Hubert T. Lacroix at the Economic Club of Canada: Change or start over? The challenge of transforming large institutions.

May 5, 2016, Toronto


Remarks by Hubert T. Lacroix at the Economic Club of Canada in Toronto on May 5, 2016.


Good afternoon.

Thank you for joining me today. And many thanks to the Economic Club for the opportunity to speak about CBC/Radio-Canada.

I am very fortunate to lead an institution that touches the lives of Canadians like CBC/Radio-Canada does, most often in ways that are deep, and very personal. My first connection to it goes back 32 years, 1984, when I was hired by Radio-Canada to cover basketball at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. They gave me a blue jacket, an awful blue jacket, with our logo extremely evident on the breast pocket. This jacket still hangs in my closet. When I look at it, it brings back memories of watching in awe the work ethic and passion of iconic figures like René Lecavalier and Richard Garneau, and of the pride I felt in showing off my Radio-Canada credentials.

I feel the same pride today, as I now lead our organization at a time when the way we cover events, share information and promote culture is undergoing a radical transformation.

We’ve never seen anything like it; an age of worldwide, constant connectivity through digital devices. It took almost 200 years for the printing press to reach a majority of the Western world and transform the way we communicate with each other. It took the internet just ten years to do the same thing.

With barely a swipe on your phone, you can instantly be better-informed about your world than at any other time in human history. And we are just beginning to understand the internet of things and how that connectivity will transform our lives.

Obviously, this is changing the way each of us operates.

The challenges are significant; but they’re also not unique to any one type of organization or one industry. It’s certainly changing every aspect of the broadcasting industry; its transforming the way the public broadcaster serves Canadians; and it's taken on a new urgency.

This is what I would like to talk with you about today; how our transformation is making CBC/Radio-Canada more connected, and more relevant, to Canadians.

I want to share some of what we’ve learned about the challenges – and the successes – of transforming a large public institution.

And I'd like to talk about the government's reinvestment in CBC/Radio-Canada and what it means for Canadians.


You don’t have to work at CBC/Radio-Canada to know that the past few years have been a period of incredible change. It hasn't been easy. Some have questioned whether public broadcasting can survive in the Internet age, or even whether it should. I believe it has to.

In this “always on,” global, digital space, the need for a Canadian public space is more important than ever. A public space that serves the public interest; that informs Canadians about their country; that encourages them to connect with each other; that elevates our stories and our values; that builds social cohesion. I strongly believe that this is what our role is.

Our 2020 Plan is built around this concept. But to maintain this close connection with Canadians, we have had to change how we connect with them; and change faster than anyone expected.

Seventy per cent of Canadians already have a smartphone. In less than a decade, the devices have penetrated every aspect of our lives. More than a billion people are now active users of Facebook; 400 million use Instagram each month; 100 million use Snapchat every day.

That’s how younger Canadians are already getting their news and information; from their customized feeds on Apple, Facebook, Twitter and REDDIT. Increasingly, it’s where they get their entertainment.

If we could start over, the smart money would invest EVERYTHING into digital. But we didn’t start with a blank canvas. We are an institution rooted in this country’s history, with powerful legacy assets, and a feeling of fierce pride and ownership by our shareholders, the Canadian public; a public which has some divergent views, often conflicting, on what “transformation” should look like.

Public institutions like ours are expected to be at the forefront of change. We have to see it coming and lead it. We have to be connected and relevant to a digital generation. But, at the same time, we have to ensure that we don't leave other Canadians behind.

Canadians are still watching more than 27 hours of live television each week, most of it in prime time. They love our radio services: just on the CBC side, our morning programs are 1, 2 or 3 in 25 of the 26 communities we serve, and number ONE in 15 of them. So, we need to nurture those connections as we move to digital; all in an environment of limited financial resources, where advertising revenue (anywhere between 20% and 30% of our total budget) is moving more and more away from television.

It’s been two years since we launched our 2020 Plan; our plan to retool the public broadcaster; to become more local, to double our digital reach, and to find some level of multi-year financial stability.

Two years ago, all of this seemed like a radical change.

It didn’t help that, just before we launched our Plan, our parliamentary appropriation was reduced by 115 million dollars. We had to cut back. We lost a lot of talented people. For many who were left, it was the 3rd or 4th round of cuts they had lived through, and there seemed to be no end in sight. The initial public response wasn’t much better. Many feared we were dressing up cost cutting; they simply didn't believe that the 2020 Plan was a bona fide strategic shift.

That was our starting point. It wasn’t pretty. And, at that time, you didn't want my job. It wasn't much fun.

Where are we now? Well, we are all witnessing our transformation and it's pretty incredible to see.

Today, CBC/Radio-Canada is Canada’s biggest online media destination for news and information. Every month, almost 15 million Canadians use our digital sites. That number has increased by 3 million in the past year alone, and more than half of those people are reaching us through their smartphones.

They are engaging with us and with each other; posting comments, sharing our content on Twitter and Facebook. They are holding digital conversations from one end of the country to the other.

This is what our strategy was about and what CBC/Radio-Canada’s role is today: to be the public space for Canadian conversations.

Today, we invest in stories that can move from across platforms. Like Bienvenue chez les #Numéricains, Radio-Canada’s collection of profiles on how technology is changing people's lives. It started as short stories shared on social networks with a hashtag. It grew into an interactive website, then spawned several radio documentaries and even a completely new kind of series on Snapchat.

We have completely inversed our model. On CBC News, our first priority is to deliver content through mobile devices, then the web, then radio, then television. It’s the right thing to do, but it has meant shifting resources. Cities that once got 90 minutes of television news at dinner time now get either 60 or 30 minutes. But we’re now reaching people on mobile 18 hours a day, 7 days a week.

We invest in traditional radio but also, and substantially, in podcasting. This spring CBC developed a new podcast series “Someone Knows Something,” a true-crime investigation into the disappearance of a five-year-old Ontario boy in 1972. It became the top downloaded podcast on iTunes in Canada the very first day it was available. Within weeks, it became one of the top podcasts downloaded in the U.S., recently bumped out of the top ten by Game of Thrones.


So, what have we learned?

Transformation is hard. And, to make it work, you have to keep at it every day. Every decision, every conversation, has to have this direction as a filter and a focus.

Three major lessons:

  1. We have learned that it is employees who keep transformation alive.

Transformation has no finish line. You cannot rest. You must keep moving forward. But change and constant movement can undermine your employees' sense of stability. Some embrace change, some will fear it. Too much disruption can paralyze an organization. People need to be able to understand where they are going and why, even if they can’t see the end point. That helps them see where their talents are needed, how their job will be affected, and where there might be new opportunities.

More than 1,260 of our employees have retrained for new digital skills – training that is key to our digital successes. Another 630 have trained for new business skills to support this new direction at all levels. We are also hiring the next generation of digital creators: 150 new positions have been filled and we look to hire about 300 more in the coming years, again to support our Plan.

I believe we are succeeding because we have some of the most talented, imaginative, and committed employees in the country. They are the ones coming up with new ideas. They are the ones creating Canada’s public space.

  1. Momentum is key

We’ve learned that momentum is key.

Your employees don’t expect to see homeruns every day but they need to see singles and doubles. To keep the momentum of your transformation going, they need to see that you are scoring runs. Because if people don’t see what they’re gaining, they will tend to focus only on what they’re losing.

Sharing what we call small “weekly wins” as well as larger successes, means everyone can see, and share, that feeling that their effort is worth it; that transformation is allowing us to do things we couldn’t do before.

Let me tell you about one example that I am particularly proud of: The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women project, created, in Winnipeg, by our Aboriginal Digital Unit together with our investigative I-Team. They used the power of digital to make personal what, for many Canadians, had been only a distant issue. Over six months, they met with each woman’s family and friends. They looked at every single case. They created an interactive site with the space to really tell each of their stories – the first of its kind. It’s incredibly powerful. And it’s producing results. It got Canadians talking about what’s been happening in their backyard. Because of their work, the RCMP reopened two cold cases and were able to successfully close another.

THIS is the power of public broadcasting in the digital age. This is our transformation in action.

  1. Don’t forget your roots.

We’ve learned that public institutions cannot transform in isolation.

Canadians feel a sense of identity, of ownership towards their public broadcaster. It’s theirs. We reach Canadians in every region of this country, in both official languages, in eight Aboriginal languages.

That connection is one of our greatest strengths and it is a great privilege. But it means that each change to a program or service can be very difficult to manage.

Our transformation has to be done differently; with a recognition of our special mandate and relationship with Canadians. For all of the disruption in the sector and in the organization, CBC remains the most trusted media brand in the country. That is one thing we are not going to change.


So, is it better to change or start over?

Starting from scratch has a lot of advantages. We see it in the success of innovative, disruptive media like Vice. But in our case, our brand, our roots, our historical connections with Canadians are CBC/Radio-Canada's greatest assets. We are also accustomed to change. We have led the adoption of new technologies and new ideas in storytelling from our beginning. That is an advantage that you simply can't recreate.

And now, for the first time in a decade, we have just witnessed the first injection of new resources into public broadcasting.

Here are a few details that we shared last week with our staff.

  • We are going to reduce repeats on our radio networks.
  • We are going to support risk-taking projects and lab-type initiatives that will create new storytelling.
  • We have had tremendous success using nimble pocket bureaus to improve our international coverage from Moscow and to Rio. We’re going to add more, starting with Turkey – ground zero in the human migration story.
  • We’re going to reinvest in regions that were cut too deeply. In 2012, we had to put on hold plans to open a radio and digital station to serve people in London, Ontario. I’m happy to say that project is now back on track.
  • We are going to digitize more of our rich archives, with a priority on our indigenous archives. They hold the stories and experiences of Canadians. We want Canadians to be able to access them.
  • We’re also going to celebrate high-profile events like next year’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, and this summer’s Olympics.
  • We want Canadians to be amazed with what a re-investment in public broadcasting can do.

And, it’s more than money. It’s what this reinvestment represents. It’s a vote of confidence in the value of our programs and in our vision for the future. It's a signal that we are expected to play a leading role in the culture of our country. That’s the role we want to play.

We have heard the Minister of Canadian Heritage say that Canada's cultural and creative industries are a vibrant part of our economy and national identity. And when government says that culture is important, something else happens. People start to think about what is possible again. I notice it when I speak with my colleagues at Telefilm or the National Film Board. We are optimistic about the future and eager to work on new ideas; we are now back at envisioning partnerships and projects to support Canadian culture. It's an exciting time.


There will continue to be challenges of course. The decline in advertising continues to undermine the ability of all broadcasters to create good Canadian programs. A modern broadcasting business model needs to reflect modern business realities.

I think that the government's consultation on the future of Canadian Content in a Digital World is a very important step in addressing this challenge.

We have learned a lot about transformation over the past few years. And we will continue to learn, innovate, and adapt.

We will make sure that Canadians have that public space which is uniquely theirs.

Thank you.

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