cover “Maintaining Corporate Culture in a Changing World.” This should be particularly interesting give the May 17 announcement of the planned WarnerMedia combination with Discovery.

The May/June 2021 issue of TFM, which includes Pekrul’s thoughtfully written piece, is currently available on the MFM website.

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, the media industry’s credit association. She can be reached at [email protected] and via the association’s LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.

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