Earning trust on social: Engage authentically

This was first published on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute. It is part of a series. If you’re just tuning in, start here. 

When we asked how trust is built on social media, we heard some consistent themes in interview after interview with journalists and nonjournalists.

Know who you are, know who your audience is and practice consistent, real interactions between the two parties. Be sure those interactions involve listening, reflecting back what you hear and responding.

We talked to Billy Penn’s Jim Brady while at a conference reception, over drinks and live music. He posed this question: Is your news organization up on stage like the band, or is it down on the floor with the rest of the party? Do you talk like the other partygoers talk? Do you catch on in a way that makes them want to tell their friends about you? Do you respond authentically when they talk to you?

Authenticity is key. So is consistency. Brady says it’s important to “be who you are every time you speak publicly.” (If you’re not sure who you are, revisit the first theme.) As you identify what your brand offers, share that value proposition with users. Maybe your most compelling story is independence from influence. Maybe it’s context and explanation. Maybe it’s action-oriented news.

Whatever that story is, realize you can’t fake it. Don’t sell yourself as an explainer if you’re not consistent at it. Don’t try to talk like the hip youngsters if you just don’t fit in. Like a mom at a party, it just won’t work.

As Jane Elizabeth at the American Press Institute told me: Know your audience well enough to talk to them, not talk down to them. Elizabeth, whose work focuses on fact-checking and accountability, said one role of a good social media team can be to listen to how communities talk, learn their triggers and develop ways to talk to them that are most likely to resonate rather than alienate.

The need to not be condescending — or deliver a lecture — applies even when your users are ignorant or misinformed. Those users need your journalism. Trust can be earned by meeting them where they are and filling their information need without being condescending.

In the book “Rethinking Journalism: Trust and Participation in a Transformed News Landscape,” Dr. Kees Brants, who studies political communication and media policy, says that in both politics and journalism, trust sometimes comes from feeling listened to and taken seriously. For journalism specifically, he argues that trust is about:

  • Reliability (integrity and honesty).
  • Credibility (whether we believe in the journalism’s process, interpretation of facts, and standards).
  • Responsiveness (whether the journalism pays attention and is responsive to what the public is actually interested in).

Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times said he tries to answer people who talk to him. That became more complicated after covering Ferguson, when he went from about 7,000 followers to 30,000 followers. (He now has 54,000.) He’s more selective these days about discerning which users are worth engaging with. “If I tried to answer every troll, I wouldn’t get anything done,” he said. When covering topics like race and politics, he takes a triage approach, seeking balance between the courtesy of responding and the need to walk away from unproductive comments.

How can journalists best respond to misinformed or argumentative comments? Let’s once again explore parallels with health care. Medical professionals have a lot of experience with patients whose opinions are based on deeply flawed data. Jan Oldenburg believes doctors need to respond carefully.

“The core thing is to present them with alternative facts and gently suggest some ways they could incorporate better information and better thinking,” she said. On the topic of immunizations, for example, Oldenburg saw a blog post from a doctor who gently addressed the issue. Rather than cutting families that decided not to immunize out of his practice, he provided a safe place for them to talk.

The alternatives — impatience, intolerance, authoritarianism — are also tempting. Many doctors want automatic respect. They believe the information they share should stand for itself and shouldn’t require discussion or even explanation. But an interaction with a patient should be “a dialogue, not an inquisition and not an opportunity for [doctors] to lecture,” Oldenburg said. With access to social media and medical journals online, patients might in fact be more knowledgeable about certain aspects of their conditions than their doctors. And if doctors are willing to take the step of meeting patients where they are, with a learner’s mind, a different sort of relationship is possible. (Related article: To be sued less, doctors should consider talking to patients more.)

Are journalists willing to:

  • Meet people where they are?
  • Be humble enough to explain why their information is trustworthy?
  • Listen?
  • Engage in mutual learning and dialogue?
  • Admit what they don’t know?

Lauren Katz, social media manager at Vox.com, talked to us about how she uses social media to listen. The easy part of that is responding to people who directly ask Vox a question. She might answer herself or take the question back to the newsroom. Another level of listening is tracking how the world is responding to and digesting Vox’s content. A still more complex method is plugging into what the world wants to know and basing the newsroom’s agenda at least in part on what she and the rest of the staff see as real information needs.

Social listening sometimes feels like customer service, Katz said. Are people satisfied with the product they’re getting? Are they still confused? What else do they wish they had answers to? What do they think they understand but actually don’t? Most newsrooms would say they believe in service to community, but many fewer have routines that incorporate these sorts of questions.

Teresa Schmedding, deputy managing editor of digital operations for Daily Herald Media Group in Chicago, said she thinks tone is important as an indicator of credibility on social media. She’s interested in having customer service experts work with her newsroom on best practices for social media interactions. More interactions with readers are happening on social, and those conversations take skills that are different from what’s needed for traditional journalism.

Where are users coming from? What are they in the mood to talk about? Which responses will they appreciate and which will ring hollow?

washington post fact check snapchat
Michelle Ye Hee Lee is adapting longer fact checker columns to The Washington Post’s Snapchat stories, demonstrating an understanding of how to genuinely engage with a specific audience.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee of The Washington Post knows about the importance of understanding social audiences well enough to talk authentically. She’s a reporter on the Post’s Fact Checker column, and she has been experimenting with taking political fact-checking to Snapchat. Compare the Post’s full fact check of a New Hampshire Democratic debate, which Lee co-authored, with this Snapchat story that addresses two claims from the debate.

Lee knows that Snapchat users want their stories to be visual, move quickly and be digestible. And “digestible is different from simplistic,” she said. She added in an email: “I try to adjust to Snapchat’s voice, and it’s just about finding how people communicate on that specific medium to keep viewers engaged and informed.”

Lee’s efforts represent an important shift in voice that newsrooms need to be willing to make. Their usual formal tone and story style could make them look out of touch and irrelevant with social audiences.

As human beings, we know how to stay true to ourselves while also adjusting our behaviors and conversations to different situations. Our approach to making connections will be different at the gym or in line at the grocery store than it would in an office or at a formal party. The key is to understand what’s appropriate and effective in each.

To know what approach will foster trust and connection, journalists, first and foremost as humans, need to commit time to observing and listening, then decide which version of themselves they should be.

Want to play along?

RJI consulting fellow Joy Mayer can help your newsroom figure out how these concepts can work for you. Get some free advice while customizing and helping test out these strategies. Send an email to Joy for more information.

Three University of Missouri School of Journalism capstone students contributed reporting: Anna Brugmann, Katie Grunik and Hannah Smith.


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