Earning trust on social: Tell your story

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

Who are you, as a brand or an individual? Have you properly introduced yourself? Do you invite people to get to know you? What do you value and stand for? What can people expect from you? How do you make people feel? Do they like you? Do they believe you?

Journalists are good at helping the community get to know itself, but we don’t talk much about what we wish the community knew about us. Plus, we don’t really love talking about ourselves. We wish the stories — the products — could stand for themselves.

Too bad. Journalists need to accept that the information and stories hardly ever speak for themselves. Journalists and other communicators need to get more comfortable with and skilled at:

  • Inviting people to pay attention to them.
  • Persuading people to listen up.
  • Making themselves interesting and believable.
  • Marketing their work.

I know the idea of marketing themselves or their work can feel icky to some journalists. But check out this definition from Seth Godin: “Marketing is the name we use to describe the promises a company makes, the story it tells, the authentic way it delivers on that promise.” Not icky, right?

In a TED talk that’s been viewed 25 million times, Simon Sinek talks about the importance of beginning with “why,” not “what.” From Martin Luther King Jr.’s work to Apple devices, successful messages or products invite people to believe in a story first, buy a product second. Why does the message or product exist? Who’s behind it? How is it funded? What makes it different? What is it good at? These are all questions we would ask on behalf of our users about the companies we cover. It’s partly about disclosure, but it’s also about just painting a fuller picture of an organization. However, we rarely answer these questions about ourselves.

Try asking your newsroom to describe what it stands for. Get specific, and point to examples that serve as evidence. The answers can apply whether you want to highlight the personalities of individual journalists or find it more comfortable and important to reinforce the values of your organization.

officer and baby

The Sarasota Police Department uses social media not only to share information but also to invite followers to get to know the department, as a collective brand and as individual officers.

Painting a full, human picture is very much on the mind of Genevieve Judge, a former broadcast journalist who’s now the public information officer for the Sarasota Police Department. She wants to expand the public’s understanding of who and what the department is. She says she tries to tell the full story of the department: good, bad or indifferent. Heroic efforts, mundane traffic control, football with kids in a neighborhood park and officers’ personal mistakes all can and should be shared. And when an officer saved nearly 100 sea turtle hatchlings? That’s gold.

Being relatable and transparent is key to earning trust, she says. Judge hopes to influence what comes to mind when people think of the department. She is also willing to share what she wishes she knew, asking for the community’s help. She once posted pictures of items that had been stolen, hoping someone could help find the culprits. It worked.

We often categorize that kind of work as efforts in transparency. It’s usually thought of as a good idea to invite followers to know more about how we do our job.

Jan Oldenburg’s work focuses on transforming the culture of health care to be more collaborative and more focused on patient engagement. She said patients trust when there’s transparency. For example, if a hospital makes its rate of medical errors public rather than hope no one notices that mistakes have been made, patient trust is enhanced. If a doctor apologizes, patients are less likely to sue.

Those concepts apply on a more interpersonal level as well. Patients report feeling better when they trust their medical providers. The patient’s experience and perceptions of doctors’ empathy are increasingly seen as important factors in measuring the success of health care.

Transparency is not the same thing as storytelling, though. Maybe inviting users to watch how sausage gets made will support the story you’re trying to tell about yourself, but don’t assume it will.

Godin, whose blog about marketing is a continual favorite of mine, argues against transparency as the answer to trust. He writes:

“Real trust (even in our modern culture) doesn’t always come from divulging, from providing more transparency, but from the actions that people take (or that we think they take) before our eyes. It comes from people who show up before they have to, who help us when they think no one is watching. It comes from people and organizations that play a role that we need them to play.”

People trust people they believe. They trust people who make them feel a way they want to feel, whether that’s happy, outraged, safer, smarter or connected.

We asked individual journalists about what this means in their work. Ryan Martin of The Indianapolis Star said he makes social connections with sources and potential sources in ways that invite relationships and enhance connections, even sometimes friending potential sources on Facebook.

Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times uses social media to report on national stories. Twitter is important to him as a sourcing tool and also as a trust-building tool. He tries to give people a sense of who he is, including his humor and his skepticism. For him, a key sign of trust is when followers repeat what he says to other people.

But do brands apply those same ideas to their social media work? As an organization, do you know what role you play in users’ lives and what enhances trust? Are you explicit enough in sharing the story of what you have to offer?

Cubby Graham is a social media strategist at charity: water, a nonprofit with a commitment to both transparency and social media storytelling. He talked to us about his focus on the “lifetime value” of the organization’s donors, not on engagement or conversions from specific posts or even campaigns.

For charity: water, social media plays a huge role in creating long-term connections and showing donors the impact of their contributions. “We play the long game,” Graham said. Social media is “a daily opportunity to inspire people” and tell a story of hopefulness. His strategy is more about the story of the brand and less about specific fundraising efforts. It’s also about authentic relationships.

Graham also pointed us toward clothing company Everlane as a radical example of brand transparency and storytelling. They offer customers many ways into their company story. One specific strategy is to disclose how much each article of clothing costs to make and what the markup is. Another is to infuse their company philosophy into as much language as possible. For example, their jobs page says this: “Dear rule breakers, questioners, straight-A students who skipped class: We want you.”

Could most newsrooms describe the personality and values they hope to communicate? And if they can, have they translated that into specific ways to make sure their audience gets the message?

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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