Not Business as Usual, and We Are Not Alone
May 12, 2023 by Joyce MacDonald
Every day, listeners and viewers contact their public media stations with questions, comments, compliments, and criticisms. These interactions can range from day-making to incredibly stressful. In truth, hearing from the audience at all means they care enough to reach out. These encounters are valuable opportunities to truly connect with listeners and viewers, deepening our relationship with them, and making sure they know how valuable they are.
Everything we do is for the audience. Without them, public media wouldn’t exist. We don’t always need to see eye-to-eye, but we do need to pay attention and let our audience know that their voices matter. Make certain that listener feedback is actually reaching your programming staff and management.
Consider what barriers your audience encounters when they want to contact you. All forms and web pages must work on a mobile device. Limit the number of fields an individual must fill in when submitting feedback forms. Ask people what they want to do up front (tech assistance, recommend a story idea, etc.) to easily get them to where they want to go.
We’re all very busy. It can be tempting to skim messages or rush to a response. Taking time to properly understand an audience member’s comment or question is the best way to ensure a good interaction. Don’t just react to keywords or assume you already know what s/he is about to say. Try to get a grip on what each audience member wants out of the interaction. Even if you can’t deliver what they want, demonstrating that you understand will go a long way. People who don’t feel understood don’t feel heard.
A decent guideline is to be personable, but not overly personal (warm, but not chatty). Listeners and viewers like to know they’re talking to an actual human. At the same time, it’s important to be mindful that your words can be republished and treated as an official statement from your organization.
We should always be grateful to hear from any member of our audience who has taken the time to send praise, questions, or a thoughtful critique of our work. They are engaged and that’s what we want! Let each person know that their feedback is valued and we’re glad to have them as a listener or a viewer. A few simple words of thanks at the start and close of each interaction can go a long way.
Our critics can sometimes be our most passionate supporters. By contacting us, they are providing us the courtesy of an opportunity to respond. In many cases we may take that opportunity to defend our work or help an audience member understand how and why we make certain decisions. Being open to criticism is also an important way to hold ourselves accountable. No matter how dedicated we may be, we’ll never be immune from error. We should escalate reasonable criticism internally whenever we come across it, take appropriate steps, and be thankful someone cared enough to point out an area for improvement. Frankly, most people won’t be expecting to receive a thoughtful response to their complaint (or any response at all). Often all it will take to turn a situation around is to demonstrate that a real human being listened to the critique, understood it, and made sure it reached the appropriate staff. Most importantly, if you mess up, admitting you did is often one of the best things you can do for your audience. They’ll love you for it.
When resources are scarce, it may not be possible to respond personally to every message or return every call. Consider which communications are the most urgent. Where can you do the most good for your audience and your organization? Does the listener or viewer want a dialogue or do they just want to leave a comment? Could the right auto-response or phone message be enough to let them know they’ve been heard?
If audience members are complaining about something that needs to be addressed and you’re not feeling heard inside your organization, consider positive tactics that help get things done without nagging. For example: a weekly email (addressed to supervisors as well) highlighting audience praise and complaints, organized by topic.
A well-crafted auto-response (or voicemail) will let audience members know their message has been received and help set expectations. It’s easy to make the mistake of assuming people hate all automated responses. In reality, people just don’t want to feel tricked or ignored. Be up front when a response is automated and be clear about why. If you won’t be able to respond personally to every message, say so. Assure the listener or viewer that their message will be read (and make sure it’s true!) An auto-response doesn’t need to sound robotic; it just shouldn’t seem like it’s being passed off as a personal reply. Using this tool wisely will save you time and free up more resources to properly address your most substantive listener questions and complaints.
There are other structural ways to manage limited staff time. For example, WNYC only answers the phone for comments between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Emails make up 50% of their comment volume; the limited calling hours give staff the time to respond. Calls are logged and returned if callers leave a name and number.
The people who contact us may spend their days listening to/viewing public media, but that doesn’t mean they know how it works. We can go to a restaurant for years and still have no idea what happens in the kitchen. The same is true for most of our audience members. They don’t understand how editorial decisions are made, the relationships between different parts of a station, or the difference between local stations and national program producers and distributors. If you’re receiving a complaint about national programming you don’t produce, explain as much and say you’ll pass the comment along to your NPR rep (and then do it). Every interaction with a member of the audience is an opportunity to draw them closer to the world of public media.
Not all conversations will begin or end well. If an email or phone message is hostile or abusive, don’t respond. If you are in the middle of an interaction that seems to be turning south, be clear that you are there to help the listener or viewer and listen, but that yelling, foul language, or abusive remarks will abruptly end the conversation.
Some language to try: “I want to help you and continue to have this conversation, but I want to be treated with respect. If this language continues I’m going to have to end the call.” Often an angry caller will take a breath and realize you’re a human. If not: “I’m going to terminate this call, thank you.”
Don’t trade insults or shout back. No matter how personal it may feel in the moment, remember that you are there as a representative of your organization. Figure out how you can avoid being personally triggered or shut down by a hostile listener or viewer so you can remain present and act appropriately. Trust your judgment and feel free to disconnect at any point. Let management know immediately about any harassment or perceived threat.
Some audience members may not want the conversation to end. They could be pushing for an outcome you can’t provide, or repeatedly weigh in on a single subject. They might just want a new pen pal. The situations vary, but there are simple steps that can help. When an audience member calls or writes about the same subject multiple times, decide at what point you will cease to engage. Simply thank them and let them know that you are continuing to pass their feedback along. With callers, you can also establish boundaries of time: “We have a high volume of calls, but we always love to hear from you. What can I help you with?” Let them know you hear their point, repeat it back to them, and assure them it will be passed on. If it seems impossible to wrap things up, try asking the audience member directly how they’d like to see the conversation resolved. Politely and clearly explain whether that outcome is possible, then be firm in drawing things to a close.
Recommendations provided by Justin Lucas, Senior Manager – Audience Relations at NPR; Matt Martin, General Manager at KALW; and Lorraine Mattox, Associate Director – Listener Services at New York Public Radio during the PMDMC 2017 session “Hearing Our Listeners: Best Practices in Audience Interactions”.
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