Facebook Q&As an important outlet for watercooler issues

I’ve been conducting Facebook Q&As on The World’s Facebook page for months. It’s not always easy. After looking at our planning calendar or speaking with one of our newsroom’s producers, I would identify a potential subject for a Facebook “chat” and reach out to that person.

Despite the exposure that Facebook chats allow, getting a guest to agree to a Facebook chat is not easy. First, it requires them to be comfortable using Facebook in a professional and very public way, something not everyone is comfortable with. Second, we ask that our Facebook chats occur over the course of an afternoon, requiring the guest to be at or near a computer for an extended period of time. The reason for this is that we like to promote the chat on air, and because we are on at 3 p.m. all the way through 8 p.m. in some parts of the country, that promo could come at 3:10 or it could be at 8:10.

The need for the guest to be active on the Facebook Q&A for a longer period than the typical hour social media chat has been beneficial, as Facebook chats unfold and gain steam at a slower pace than a Twitter chat or other social chat platform.

All that being said, the actual execution of a Facebook chat is extremely simple. The guest agrees to participate, sends me a photo or a headshot, I create a simple graphic with a compelling question, and I start the Q&A on Facebook. I help our guest navigate the Q&A itself, coaching them how to “reply” to a comment so that conversations are threaded, and moderate comments if necessary (according to our clearly stated Facebook commenting policy).

These chats have varying degrees of success. Some chats, like this one with author Dohra Ahmad on the evolution of English vernacular, were very active and led to other story ideas for our language podcast, The World in Words. But others like this chat with historian Rian Thum about freedoms in China fell flat.

Yesterday, I had my “aha” moment with Facebook Q&As: They are most effective and impactful when capitalizing on the “watercooler” moment of the day.

We had done two Facebook chats earlier in the week, so I was not worried about doing another yesterday when producer Joyce Hackel mentioned that an interesting guest was coming into the studio. Her name was Deborah Wilson, and she was a registered nurse who had recently returned from Liberia, where she had volunteered for the MSF.

Wilson came to our studio after 21 days of self-monitoring for any Ebola symptoms. Her interview with Marco was dynamic and unapologetic, and she firmly supported her peer Kaci Hickox for speaking out against what she sees as unconstitutional treatment since her return to the United States. Wilson herself had experienced suspicious and paranoid behavior from others since coming home. “A lot of friends have refused to see me,” Wilson told Marco during the interview.

The story of Kaci Hickox and the reaction by Americans to the Ebola outbreak has been hugely powerful this week, and I knew that our listeners would have questions for Wilson after her interview aired across the country. After her interview, I asked Wilson if she would be willing to continue the conversation on social, and she was enthusiastic about the opportunity.

Since Marco had already taken a photo of Wilson for his Instagram account, I used that for the Q&A graphic, and created something within 20 minutes. I started the Q&A a little bit before our first edition went out at 3 p.m. Here’s what the prompt looked like:

FBQA-Wilson

Over the first hour, we had three or four comments, which Wilson answered from her Facebook app on her phone (she was traveling and in a car for most of the afternoon). But as the afternoon progressed, more and more comments rolled in, and separate conversation threads began to emerge. By 9 p.m. last night, we had an extraordinary collection of questions, reflections, personal stories and passionate debates flooding the post.

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What got me most excited was even threads that started out as critical or negative turned into constructive debates. The example below began with the following comment:

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But after a measured and rational response from Wilson, others jumped in to debate Dow’s point about medical responsibility and personal freedoms.

Wilson’s on-air comment about the “true” epidemic in the US — that of gun violence and school shootings — resonated with many as well, even leading to this personal testimonial from Seattle resident Mary Anne Campbell:

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A lot of what I grapple with in my position is the question of impact. How can we measure the true meaning of our reporting, on air and on social? Instances like yesterday’s Facebook chat provided palpable examples of The World’s journalism leading to a change in people’s perceptions or understanding, even leading to concrete actions.
Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 8.20.53 AM

As of 10 a.m. this morning, the Q&A has reached over 11,000 people, drawing over 150 comments and 40 shares. The success of this conversation came from our ability to identify a subject our fans cared deeply about. We provided them with an outlet to converse directly with someone who is part of the story itself.

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This Facebook Q&A experience demonstrates a larger lesson for social media journalism: Forward strategic planning is important, but having the flexibility to run with a conversation or dialogue that is resonating should be built into that strategy.

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