Engagement has long stopped meaning only when two people intend to get married.
For newspapers and media organizations, engagement demands paying attention to their community, building a strong relationship and tending to it in order to make sure it stays strong and healthy.
“If you start to do engagement, you’ll realize how much you need the public and how much they have to offer,” says Fiona Morgan, the founder of Branchhead Consulting and author of a recent piece for the American Press Institute on the importance of news organizations serving their communities, while social distancing regulations are in place.
She’s seen several waves of interest in community outreach and engagement among news organizations. Many times, it starts with bringing residents and stakeholders together in a room, divided up at tables and given conversation starters. Reporters and editors are asked to participate both as residents and with their jobs in mind.
The first question is usually one to find out what issues are important to people at the table; the second one asks where they’d go to get information about that particular topic or issue. The third prompt would start the conversation about how the news outlets in that town can cover those issues with the community’s ideas in mind.
People who don’t work in news are still “mystified” about how reporters do their jobs, and increased community engagement helps take some of that confusion away, she says. Reaching out to readers, listeners and the like helps expand a media outlet’s understanding of the people and communities they cover.
But engagement is more than that, Morgan adds.
“One of the coolest things I’ve seen lately is ResolvePhilly, a collaborative in Philadelphia that has a couple dozen newsrooms of different kinds and sizes. They’ve put together a COVID-19 FAQ where you can get access to simple questions about employment, workers’ rights, childcare. You can use text messages, which is a great way to reach people,” she says. “Even if you don’t have broadband at home or access to a computer, you probably have a phone that can text. It’s a great way to reach people.”
Now is the time to find tools like this to reach an audience, Morgan says. It can be simple, but it’s important to be consistent and responsive to the people who sign up.
“If someone asks a question, be sure to respond,” she says. “If you don’t answer, you’re not likely to get more questions. It’s important to be consistent and responsive. Also, start small. Start with something you know you can do and something you can do to let them know you’re listening.”
While in-person events were the way to go in the past, online events can be equally effective now, but organizations need to make sure they’re actively seeking participants, Morgan says. The more divisions between reporters and readers or listeners are removed, the better the communication — and story ideas — will be on both sides of the news.
It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell talks with consultant Fiona Morgan about the importance of newsrooms rethinking and revitalizing engagement efforts to better understand and reach their communities.