New mindset requires new habits: listen, earn trust, partner-up

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The professionals who work to engage public media groups in their communities are still learning what it takes. In a series of articles, associates of the Wisconsin-based National Center for Media Engagement will lay out what they’ve learned. Executive Director Charles Meyer begins the series.

I’ve always been blessed with a fast metabolism. Sadly, I’ve reached an age at which my metabolism has decided to slow things down. So I have to choose: stay the course and accept the consequences or change a lifetime habit of eating anything I want.

Intellectually, it’s easy. I know what I need to do: eat less, exercise more. But in practice, it’s not easy at all. Anyone who’s tried to lose or maintain weight will agree that it’s an enormously difficult change, and even harder to sustain over the long term. Why?

It’s not enough to know I have to change — I also have to actually do it. That means altering lots of small behaviors, like not reaching for another of my wife’s heavenly chocolate chip cookies.  The problem is, those little habits are often unconscious and even emotional.

If I try changing habits without addressing the underlying thoughts and feelings that fuel my habits, changes in my behavior are not likely. So I need to change both my mindset and my behavior.

So does public media. By now, we all know the digital disruption presents a similar challenge for broadcasters: stay the course and continue operating as broadcasters that primarily push information to the community or evolve into organizations that engage the community in collaborative and productive ways. Intellectually, that sounds easy enough. But how do we actually do it?

Like weight control, we need to cultivate the right mindset and we need to get busy doing some things differently to remain relevant in a changing world. With social media spreading and demographics shifting, people now expect they can engage you, either through digital media or in person. People want to have input, participate or collaborate with you. As a result, engagement has become trendy. Corporate marketers talk about “engaging” consumers around a brand. In the digital sphere, engagement is about clicks, comments and user-generated content. Nonprofits talk about engaging the community as part of their missions to make it a better place to live and work. These are different manifestations of an underlying idea: two-way collaborative relationships built on trust.

Engaging people means putting ourselves in situations that allow for authentic interactions that build both trust and social capital. It means caring about what people need and helping the community understand and reach toward its aspirations. In short, community engagement means working closely with others to strengthen the community. So how do we transform our broadcast work, infusing it with authentic interaction, collaboration and community engagement as we continue to create, curate and push out content?

Toward an engagement ethos

We can start by cultivating an engagement ethos — the mindset and cultural norms that help us engage with others. Some stations have begun this journey with great success.

“It’s not like we woke up one day and it just came to us,” says Jack Galmiche, president and CEO of Nine Network (KETC) in St. Louis. “We went through a rigorous strategic planning process, and community engagement was one of our key components. We made a conscious decision to evolve into a more engaged local institution. It’s not easy, and it takes time.”

Galmiche asserts that the company you keep matters a great deal. “You have to be very intentional about choosing partners that share your commitment to public service.” To facilitate that process, he and others at Nine Network spend significant amounts of time building relationships in the community and getting to know people long before committing to working with them.

“We’re serving the St. Louis community better,” says Galmiche, pointing to collaborative efforts such as the celebrated Facing the Mortgage Crisis initiative [project site]; a more recent effort to connect and engage people about how the community should address immigration; and now a major effort to tackle the dropout crisis as part of the CPB-funded American Graduate initiative. In each of these cases, Nine Network brought together other community organizations to leverage their respective strengths and assets.

“Sure, we bring a giant megaphone to the party, and the community values that,” he adds. “But we also bring the trust and integrity of a neutral convener, because we have the right organizational personality.”

Research supports this notion. In the oft-cited Facing the Mortgage Crisis initiative, the most successful stations clearly demonstrated an engagement mindset, among other characteristics.

But mindset is not enough. We must also change our practices.

Establishing new habits

“My mother said once that great change comes when emotion meets the intellect,” says Marita Rivero, v.p. and g.m. at WGBH in Boston. We have to evolve into more engaged institutions, she says, “without getting washed up on the rocks of ‘I don’t have enough resources’ or ‘I don’t have the right people’ and so on.” Those obstacles will never go away, Rivero says, and they prevent meaningful innovation.

By trying new things, we can test-drive behaviors that reinforce our new ways of thinking and solidify new cultural norms within the station. This takes a conscious effort to do things differently and a willingness to stumble. To get out in the community and start listening. To build new relationships. To collaborate with others for the greater good.

Across the country, many public-media stations are engaged in projects that have real impact in their communities: addressing teenage binge drinking in North Dakota, providing timely resources to New York’s Haitian community after the island’s severe earthquake, keeping kids fit in Las Vegas, supporting workforce development in West Texas, leading the quest for science literacy in the Bay Area, and connecting seniors with financial advice in Arkansas. In each case, the station played a vital role as convener and collaborator, often bringing other organizations together for honest dialogue about a community problem — and sometimes collaborating on solutions.

“We had to learn — and we have to keep reminding ourselves — to start by listening to the community and sometimes leave the camera at home,” said Nashville Public Television President Beth Curley about the station’s Next Door Neighbors project. Pictured: scene from Next Door Neighbors program about the city’s Somali refugees. (Photo: NPT.)

Over the last few years, Nashville Public Television‘s Next Door Neighbors initiative [series site] has deepened the mutual understanding among the city’s diverse cultures and neighborhoods. NPT started by holding small community conversations among the city’s Kurdish immigrants. By talking without cameras or audio recording, the station built trust and gained a better understanding of the issues and perspectives involved. By listening both to immigrants and to long-term Nashvillians, NPT was surprised to discover that people weren’t all that concerned about differences in religion — they were much more interested in understanding each other for the sake of building a productive community.

“Establishing intimate connections with people absolutely made our work more relevant, and it ended up changing the organization,” says NPT President Beth Curley. “We had to learn — and we have to keep reminding ourselves — to start by listening to the community and sometimes leave the camera at home.”

“That’s just who we are”

WGBH’s Marita Rivero agrees. “We have to cultivate an organizational personality for engaging. It needs to be part of who you are as an organization,” she says.

Dan Skinner once recalled an experience he had soon after becoming president of San Antonio’s Texas Public Radio. The station and its staff have a long history of working with other organizations on projects, such as xeriscaping parks to conserve water and starting an Annual AccessAbility Fest to connect disabled veterans with resources and support agencies [fest 2010 info].  “I asked the staff why the station was involved in these projects,” he said, “and they just looked at me and said something like, ‘That’s just who we are and what we do — we’re involved in the community,’” Skinner said.

Wisconsin PTV began with more conventional documentary plans, listened to the state’s Vietnam vets, and developed the LZ Lambeau event in and around the Green Bay Packers’ stadium in May 2010. (Photo: Dru Sefton, Current.)

That sense of “this is who we are and what we’re about” has long been the dominant personality at Wisconsin Public Television. Ask General Manager James Steinbach about last year’s LZ Lambeau event, WPT’s ambitious, collaborative effort to welcome home and honor more than 35,000 of Wisconsin’s Vietnam veterans and their families [Current coverage]. “We didn’t just dream up LZ Lambeau one day,” Steinbach says. In reality, the idea emerged after the WPT staff had many extensive conversations with veterans and listened to what mattered to them and what they wanted. “We could never have pulled this off without collaboration and input from veterans from the get-go,” Steinbach says.

WPT didn’t dream up the big event with an eye toward financial gain, Steinbach says. “We did LZ Lambeau because it was the right thing for Wisconsin.”

In other words, the community’s needs came first. “One fortuitous byproduct is that LZ Lambeau raised a lot of good feeling about WPT and raised awareness about our value in the community,” Steinbach adds. “And that, in turn, brought us into contact with folks who [previously] may not have thought of us as relevant to their values, needs and lives” — and now may see reasons to support the station.

Indeed, people who engage with a station by participating in an event are generally more likely to give to the station later, either financially or by volunteering, according to research conducted years ago at the University of Wisconsin. Either way, these people draw closer because they have been engaged honestly and authentically. And people who are invested are often willing to be ambassadors and advocates on public media’s behalf through My Source testimonials and other techniques for raising awareness about our value.

Therein lies a recipe for sustainability — and for long-term change. The future belongs to those organizations with a metabolism for engaging the community in productive and meaningful ways. By shifting both our mindset and our habits, we can ensure public media’s future health and the health of our communities.

Is it ‘outreach’ or ‘engagement?’

Many people use the terms “outreach” and “engagement” interchangeably, but there is a difference.

Outreach is a mechanism for delivering value-added content.


is an extension of an organization’s core service.

is primarily one-way, like broadcast.

involves talking to people.

means approaching an audience or community with answers.

focuses on educating people.

Engagement means collaboratively addressing community concerns.


is integrated with an organization’s culture, strategy and practices.

requires ongoing, two-way relationships based on trust and authenticity.

involves listening to people.

means working with the community to mutually identify solutions.

focuses on a conversation — an ongoing dialogue to develop understanding.

If the focus is on the station, it’s probably promotion.

Three things you can do right now to engage:

1. Expand your networks and build relationships by attending local meetings, events and other opportunities to meet new people. Everywhere you go, listen and learn.

2. Stretch your comfort zone. Pursue opportunities to understand the community through the lens of diverse citizens and organizations. Build relationships with local ethnic media.

3. In your organization, create conditions to integrate work across departments. Have lunch with colleagues from different departments. Map your respective networks to understand who knows whom in the community — and where your gaps are.


The National Center for Media Engagement, a sister organization of Wisconsin Public Television at the University of Wisconsin, is public broadcasting’s coordinator, trainer and advocate for community involvement projects. NCME, which changed its name from the National Center for Outreach, is funded by CPB. Ask for its monthly email News Blast. The site features:
a map of station contacts;
info on frequent training webinars;
a Pipeline of upcoming programs with engagement potential and materials; and
research results on engagement impact, and lots of how-to.

CPB’s latest nationally coordinated engagement project, American Graduate, takes aim at the high school dropout phenomenon.

Texas Public Radio’s hosted its fourth annual AccessAbility Fest in October 2010 in San Antonio with organizer The 2011 event will be held Oct. 31.

Nashville Public Television’s Next Door Neighbors series introduced viewers to immigrant communities in the city: Bhutanese, Somalian, Kurdistani and Hispanic.

The Facing the Mortgage Crisis initiative in St. Louis made Nine Network a prominent engagement advocate in CPB’s national project on the issue.

Wisconsin Public Television found that many Vietnam veterans felt they had never been welcomed home after the war. Thus, LZ Lambeau in May 2010: WPT event site; Current coverage and slideshow.


Part 2 — Listen closely: What matters to your community — and to donors?

Part 3 Out the station’s door: Where you find ideas rooted in your community

 Charles Meyer is executive director of the National Center for Media Engagement, funded by CPB and affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Extension. NCME offers resources about engagement at Email: