The media is our mirror into the current events and circumstances of our community and our world. Firm decisions are made to ensure that the media maintains transparency and risks are taken to ensure that essential information is reported to the public. In this interview, Mi-Ai Parrish, former president publisher of the largest media company in Arizona, The Arizona Republic and USA Today and current CEO of Map Strategies, shares her insight about leadership and integrity in media and how she and her team made a tough decision regardless of the odds against her.
Eric Sperling: Hello again everybody. So excited, we have Mi-Ai Parrish. Mi-Ai, Thank you so much for being here.
Mi-Ai Parrish: I’m so glad to be here, thank you.
Eric Sperling: We’re going to have an unbelievable discussion today. And speaking of unbelievable, let’s talk about your career in media briefly. I’ll try to go through the resume.
Mi-Ai Parrish: Oh my goodness.
Eric Sperling: You’ve been at so at many newspapers, Chicago Sun Times, San Francisco Chronicle, to name a few; former president and publisher of the Arizona Republic and USA Today. You’re the current CEO at Map Strategies. Is that correct?
Mi-Ai Parrish: Mmm-hmm.
Eric Sperling: And then you’re also the current chair for Media and Innovation and Leadership over at the ASU Cronkite school. So pretty impressive resume here, lots of big names as far as media is concerned. And we’re going to talk a lot about integrity. We’re going to talk about media today. And so the first thing I want to talk about is when you were at the Arizona Republic. Tell us a bit about, you know, if you Google you, you know what you’re going to find. And there are so many leaders, influencers in this community who have sat where you are and they talk about the importance of sometimes taking a stand and making tough decisions. And I want to talk about the decision you made in 2016 where it was a hundred and twenty years straight where the Republic had endorsed a Republican candidate for president and then the first time that the Republic made the decision, you made the decision to endorse a Democrat for president. I want you to tell me about the thought-process leading up to that and then what happened after that.
Mi-Ai Parrish: We really based that decision on, like you said, integrity. We felt that it was really important to choose a candidate who was the most fit for the office, the highest office in the land. We took that really seriously, and we ran that through all the filters of what was best for this community, for this state, for this nation and we didn’t feel that that was the current president, and we knew that that would be controversial. It wasn’t that we weren’t going to endorse Republicans. We endorsed a lot of Republicans because they were the right person for that job, for the state, for the people, for this community, but it was incredibly controversial, and we knew it would be.
Eric Sperling: And I like the thought process that we talked about where you did have the opportunity to say and business leaders in this community have opportunities like this where “Do we not endorse? Do we just don’t endorse anybody? Do we pick A? Do we pick B?” and then you guys decided to make that decision knowing there could be financial implications, there can obviously be other implications, but tell me about that choice. You know you talked about courage, and you know sometimes leaders have to be courageous, tell me about decision process.
Mi-Ai Parrish: I believe strongly in our democracy and having a healthy democracy where you can have civil debate and disagreement and in the power of choosing a leader and that we get to vote. We felt, and I felt very strongly, that we need to encourage people be as informed as people and make a decision based on their own knowledge and that they should vote and encourage them to vote. And we weren’t going to take the easy way out which would have been to either not endorse or to lightly endorse or to endorse somebody besides Trump which several places did. You know, we don’t like him, we don’t like her. and I didn’t believe in the idea of throwing away your vote.
Eric Sperling: And other people didn’t realize that newspapers could endorsed, right?
Mi-Ai Parrish: Funny, right? It’s historically part of who we are and historically newspapers were partisan. The Arizona Republic wasn’t the Arizona Republic until 1930. They were partisan press and that was part of their role. And you know, the vestige of that is the editorial board where you have opinions that are expressed, and they’re clearly marked as opinions and that was the case in this. And part of the endorsement process too is we meet or know more about, we do the research and we share that information with the community to make the best decision possible and encourage people to participate, to be informed and to participate.
Eric Sperling: And what’s interesting is, you were telling me as a leader, you’re pretty neutral, and you’re not political either.
Mi-Ai Parrish: No, I’m really not, I’m really not. It was not my happy place.
Eric Sperling: Yeah, and you find yourself in a decision-making process that involves all of that.
Mi-Ai Parrish: Right, I’m very much a collaborative leader. Like let’s listen to the sides. Let’s discuss what’s the best thing in this place for this community that we’re serving. It’s not about me. It’s not my opinion. I will bring my opinion, my point of view, my background because we all do, we’re humans to that. But at the end of the day, the filter is what’s the best decision for this place and this time for these people that we serve.
Eric Sperling: And then again, as business leaders, as business owners whether it’s a huge company, or it’s sometimes a smaller organization, decisions are going to be made where not everybody is on board, right?
Mi-Ai Parrish: Right.
Eric Sperling: And what’s that process like in a decision of this magnitude when you’re speaking to the newsroom, you’re speaking to sales people, you’re speaking to everybody telling “here’s what we’re going to do and here’s why”. What was that like?
Mi-Ai Parrish: I believe in truth and transparency and being able to, you know, I jokingly say “you need to be able to explain to your mother the decision that you made”. Are you comfortable saying, “this is what we did for these reasons”, and “these are the consequences of this, let’s have a conversation about that”. We knew, I knew that there were consequences of that, but when you involve people primarily in the newsroom but we had people across the enterprise who were involved in that because it impacted the entire enterprise, and I wanted to be transparent as possible and as open as possible, and as open as possible to the community but really, internally because there was so much impact on them, so they understood what we did. And they were all ambassadors on that, I couldn’t be in all the places, and they could just agree with me, that’s part of how it works here, right? Saying “this is isn’t how I voted” or saying “this isn’t or this wasn’t my decision, this was and editorial board decision.”
Eric Sperling: And I’m glad you brought that up because if you watch YouTube videos, you’ve had to talk about his before obviously?
Mi-Ai Parrish: Right.
Eric Sperling: And in some of those videos, you’re talking about like “this is the decision we made and it’s OK if you disagree with us”, “it’s okay if you go another way”, tell us about, you know, I know prepared for that decision.
Mi-Ai Parrish: We really did.
Eric Sperling: …but some of the stuff went a little out of your initial thought process when it came to consequences.
Mi-Ai Parrish: Right. So we really prepared. We talked about this for months actually. How we were going to do? How we were going to roll it out? What words we were going to say on social media and all the different channels? Who are we were going to have in the office answering the phones? Who are we were going to have on social media? We had scripts to help people answer the phones, to help people understand…
Eric Sperling Just like any business would that they’re making a huge decision that’s going to go public, let’s be prepared.
Mi-Ai Parrish: We’ve got it all prepared. But at the end of the day, some things go sideways. But it was much more. I was prepared for people to disagree, I wasn’t prepared for the violent vitriol that came from that decision. And not just against me, lots of death threats in my career; it’s the nature of the business for decisions that I made or decisions that people disagreed with in the enterprise. But in this case, a decision about an opinion, about who to vote for; vote for whoever you want, we’re saying “go vote, here’s the information we’re sharing with you” where immediately that first day somebody called and said “because of what you did, more of your reporters are going to end up like Don Bolles who was a reporter and was assassinated and during the course of his reporting, his car was bombed and he said more reporters are going to have their cars bombed.
Mi-Ai Parrish: Right. It just really became this much larger, and symbolic nationally, ultimately because we had never endorsed a Democrat and that just really caught fire in a time where people were so divided and ready enough to sort of itching to have that debate, that fight.
Eric Sperling: And let’s talk about the trickle-down effect and like I said some other businesses will experience the same thing and the same type of whether it’s backlash or whatever you want to call it; where you had call center employees now being threatened; where it might be someone who has never stepped out of the warehouse who’s just stalking shelves and then all of a sudden things are happening to him and he’s like “wait a minute, I had nothing to do with any of this”. So, what were those meetings like after some of this was beginning to swell?
Mi-Ai Parrish: It was so immediate, so catastrophic. We had these poor call center employees who were just taking so much heat and so much vitriol. And we took care of them; you know, the newsroom, like so many of us went and took them lunch, and took them snacks and sat with them and answered questions and really engaged with them because they were taking the heat of the thing that we did.
Mi-Ai Parrish: And same thing for people who are going door-to-door for subscriptions and supermarkets pitching the paper and photographers out taking pictures at soccer games were getting screamed at because they has Republic shirts on.
Eric Sperling: And their telling you this, so this people are coming into your office and “here’s what’s happening to me”. How do you respond?
Mi-Ai Parrish: And I’m also asking, like “hey, here’s this thing” and you know, I need to know and you know: I need to do what I can to protect you, I need to do what I can to help you and support you. And we did all the things; we called the FBI and Homeland Security and Police and got extra security for people. And I joke about pizza, but like showing we care, we know that this is really hard, this is really stressful and the same thing in the newsroom. They are more used to these kind of threats, but it was incredibly, with people who don’t normally get threats, there weren’t investigative reports who were used to whatever, the mob making threats; features guys and sports guys.
Eric Sperling: And sports guys never got any of that.
Mi-Ai Parrish: Right. Yeah, and I think at the beginning in the end of the day, what we did was about. This is who we are, this is who we stand for, this is our purpose. We’re doing this because we believe in the power of democracy, we believe in the power of truth, and we believe that this is our world to serve the community. And that we were from a space of integrity throughout all of that. We wanted to be able to reinforce that, and there are people who still disagree with me, which is the point, right?
Mi-Ai Parrish: We want to support the idea that you get to choose in an informed way.
Eric Sperling: Yeah, we talked about civil disagreement. Can you elaborate a bit about why that is so difficult, I guess, in a lot of ways?
Mi-Ai Parrish: Why is that so difficult? Such a good question. I think we’re in a place where it’s so easy to yell at people almost anonymously, through social media. I mean with so many people just screaming at us figuratively, well sometimes literally on phone, leaving anonymous death threats and sending emails from troll accounts and tweeting at us and everything. And people experience that increasingly that it’s almost become sport, and it’s also become sport to attack the media or to attack journalists, certainly it’s been encouraged. I think that it’s accelerated for all of us, but certainly for journalists who are under specific attack right now in this environment. And more people are reinforced in whatever is their truth and the platforms encourage that, Facebook and others encourage and reinforce whatever negative thing or positive thing you believe and make it easy to attack other people.
Eric Sperling: It’s well publicized now, all of those algorithms are based on whether you’re liking or commenting and continue to see more of that content. In your role now with coaching, leading the future journalists of America, what are you most excited about? What are you most concerned about? And I guess how have you taken the experience we just described and kind of shared that with them and again trying to keep that integrity and that courage which is part of their foundation, right?
Mi-Ai Parrish: Right. There’s been an increase in journalism student. There’s been a Trump bump…
Eric Sperling: Which is a surprise…
Mi-Ai Parrish: Which is really interesting, right? And it happened after Watergate, and it’s happening after the 16th election and we are having more students at Cronkite than we’ve ever had which is kind of crazy. And it’s really interesting, and it’s because so many people want to be engaged, be involved, make a difference, shine light in dark places, help people understand the context and complexity of complicated times. And really, they’ve come in with this mindset, I mean not everyone wants to be an investigative journalist, but they want to help people understand the world that we live in; they’re much more advocacy-driven. They’re much more justice and righteous-oriented, then I think past generations are. And they fill me with hope. They want to make a difference in a positive way, you know, they want to serve.
Eric Sperling: It’s great to hear you say that and when I was listening to you talk just now, I kept thinking about 20 years ago like my journalism class, and I think it seemed like we just wanted to be on TV.
Mi-Ai Parrish: Yeah, well I never wanted to be on TV, no offense.
Eric Sperling: Now, you were just telling me because of everything that has transpired, I guess, over the last decade and because media’s everywhere, there’s less focus on “Okay, I’m going to be on camera, I’m going to be able to do my thing” and there’s more emphasis on actually making a difference and using what that journalism degree was supposed to be intended for, right?
Mi-Ai Parrish: It’s interesting, because in my time, the hard core people, it was really about wielding hammer floor, like holding a powerful accountable, which is great, and that’s a huge part of what we do. But I think so many people actually want to inform and enlightening, make positive change and help move forward positive goodness and light and truth and hold powerful accountable. I mean, it’s pretty amazing and inspiring, I mean, I think they will make, they’ll help us change the world in a positive way.
Eric Sperling: What do you see happening? What are you telling these students? You know, you’ve mentioned, like we are in a disruptive way , an unbelievably disruptive time.
Mi-Ai Parrish: It’s been a really rough year.
Eric Sperling: (Laughs)
Mi-Ai Parrish: Yeah, it really has been. There’s no two ways about it. It’s heartbreaking, a lot of what is going on.
Eric Sperling: What do you see transpiring? What’s some of the big takeaways, the big trends that you know, either you were getting from your students, or that you’re trying to tell them to be aware of?
Mi-Ai Parrish: I tell them the truth but not in a, hopefully, not in a terribly depressing way. And I’m like here are the facts, here’s the situation. There’s also opportunity in this, and it also means that what you’re doing has never been more important, and I think positivity, begetting hope, saying “this is what your purpose is”, “this is what you’re going to do, it’s going to be hard, but what you’re going to do is going to be really important, and if that’s your jam, then this is the place for you. And when you have those people when they know thats it’s going to be hard, it’s not going to be always fun, you’re going to sometimes struggle but what you’re going to do is spread goodness, and what you’re going to do is empower communities and help protect democracy. If you got people who at the end of the day are like “Yes, me”, that’s pretty great and that’s who they are.
Eric Sperling: In one of our discussions we had back there was about “Yeah, sure, you can go on social media, you can flip on the news, you can go online, it’s dark, dark, dark.” And sometimes, you know the world is in the most disruptive place it’s ever been at and it’s the most darkest it has ever been but history, if you look at history…
Mi-Ai Parrish: We’ve been fighting people for a long time forever. That’s what we do, we’ve been arguing and they’re have been some really darkly evil times not that long ago in our history and even in the times of Civil rights and World War II and all those things. Historically, I don’t mean to diminish what we’re going through, but let’s have some perspective and the fact that we’re able to have these debates and we’re, the country is still standing. We might be a little bit straggled and we might be a little anxious going into Christmas dinner.
Eric Sperling: (Laughs)
Mi-Ai Parrish: But we’re good, we’re still standing, and I think it also re-energizes us to say, “Okay, this is what we stand for, this is who we are. These are our principles. These are our core values and that is reinforcing. We’re not on auto-pilot about it. We’ve been pushed and questioned and challenged, and we’ve dusted ourselves about us and stood up back again. That’s really powerful.
Eric Sperling: And you’re seeing that message resonate with your students, that’s what you were telling me.
Mi-Ai Parrish: I really am. I really am, and they have got a sense of humor about it too, which I think you really need in this time, you know.
Eric Sperling: Absolutely.
Mi-Ai Parrish: You know, a sense of purpose, a sense of justice and I mean that in the most positive sense. That they really want to be part of fixing things and solving things for us. I think it’s amazing.
Eric Sperling: You’ve given keynote speeches before. You’ve been in front of large audiences before. To kind of bring this all together, the last thing I’ll ask is if there are, there’s a message, there’s business owners and business leaders who would struggle maybe in that place that you are at where you were at that you had to make a decision with that type of magnitude and so many variables, the financial implications, the…. What would you say helped you through that whole process from start to finish?
Mi-Ai Parrish: Having core values at the heart of everything that we did and being really transparent about it. When you have the trust in your organization, when you’ve shown compassion for the people and the operation and when you’ve shown integrity. Going back to that again and again through hard times, that will help accelerate and inspire the people who work for you to do positive things. Goodness will beget goodness, right? There are ripples of goodness that come from that; that heart of these values and it’s not always easy and there can be consequences but I think ultimately everyone’s in a better place for that, right? And it’s good business too, right? It’s good for everything.
Eric Sperling: You don’t think about that, but yeah.
Mi-Ai Parrish: Yeah, I think for me, good journalism is good business, even when it’s hard.
Eric Sperling: Mi-Ai, thank you so much.
Mi-Ai Parrish: Thank you.
Eric Sperling: Thanks for sharing, thanks for being so open with us.
Mi-Ai Parrish: Yeah, absolutely. So glad to be here.
Eric Sperling: Alright. Thank you so much and we’ll see you next time.
Democracy is the government of the people, for the people and by the people. It has always been about the people, that’s how leadership should be. Leadership is not about how you feel, but about the community and cause you’re leading. Leaders should make the best decisions for the good of their community, whether it benefits them personally or not. For integrity sake, you have to do what is right.