This blog post is based on a session Leon Espinoza shared at NRECA’s 2022 CONNECT Conference. Registered attendees can watch a recording of Trust is King: Writing and Editing with Your Reader in Mind.

Meet the Readers (Are You in Their Circle?)

Will you trust me to go a little Hollywood on you for a moment?

Let’s step back to the year 2000 to revisit a comedy called Meet the Parents. You may have heard of it. Greg, played by Ben Stiller, is a hapless male nurse trying to win over girlfriend Pam’s hard-to-please parents. Rather than be himself, Greg tries way too hard and does everything wrong when it comes to landing in the family’s cherished “Circle of Trust.”

 

We, as co-op communicators and editors, live in our own “Circle of Trust” with our readers and audiences. But as Jack Byrnes, the dad from “Meet the Parents” played by Robert De Niro, would say, you don’t want to fall out of the Circle. When you are out, you’re out.

How do we stay in the circle?

Fortunately, by and large, readership surveys and our own experience tell us that our readers really do trust us. We land on laptop screens, mobile phones and living-room coffee tables as a friend of the family.

But the caution is huge: It’s a relationship that cannot be taken for granted. Not if we want current and future readers and audiences to continue to trust us.

Once upon a time, media generally was trusted. It’s not breaking news to say that is clearly no longer the case. For 27 years, I worked at The Seattle Times. I oversaw hands-on editing teams and was responsible for our standards. I can tell, as the person who responded to angry readers, we were mistrusted by all sides. Sometimes on the very same day, I’d be told we were Fox of the Northwest and a liberal rag.

The great news for us in the co-op world is that this is not our reality. We operate on much friendlier turf, turf we need to protect.

If trust is key, the question becomes: How do we stay in the circle? The answer: You begin with respecting your readers by knowing them, supporting them and protecting them. But how exactly do we accomplish that knowing, supporting and protecting?

For anyone who shapes and polishes content (all of you), begin by understanding trust is built on thoughtful editing and storytelling.

It is all about our investment in the relationship, and communication is always about relationships. As I edit, do my actions show that I respect the relationship or neglect and ignore it? Here are tangible ways that can measure how you are doing and if you are in or out.

IN

  • Thoughtful editing
  • Looking out for readers
  • Attention to detail
  • Responding to readers
  • Being transparent

OUT

  • Careless editing
  • Editing without readers in mind
  • Typos, misspelled words
  • Ignoring readers
  • Being deceptive

The integrity of how we edit should extend to all print and digital platforms. When a member sees misspelled words in social media graphics and poor grammar in short copy text, it moves them toward the outer “Circle of Trust.”

What follows next are simple tips, key phrases to remember, that will help you write and edit with the reader in mind, building trust as you go. These may seem like common sense suggestions, but a wise editor once told me that the thing about common sense is just how uncommon it is.

1. Think Like a Reader 

Think of yourselves as the very first reader. Would I be confused by what I am reading? Are there unanswered questions? Are there typos and meandering sentence structures that would tell me that my co-op or statewide doesn’t care about getting details right or about giving me something easy to digest?

One trick that I learned from the movie “Philadelphia,” (yes, more Hollywood) and this helps with complicated content, is to ask the writer or source to “explain it to me like I am a 4-year-old.” Denzel Washington played a lawyer who used that line often. It is a good device to get folks like the experts we often talk with to explain things in a way anyone would understand … including you and me.

2. Trust Your “Spidey Senses” 

Don’t write off the tingle that says something is wrong or off. How many of us have been bit in the backside when you thought about raising a question but didn’t? Your gut, my friends, is usually right. Trust it. Better to ask a silly question and save the day than regret the fallout from not ever asking.

 

3. Trust, but Verify 

One of my colleagues, Pioneer’s Mike Teegarden, is a big “NCIS” fan. He pointed me to Special Agent Gibbs and his growing list of rules. Rule No. 3 is for us. Always double check, and I would add, especially when it comes to key information or anything that sounds too good to be true.

An easy way to remember this: Trust, but verify.

 

One of our Pioneer editors earlier this year was handling a feature story written for one of our utility publications and became suspicious of several quotes. The lack of attribution was a key flag. It turns out the writer of the piece made up the quotes. This editor, using both his Spidey senses and trust but verify skills, saved our utility member from embarrassment had the story gone out with imagined quotes.

4. When in Doubt, Leave It Out

As a young reporter, after a promising start, I stumbled with a string of errors. A seasoned pro turned me around with the simple but profound guidance: When in doubt, leave it out.

Most of us operate under deadline pressure. The temptation may be to keep something we really like even if we aren’t sure that it is 100% true or accurate. Please don’t. Your own credibility and that of your org is at stake.

5. Find a Fresh Set of Eyes

Have you ever looked at something over and over? When that happens, you’re bound to miss what only a fresh set of eyes would catch.

In fact, there can be nothing more valuable than a fresh look from someone completely removed from your assignment. They become eyes for the reader, especially on complicated or much reworked material.

Simply turn to someone you trust. Sometimes the more distant the better. The main thing is for them to see if the story or messaging makes sense and if there are any holes. This same kind of safety net works for features, emails, social posts, brochures, any print or digital communications produced for members. 

No copy is too short or insignificant for a second read.

6. You Had Me at Hello

Sometimes the most important part of a relationship is showing up. And responding.

As most of us know, our work as communicators doesn’t end at the point in which content is delivered. Engagement is a key part of successful relationships.

 

For utility storytellers, it’s crucial to know why we’ve done what we’ve done and be able to explain it to readers and everyone we serve. Knowing the why allows us to respond quickly to any concerns and without our defenses up.

Try the following:

  • Respond to reader complaints swiftly. Listen. Acknowledge. Be a human, not a defense attorney.
  • Show humility. Acknowledge mistakes. Fix errors immediately when possible. Offer reassurance.
  • Thank readers for taking the time to share their concerns.
  • Share your why with readers. Use your pages and communication platforms to provide insights and behind-the-scene details about content and stories. Your audience will love being in your “Circle of Trust.”

One thing I learned at The Times is that you often did have readers at “Hello.” They were shocked anyone would care enough to respond to what they had to say and to do so in a listening, respectful way. People often think of institutions as not human. You can powerfully alter that view.

Reaching out to readers, thanking them for caring, acknowledging when we’ve goofed, can do wonders for brand reputation. Yes, by responding well to one reader, you potentially have responded well to every reader in that person’s sphere of influence – their “Circle of Trust.”

7. Share Your Why

One other thing you can do is proactively share with readers what you are up to. In Ruralite and Currents magazines, we’ve published several public service series covering everything from the changing face of rural health care and community art to this year focusing on education success stories amid the pandemic. We have not been shy about sharing our why with readers, our intent to serve the greater good where readers live, build community and give them a way to participate in the positive.

Readers have responded to the sharing with gratitude. One Idaho reader recently shared in an email that our stories of everyday heroes who volunteer in their communities actually helped her get through the pandemic. It is safe to say we live in her “Circle of Trust.”

By the way, for those who haven’t seen “Meet the Parents” (one of my guilty pleasures as the father of two daughters), Greg wises up, gets the girl and ends up, um, somewhat, in the “Circle of Trust.”

Trust, you see, is always a work in progress.