Newsjacking in Public Radio

I’m what the public media industry calls a “backseat baby” — I grew up listening (read: falling asleep) to NPR broadcasts in the backseat of my parents’ car. But when I finally had control of the dial, I found myself tuning in voluntarily. I like getting lost in a story and diving deeper into the headlines. I started subscribing to podcasts. In college, my friends and I drove eight hours just to meet Ira Glass of This American Life.

I accept that I’m a full-on public radio fan girl and also a huge nerd, which propelled me into public media for nearly three years before joining Sparkloft. I was lucky enough to join the ranks of my beloved NPR in Washington, D.C., in 2013 on the social media desk. The following year, I was hired as the news blogger for the NPR affiliate station, Oregon Public Broadcasting.

In the news industry, social media managers must straddle the line between editorial and branding. For news organizations, social media is a huge driver of traffic, and in many ways, acts as a second homepage. Distributing articles in a timely and compelling way now largely determines if people even see a reporter’s story online.

On top of that, while there are plenty of brands that utilize social media as a playground, a news brand must find just the right mix of straightforward news and topical chatter to stay relevant.

It’s a tricky place to be, especially if you never took a marketing class in your life, like me. Trial and error was key for me, and resulted in some very big successes.

Within my first month as an intern at NPR, I was in charge of the Facebook page, which had about 2 million fans at the time, and its Tumblr accounts. I sat in meetings week after week with people looking to me to understand how to get the most reach and engagement on Facebook. So I did the only thing I could: I listened to my gut and never looked back.

While many brands are (smartly) moving toward putting more money behind their posts, capturing the right audience at the right time is also key.

For NPR, morning posts were daily headlines, midday and afternoon posts were typically reserved for a lighter news stories, arts and culture stories went up in the evening, medical stories were saved until late at night. When searching for content, I considered what my parents would find interesting and what my friends would click on. Heck, what would I click on?

However in news, you can only plan so much. My schedule went out the window during breaking news. During the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013, I looked to my team, but with all the chaos, everyone was pulled in different directions. I started updating Facebook with the latest stories, available streams and read through comments to answer people’s questions. When audio streams started to crash due to high volumes of traffic, I found new links to share with our followers. During breaking news, reporting the full and most accurate story is most important. For social media managers, the audience becomes most important: Answering questions, providing resources and updating with new information.

That Friday, I was on a bus to New York City when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured. I posted to the Facebook page as Robert Segal wrapped up the extended All Things Considered broadcast.

In Oregon, I reported on the same-sex marriage ban being struck down, the school shooting at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, marijuana legalization and Gov. John Kitzhaber’s resignation, among other stories. When the initial reports were edited and published, I scanned comments and tweets to respond to people’s questions. It made for some long days, but OPB is a trusted source that needs to be there for its listeners and its online audience too.

I did make mistakes, which were tough to swallow. A few typos went through, which I owned up to by updating the post, replying to people’s comments and signing my name to maintain the integrity of the brand and also transparency that I’m only human.

Despite my best efforts, there were always trolls. There were trolls who criticized the company I represented, there were trolls who asked questions but weren’t ready for a level-headed conversation and there were trolls who left comments that made me literally LOL.

At one point, someone commented on a Facebook post: “Remember when NPR was news, not just a bunch of 20 years olds who wish they were writing for the Onion?” My editor, and now mentor, said with a laugh that it was a sign that I was doing it right.