The art of hosting meaningful engagement events

Six road-tested lessons from The 32 Percent Project

By Todd Milbourn and Lisa Heyamoto

Engaged journalism is about facilitating deep connections and constructive interactions. But hosting engagement events that foster those outcomes requires a strategy. How do you encourage participation, promote thoughtful dialogue, and work toward a meaningful goal?

We wrestled with these questions when we launched The 32 Percent Project, a research initiative exploring public trust in news organizations. Our goal was to get a ground-level understanding of how citizens define trust and how journalists can better earn it. We invited audiences in diverse communities from Mississippi to Massachusetts to participate in two-hour conversations on the dynamics of trust.

From the 32 Percent Project. Participants filled out placards to capture their thoughts about what news outlets could do to earn their trust, revealing themes like increased transparency, positivity, and diversity.

Discussions centered on the media are often contentious and politically-loaded, so it’s essential to strike the appropriate format and tone. Our approach was informed by the work of engaged journalism pioneers Agora Journalism Center (which funded our research), Journalism That Matters and Gather.

We live-tested a range of approaches. Here are six key strategies:

Capitalize on second-hand trust

One of the hardest parts of hosting an engagement event is getting people to attend. We overcame that hurdle through second-hand trust by partnering with respected community leaders and organizations. People are often willing to give your event a chance if someone they trust has vouched for it. That halo effect opened doors and connected us with participants. Often, all it took was a phone call.

Location, location, location

As university researchers, we considered hosting our events on local campuses. We quickly realized that, for some people, those spaces can be unfamiliar and intimidating. We held most events at public libraries, which we found to be widely-trusted institutions and tend to be near public transit. Whether a school or a diner, the venue must be welcoming to a cross-section of a community.

Take a tag-team approach

Having more than one facilitator helped build stronger connections quicker. It also created an atmosphere of openness, which set the stage for a deeper conversation.

A tag-team approach signals the event will be a conversation not a monologue and gives participants a chance to respond to different communication styles.

Set a clear, tangible goal

Participants might have legitimate concerns about how their information will be used. To ease uncertainty, be transparent and set a clear event goal.

For The 32 Percent Project, that meant explicitly stating our outcome: we wanted participants to tell news organizations how to better earn their trust. We explained this at the beginning to give people a sense of purpose and prime the group for the conversation. We underscored it again at the end by asking everyone to physically write down their message to news organizations. This conveyed to participants that what they said mattered, and created a tangible takeaway they could be confident would be heard outside the room.

Mix it up

Since inclusivity is the aim of most engagement events, it’s essential to mix up the conversation format.

We found success with a blend of small and large group discussions. Small clusters of four to six people explored specific questions before bringing their conversation to the larger group. Because people often hadn’t previously articulated their thoughts, this gave them time to think — and listen — before sharing more broadly.

Structuring the conversations this way helped people feel more confident contributing to the larger discussion, yielding a more thoughtful discourse.

Scaffold the conversation

Engagement events are like stories: they need an arc. It’s important to build an event deliberately, ensuring each segment reinforces what came before and what comes next. Since we organized our events around a series of discussion prompts, finding the right flow was a priority.

We developed a three-question format that got people engaged and sharing. The first question focused on the conditions of trust, the second examined barriers to building that trust, the third explored what might be possible if those barriers no longer existed. In many ways, the structure mirrored a traditional story arc: establish the scene, add conflict, then seek a resolution. It’s a strategy that creates momentum, and keeps participants engaged in the conversation.

Takeaways

Each event must be tailored to a particular group in a particular place at a particular time. When events are thoughtfully planned and approached as an opportunity to truly engage with and listen to a community, they are a meaningful way to build both community and trust.

One of our conversation participants put it well when describing what makes for trustworthy journalism. The same could also be said about an engaged approach to journalism:

“You don’t want people to talk at you,” he said. “You want people to talk with you.”

Editor’s note: For more ideas and lessons on hosting events, see this guide from the Local News Lab.