[IMAGE] Three adults - two men, one woman - stand in front of a large image. They have their arms around each other, and they are smiling.

By Sam Ford

Many of us working in journalism know that we should listen and engage more with the audience. But there’s so much more work we can do. We can explore different kinds of relationships with the publics we serve. We can figure out how the insights we discover from talking to people could permeate our organizations. We can understand better how engagement work should be valued and measured across teams and companies.

At the Center for Innovation and Engagement at Univision/Fusion Media Group, we spent most of 2016 exploring these ideas in depth. Our work was unfortunately halted when a major company layoff included the closing of our Center, but we walked away with many lessons that you can apply to where you work.

The Need for a Sustained Solution to Community Outreach

In 2013, I co-authored a book with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, called Spreadable Media. In it, we stated that successful media producers are those that work with communities that already exist, rather than “making a community” around their brand or service. This was the basis of Federico Rodriguez Tarditi’s and my work when I started at Fusion in Spring 2015.

We initially collaborated with teams producing video series, documentaries, and investigative specials. Our role was to help them consider the various non-profits, academics, community leaders, activists, documentarians, and other pre-existing groups (online and off) who cared deeply about the issues/topics raised in our stories, and figure out ways that Fusion could reach them.

We brainstormed how to envision who those various communities might be, how to do specific research to identify them, what type of outreach we could conduct, how early in the production process it should happen, and what the potential outcomes might be.

There was one major problem, however.  When it came to outreach, we had a great promotional team to get us media coverage, and a strong audience development team to package our work for social media. And we had a social impact team focused on running major initiatives in partnership with foundation funders. But it was no one’s job to reach out to community groups who were affected by the issues on which our stories focused. The only people who might occasionally reach out were the journalists/producers themselves, and they rarely had the time or resources to talk to anyone beyond potential sources for a story.

After months of consulting with different teams, I realized we were more frequently leaving them frustrated about things that should be done but, with the resources available to them, couldn’t.

Enter the Community Liaison Team

With enthusiastic backing from some producers, I made the case to my boss that what Univision/Fusion Media Group needed was a community liaison team that could work with producers across the company and in conjunction with our PR, audience development, and social impact teams.

In Spring 2016, we hired a Community Liaison duo, Scottie Ellis and Nick Gilyard, to work across the Fusion Media Group portfolio. Our first task was to figure out what a community liaison team within a portfolio media company looks like and does. Throughout the rest of 2016, here is the answer we came up with, through some degree of trial and error along the way:

  • We Help Teams Think More Deeply about Communities. First, we needed teams to be aware of our existence. Second, we needed to be able to brainstorm with them to help them see value in thinking about outreach beyond the normal PR/social media work. And, third, we needed them to identify the stories that might be particularly relevant to specific communities, so they would know when to call on us.
  • We Build Strategies and Implement Outreach. Once we’d helped identify communities to reach out to, we developed a strategy, researched different aspects of the communities, and conducted outreach based around the stories.
  • We Inspire Other Teams to Do This Work at a Local Level. The existence of the community liaison team was intended to be, in part, inspirational—to encourage specific sections or teams to hire someone whose sole focus was to do this type of outreach or, in cases where a section had someone managing its own social media presence, to spend part of their work day on community liaison work.
  • We Handle Air Traffic Control. As more teams thought about, and invested in, this type of outreach, we realized that multiple people from our newsrooms could be contacting the same groups. We maintained a centralized database of groups we had reached out to as an organization, and the histories of those conversations.
  • We Make Internal Connections. An unexpected benefit for the newsroom occurred: because our Community Liaison team was supporting stories with potential longevity across the organization, we became tapped into some of the most interesting projects happening across the portfolio. Thus, a new job commitment arose—introducing people across newsrooms who didn’t know about one another’s projects, and encouraging more collaboration across teams.
  • We Are a Human Face of the Organization. Scottie helped with managing our partnership with the Muhammad Ali Center. Nick became a regular on our Snapchat channel. The two of them greeted attendees at our Real Future Fair and also hit the road for a 14-stop Fusion tour, at college campuses and the “Rise Up As One” concert that Univision/Fusion Media Group held at the U.S./Mexico border.  It was exciting, and vital, to see the community liaison team expand beyond our newsrooms and be physically present across the country, not just available via electronic communication.
  • We Build Deeper Community Relationships. These strategies were great ways to get newsroom buy in – but, if we stopped there, the most important piece would be missing: the communities themselves. Usually in journalism,  we only reach out when we need something for a story or when we need a story to reach more people. However, this approach reinforces feelings of exploitation that, in particular, many communities who feel marginalized may have for news organizations. No matter how important we find our stories to be, the relationship can’t be one way.

Maintaining a Relationship Management Model

This last aspect of the job, while perhaps not the primary motivation for our news teams to work with us, was key. I tasked Nick and Scottie with considering themselves as much in service of the groups and individuals they reached out to as they were to the news teams inside the organization.

In response, they started to build strategies for ongoing conversations with organizations—not only to let them know about stories that we were planning and gain feedback on our reporting but also to learn about these organizations’ initiatives and to hear from them about stories or perspectives they felt were underrepresented in the media dialogue. We brought that information back to editors and reporters, who could then choose whether to report on what we’d found.

In the process, we began to play the role of connector between community organizations doing complementary work but weren’t aware of each other. When appropriate, we also found ways to support initiatives we felt were important – for instance, one organization we talked with regularly had a scholarship open to LGBTQ youth, and so we helped to promote it on our social media platforms.

Our future plans included exploring more deeply how we could provide more opportunities to feature perspectives from outside our newsroom; we brainstormed ideas for providing resources and educational opportunities to the groups/communities we reached out to, to help them tell their own stories more effectively; and we were starting to more aggressively explore connections with high school and college classrooms, as well as student organizations, as ways for them to engage and participate with our work.

What We Learned About Community Liaison Work

It’s tough to have definitive conclusions about the community liaison team’s value. We were focused on building a long-term capacity for engagement across the organization, and might have conducted ourselves differently had we approached it from the outset as the short-term experiment that it proved to be.

In the time we had, we saw a great reception internally among those who worked regularly with the community liaison team, and we saw a glimpse of the long-term benefits of this type of relationship management outside our newsrooms as well.

The most significant challenge we foresaw, and dealt with to some degree, was defining specific goals and KPIs that we should be held to. While inspiring outside groups to share our stories through their communication channels might be a useful byproduct of outreach, we sometimes felt the pressure for the team to be seen as contributing to traffic goals. We worried that this could easily encourage the kind of behavior that would weaken our standing with those audiences who cared most about the topics we cover, and sacrifice long-term community relationships for generating short-term shares.

If news organizations focused more on finding ways to set longer-term business goals related to building an audience that follows them on purpose, and with purpose, then more substantial and productive engagement becomes possible.

Our community liaison function showed a hint of what’s possible. We hope it inspires more experimentation and work in true community engagement, for everyone’s benefit.

Photo by John Perkins; from left to right: Sam Ford, Scottie Ellis and Nick Gilyard from Fusion’s Community Liaison team. Used with permission.
Sam Ford is a consultant, research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing, and instructor in the Western Kentucky University Popular Culture Studies Program. You can find him on Twitter @Sam_Ford and learn more about his work on his website.