Update: My Digital First colleagues at the York Daily Record and FlipSide are doing a food drive in connection with the opening of “Hunger Games” tonight.
I hope I don’t give the impression that community engagement is just a matter of tweets, blogs and Facebook updates. Sometimes community engagement is a matter of cans of food and jugs of laundry detergent.
I am pleased to share the story of a community food drive led by The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa., and its network of Town Square bloggers. Editor Nancy March alerted me to the project. I’ll tell the story through emails from Nancy and her staff (lightly edited to add links and to pull them together into a narrative).
We are calling it the “Town Square Fill the Media Lab Challenge.” The challenge is for bloggers to engage their audiences to collect 20,000 food items for area food pantries by Easter. Each blogger can select a food pantry in their community (we have about 10 separate sites in the municipalities we cover) and feature it on their blog, while challenging people to donate food.
On the day the blogger features a pantry – in words, photos or video – every other blogger points to them, and we point to them in print, on website and on Facebook and Twitter. Bloggers pick their day and their food pantry on a googlecalendar we set up. We track the donations and “fill the lab” on a Pinterest board. We have a photo of our empty lab that we will use as our board.
We tie it to Lenten season – don’t give something up for Lent, give something back to your community and help fight hunger right here in our towns. … The bloggers are very excited. It lets them be involved and make a difference in their individual communities, gets them notice, gives them something fresh to blog about. For us, it builds TownSquare brand, grows audience and forces us into more involvement on platforms we’re still learning (Pinterest).
Engagement works best when it is rooted in the news. And this engagement achievement started with a news story. Reporter Evan Brandt explains:
All credit for this idea, in my view, goes to the mighty Brandie Kessler. Credit for implementation goes more to others listed below.
My involvement was as follows:
With the approach of the Super Bowl, I wanted to ignore that and reach non-football readers and blog about efforts to raise food for the hungry for an event I knew only as the “Souper Bowl.” So I started calling around and found out the local food pantry was in desperate need of food.
I wrote a story for the paper (with video) about that. Brandie read it and, being a kind soul, went to donate food there. When she saw how little there was, she came back energized and with an idea about how we could help.
Community Engagement Editor Diane Hoffman picks up the story:
The idea of the food drive was all Brandie Kessler’s. Nancy immediately saw the value in a food drive and presented the idea to me and Eileen Faust. The three of us brainstormed and came up with what is now the Fill the Media Lab food drive and presented it to our community of bloggers, TownSquare, in a meeting at The Mercury office. The response from the bloggers in attendance was extremely enthusiastic. They had great ideas and really helped us get the ball rolling.
The planning and implementation of this drive has been a bit of learning curve. Once word got out that we were doing this drive with our bloggers, businesses, schools and even regular community members who just wanted to help jumped on board at a rate we were not expecting.
I have become the point person for the drive. Almost all interaction (businesses, bloggers, food counts and pantries) with this drive has gone through me and Nancy. I have been working directly with business owners, helping them set up their donation sites. Eileen and I have been going to local businesses that are drop off sites and doing video with the business owners. We plan on doing a video once or twice a week to highlight all of the places people can drop off donations. I also have appointments next week to visit schools to help them set up student blogs. In addition, through this drive, we have also signed on almost a half dozen new bloggers to our TownSquare.
In my opinion, not all communities are the same and not all are ready for the onslaught of digital media. Sometimes you have to start with the simple, basic approach of engaging the community in person. Pottstown is a great example. Community engagement in Pottstown is so much more than typing words on a computer and having contests. Our readers are not impressed with talk and they could care less how many likes something gets on Facebook. They want to see action and this food drive is a perfect example of how our community embraces this kind of interaction. Of course, through this project, we have been using simple online tools such as maps, Facebook, Zeemaps, Pinterest and Twitter (#fillthelab).
Zeemaps has been a great tool in organizing and presenting drop points for the drive. Facebook has been a valuable tool as well, helping us get the word out about new sites and sharing posts by our bloggers. One blogger commented to me that her page views increased by more than 100 after we posted one link back to her site on our Facebook page.
More from Nancy:
Our blogger food drive challenge is off to a great start. Eight bloggers and one of our weekly papers have written about it – people are coming in here with food, calling and emailing with questions and offering dropoff points, schools and businesses participating. It’s exciting stuff!
Here’s how it started. (Buttry note: An interesting note here is how much the people using the food pantries appreciate getting laundry detergent. It’s not all about food.) Here’s one followup. Here’s where we are today (Wednesday). Here’s what one blogger writes. And another. And one more. There are eight bloggers on Town Square who have written about the challenge, some with their own dropoff points, some just in a show of support.
I think this is an amazing example of using the power of our bloggers and digital platforms to engage the whole community in community service.
More from Evan Brandt:
Nancy immediately saw the value, linked it in her mind to an upcoming Community Media Lab bloggers’ meeting and it took off from there. I was at that meeting and several of the bloggers enthusiastically embraced the idea right away not only as a good thing to do, but also as a way to cross-promote their blogs.
My only other contributions from this point forward has been to write two blog posts:
Future plans include video of the kids at St. Al’s, who are writing jingles to do over the school announcements to encourage donations.
When one of our bloggers takes up the subject, several have adopted food pantries in their own communities, we promote it heavily on our Facebook page and put those links in other blogs as well.
Coordination has been difficult as we’ve just been making it up as we go along, but you can’t argue with the results.
Those are my minor contributions. Lion’s share of the work is being done by Diane Hoffman, Eileen Faust, Nancy and Brandie’s non-stop encouragement.
Eileen Faust wrote:
Brandie, Diane and Nancy are the leads on this effort. I’m just helping out with implementation and the technological side of promotion, eg. taking videos, promoting on our website, etc.
This is definitely a group effort and the entire office has eagerly been involved from spreading the word to helping collect and count items, to answering questions from the public.
Nancy correctly predicted that Eileen would downplay her own contribution, so Nancy elaborated:
None of this happens without her. She sets up the blogs on TownSquare, creates the graphics, shoots video, helps bloggers and staffers understand tools like Zeemaps and Pinterest. She updates, curates and quietly keeps this train on the track.
Brandie joined her colleagues in spreading the credit around:
I wanted to make what I believe is a very important point. The idea to do a food drive didn’t just come out of thin air. It was a result of The Mercury being connected to the community it is a part of. As Evan Brandt already said in his email response to you, he blogged about the need for food donations at our community pantries. If Evan didn’t take steps to get informed about the need in the community (in his nonexistent spare time, mind you) and then take more of that nonexistent free time to write to inform the entire community, I’m not sure I would have known donations were needed and I may not have ever gone to The Cluster.
I am simply a person who loves a goal and loves some healthy competition and thought it would be both fun and helpful to challenge the community in some capacity to help fill the shelves of our local pantry. A great idea is wonderful but it means nothing if there aren’t people with the work ethic and know-how to get it implemented. Nancy, Diane and Eileen are those people.
Thanks to these Mercury journalists for showing how community engagement uses digital and print communication to make a difference in communities.
I don’t know whether I will be up in the Pottstown area during Lent, so Mimi and I will send out a check today. If you want to join by long-distance, the address is 24 North Hanover Street, Pottstown, PA 19464.