Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

Coronavirus community engagement can create relationships ‘forged in fire’

Bridget Thoreson
Engagement Manager, Hearken

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, it upended the public engagement plans many news organizations had been perfecting over time. In-person events shuttered abruptly by anti-virus precautions. In a matter of days, however, new forms of outreach took root.

Newspapers published coronavirus newsletters. They turned existing Facebook groups into conduits for virus information. The Arizona Republic began offering text updates to its readers. Publishers dropped paywalls and invited non-subscribers to their sites.

Bridget Thoreson is the engagement manager at Hearken, a  public-powered journalism consulting firm, and she recently presented a webinar on how to respond to public information needs in times of crisis.

 “All sorts of new products have cropped up,” Thoreson said.

For instance, KSAT, the ABC affiliate in San Antonio and a Hearken partner, is inviting health experts to a 9 p.m. broadcast where they take questions viewers have submitted online.  Los Angeles public radio station KPCC put off its spring pledge drive so as not to interfere with getting coronavirus information to its listeners. Thoreson sees ideas for outreach everywhere.

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“As you’re building relationships during this critical time and becoming a trusted source of information for your audiences, that’s a relationship forged in fire that should last well beyond the current crisis,” she said.

What’s the one thing journalists need to know if they’re engaging directly with their communities for the first time?

Thoreson: What’s important for journalists to keep in mind is you want to treat this engagement like  you would treat any relationship in your life. You want to be open and honest, you must be clear about expectations and also about what you are able to provide to the relationship … Let people know they’ve been heard and that what they contributed mattered. Credit it in your final story, say this came from our listener questions or our reader questions. Then continue to build that relationship over time by continuing to invite that valuable feedback and input and questions.

What are some of the best tools journalists can use to broaden engagement?

Thoreson: If you want to build a relationship, you really don’t want an intermediary to be deciding when and whether you reach people, like the algorithms will on social media…

You need to go where people are and where these conversations are happening and then invite them to the channels you control. 

For this I’m a big, big fan of email newsletters. Because it is a real relationship builder; you are allowing someone to basically invite you into their inbox and then continue to message them in their inbox for as long as they are finding it valuable.

And you can use that to build a relationship over time.

How do you reach beyond your known audience who wants to be engaged to those who may need to be engaged but don’t know how to become engaged?

Thoreson: This is a big challenge for engagement right now because many channels are just not possible.

That’s why I really encourage journalists to think beyond their own social media accounts, but to think about partners in the community – websites that people are turning to for information, other newsletters, other broadcasting options where you can go to tell people come to this space that we’ve created…

I’d invite everyone to think about where people are turning for information, for connection, and how we can continue to get in the spaces and invite them to the space we have created on those relationship efforts.

What are the goals or metrics journalists should use to measure the success of expanded engagement?

Thoreson: Opt for quality over quantity. You want to provide this information to as many people as you can, but to evaluate how successful you are being, look at the relationship metrics. Are people returning to your website? Are they spending time on the stories there? 

If you are doing a newsletter, what is the click-through rate? 

If you are looking at this as a relationship, you have to continually ask yourself: What is the value of what I’m providing to the audience?

How do the social distancing and isolating aspects of this pandemic affect how we carry out this engagement?

Thoreson:  As a journalist there is the problem of how do you effectively reach out to as many different communities and groups as you can.

So you think of rural communities who may not have consistent broadband access, or low income and marginalized groups. How are they going to be able to participate in this conversation and get access to that information. I think it’s a significant challenge right now … We cannot forget about them. They need this information as much as anybody.

(The engagement) has to be informed by the networks that are springing up in those communities themselves. Text could be a great way. There are still a number of non-technology options. There are still neighborhoods that have a weekly print newsletter that’s put on people’s stoops and that’s their information source.

There is a lot we can learn from the services that serve these communities – where people are connecting, how they are connecting. 

What are some of the biggest mistakes/risks for journalists engaging with communities now? What are the biggest opportunities?

Thoreson: The biggest mistake is falling into a pattern of extraction where you are doing everything you can to get information because you are under the pressure of breaking news and you never follow up or provide gratitude for the information that you receive…

Even the smallest token of “this was informed by audience questions” goes a long way…

What are journalists learning about community engagement that will serve them well when the crisis passes?

Thoreson: That’s a relationship you can really continue to nurture over time…

It allows you to validate what you are reporting on before you devote precious resources and time to report it out, to understand where you can make the most impact in your community and make those critical choices…You are opening up to the experiences of people and to new reporting options that you wouldn’t necessarily think about. The information needs of 20,000 people are going to be a lot more diverse than the 20 people sitting in a news budget meeting. 

How does community engagement during a crisis affect brand recognition and continued engagement?

Thoreson: There is a benefit and it comes from the value of the information you provide. It’s been very validating to see media organizations named as essential services during shelter in place orders.

I also think people are noticing, they are noticing the organizations that are making their coverage freely available, they are noticing the organizations that are responding to their needs. And they are noticing the ones who are not.

You are seeing places that are asking people to support local journalism like this because it’s so essential. You can see how down the road you will be able to point to the value of the work that you created during this crisis as a continued call for that kind of support.

How are you taking care of yourself?

Thoreson: My brother and I have been playing virtual Scrabble for 10 days running.  It’s really nice because it gives me an app to open when I need a little mental break. 

And also not to brag, but I have yet to lose a game.

I’m going for walks. And I’ve been trying to limit my news dives to twice a day. No really a success, but I’m trying.

You can follow Thoreson on Twitter @BridgetThoreson