It is a very strange circumstance that has stations knowing the community, but not making a tangible connection with important elements the audience. Which of those two statements are true? How could they possibly both be true at the same time? From a community organizing point-of-view if you cannot connect with important elements of the audience, then you truly are not serving the community at all; that public broadcasting is failing its core mission, and that fact will catch up with it sooner rather than later.
However, I do not think things are quite that dire. I think that real problem is that public broadcasting actors truly believe in a community service mission, but just are terrible in putting their role, their value add, into terms that anybody outside of public broadcasting could possibly recognize as a net positive. The spirit is there, but getting anybody to believe it needs some serious work.
At my last employer, at a nonprofit focused on utilizing technology to fight poverty, I spent a considerable amount of time building and maintaining community relationships. This experience has given me a unique perspective on how to leverage and sustain connections with the community. That experience also taught me to clearly recognize that even if I had the right combination of resources, I might not be the best person to create and manage the relationship. The first rule of working with communities is building trust with communities that have their own rules, values and goals. You have to listen to be heard, and give respect to receive it.
My goal in every interaction with local organizations was to find the right balance of “asks & gives” that resulted in a perception of a ‘positive net value proposition’. The outcome being that the community organization should be able to clearly articulate the reason that they should spend their time, attention and precious resources to work together. The second rule is that each party has their own calculus of determining whether they are receiving more than they are giving…and recognizing that the calculus utilized is largely independent of the others.
The goal of any community engagement strategy is get the partner to not only agree to work together, but announce the partnership with what they are gaining rather than what they are giving.
One note before going further: there are a multitude of local stations that are doing a wonderful job of community engagement. This essay, if successful in its endeavor, should provide additional opportunities to raise these best practices for the system to learn from and utilize.
Before jumping into observations about how public broadcasting stations can work with community organizations it should noted that the frenetic, resource stretched, limited attention environment of public broadcasting is matched on the community and social service side. Local staffs in community-based organizations (CBOs) are fully engaged in their own mission, raising their own resources and serving too many people with too few resources. They have little time to engage in intellectual exercises and are always focused on the bottom line outcomes of tangible accomplishments.
I believe the key to working with CBOs is to utilize the same framework that stations use to evaluate whether to take the next step and spend treasure and time in a partnership. Just turn it around. Community engagement should not take as a given, rather a public broadcasting station must produce an explicit value proposition to the local community and CBOs. What are you asking for and why should someone listen (let alone agree and do something about it)?
The starting point for constructing a proposition is to conceive of the community’s needs and wants, rather than your own. It is vital that a station be very, very clear in what it is offering to a CBO, and sometimes that relationship calculus will be a net positive for public broadcasting, but also that some partnerships will be a net negative, loss leaders for the future.
Local Public Broadcasting’s Value Proposition
As stations reach out into the community they are finding that CBOs and others already have the beginnings of what is the explicit value proposition for their engagement. Whether these are the same that stations themselves perceive as their value is not the point. Again, it is the opportunity to build a convergence of values. From a community perspective there is perception of three core values that public broadcasting offers:
- The Bullhorn – as respected broadcasters with infrastructure that has the potential to reach all residents CBOs value the opportunity to reach the whole audience in an economical manner. While some advocates will want to engage in editorial processes, the majority of potential partners want to leverage the bullhorn with co-created and sponsored information.
- As Storytellers – following from the first point is the ability for station personnel that understand media to provide creative support in crafting content, messages, information and action-oriented content. While many in public broadcasting bemoan the capacity to be creative storytellers, the fact remains that most CBOs focus on good service, not good communication.
- The Alternative – related to the issues above, many see public broadcasting as a viable alternative for original programming for the community, including in the native language. While not using the same language, CBOs naturally understand “public service media” and want to leverage local stations to create information services for their constituencies.
On the other side of the balance sheet, there are a number of opportunities for local stations to leverage community partnerships to complete important service objectives. The key to utilizing these locally native talents and tools is to utilize them on co-founded projects that eventually lead to more integration in the future.
- Translation – whether crowd-sourcing or working directly with CBOs that represent minority language groups, the community can provide support to translate materials of a local station. (e.g. WGBH’s Forum Network programming being translated independently) This is especially true where those materials provide clear advantage to a particular community or fits within a curriculum/program services.
- Community Profile – there are a variety of techniques, some intensive and others conversational, that allow a station to discern and ultimately reflect the local communities’ needs, wants & interests. They key is conversation continually happening, than a formalized framework. Form follows function.
- Public Insight Network – while APM has created a public insight network, this framework, whether leveraging APM’s tools (which are pretty darn good) or not, is a great opportunity for building advisors – formerly & informally – to provide deeper, more specific advice, as well as sources of content.
- Outreach & Marketing – whether a national program service, a tent pole series or a purely local program there is some interest group/lifestyle segment that will be interested in that specific content element.
- Local Services & Contracts – if local stations work well with communities and start to define themselves as open community assets, what will follow is the opportunity to tap into new income sources, whether governmental or philanthropic.
OK, so great. Very interesting, but how to make it happen? While people pay lots of money to consultants to help them sort out the answer, there is a core truth that every community engagement is different. There are general guidelines that have and are being discerned from community organization and engagement programs. I am going to try to summarize some of them below, but frankly the key is staying away from high-stakes conversations in favor of ongoing, multiple iterations of discussions. Some operating guidelines for stations include:
- Audience - Clearly identify specific audience segments that you want to reach and engage; reach out and meet with multiple organizations and find the one that matches your station’s engagement style, but has an honest representation of the community. (There are untold number of organizations that purport to represent the community, but underneath have limited respect and awareness of that community.)
- The Conversation – Stations should leverage multiple opportunities for input and output, including rapid, low-risk cycles (“otherwise pick up the phone”). Spend the time through lunches, coffees, tours (everyone likes a tour) and meetings where you get to know them, how they work, what are their needs. Don’t go in high and fast with “we want to engage”, but start low and slow with “who are you”, “how did you get here” and “what do you think about ________”.
- Go to Them – While everyone likes to go into a studio – it is so outside the normal course of life – bringing an audiences into the station is only a starting point. In the world of portable equipment, where a Mac with Final Cut Pro is replacing AVID studios is easy to assemble a ‘digital media in a backpack’. The resulting content might not have as high production values, but for many community organizations we need to understand that the quality of the information is the highest priority, not its production quality. The basic formula is engagement/relevancy + information = action.
- Community Planning Processes – stations should identify three to four critical community planning processes and get involved in the work. These are wonderful opportunities to define a net positive value proposition, as well as loss leaders that may result in funding in the future. Some of the most important that match a range of public service media goals include emergency management, workforce development, local district education planning and healthcare needs/program assessments.
- Hire Right – next time someone leaves the station and hire a trained and experienced community organizer (preferably one that has some tech familiarity). As a former community developer…well, we come cheap. A very good, experienced organizer can be had for $35,000 with health benefits.
- Recruitment – even if you are university licensee or other flavor, target specific board seats for community representatives to fill, specifically with people who can go toe-to-toe with other business and government leaders on the board. Beyond the board there are umpteen opportunities for broader community advisory boards, as well as project specific community conversations.