I noticed the other day that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami is looking for a community manager. There aren’t too many major private foundations that have embraced the need for a community manager, yet, so I gave their V.P. Communications Marc Fest (left) a quick call to find out more.
What was the genesis of this position?
The genesis of this position was two years ago when we started something called Knight Pulse, a Web site that we intended to be a place where people could discuss the future of news. We wanted to build an online community there and felt that we needed a dedicated person tending to this. The person that we hired brought social media competence to Knight, and we started using Twitter and integrating it with blogging. What happened is Knight Pulse did not really get a critical mass in terms of online community. Our simple Knight blog that we created with far less effort … was getting more traction, and Twitter was taking off. What this position has done for Knight has been profound in a way because it really moved the culture at Knight forward toward embracing social media. We do regular teach-ins where staff comes together. They listen to how to use Twitter, and what you want to keep in mind when you blog. It’s really been transforming the culture at Knight.
So the idea with Knight Pulse was to get everyone to come to your central community, but instead you got much more traction from the blog and from Twitter?
Right and from the interplay between the two of them. The other thing that I would like to say about this online community manager is that it is … connected to a vision that we have at Knight of becoming a truly interactive foundation. We realize that we don’t have all the answers. We realize that we can become much better and much smarter at what we do if we are influenced by interaction with outside groups of people where we get input. I think as a foundation you have this responsibility to invest your money in grant projects as effectively as possible. The people who make the decisions about where these resources go can get much better at that by being in a two-way interaction with the outside world. By having a brain trust that we can ping. We are not by any means there yet at Knight. This is a vision that requires much more than having the technology. It requires a whole culture change.
It doesn’t sound as though you had to do much convincing to keep this position filled when your first community manager moved on.
Certainly not. Our leadership really sees the importance of moving into the direction of an interactive foundation. To not just rely on our own insights but use social media so we are influenced in what we think and what we decide by outside groups and people.
Can you be a little more specific about what the community manager is expected to do?
They are expected to make sure that we use all of the social media technologies that are out there, that are becoming available, that might not even exist, yet. They have to nudge us. They have to train us. There is a culture change task there. There is also an implementation task. Looking at the projects and initiatives that we do and then coming up with … and implementing the plan of using social media to support those projects. Whether it is a single grant or a whole initiative like the Knight News Challenge there always has to be a social media component as part of the communications plan. Sometimes not just the communications plan, but even more programmatically integrated. That’s a huge task. We want to have a general conversation on the future of news and advancing that in the best possible way.
The other thing we are doing is decentralizing communication in general at Knight. We want more communication to happen at the edges. Program directors creating their own feeds. Having their own brain trusts. So we are developing guidelines and a training curriculum for these folks, and that is something the community manager will be in charge of. Some colleagues of mine at other foundations have told me I’m crazy to do that. There are always these fears that someone will put their foot in their mouth or say something horrible. That is where you have to look at the benefits and at the risks and how you mitigate those, and training is a big area.
You launched a community project, the Knight News Challenge Garage, last year. What is the status of that?
This is something that we did last year where we created an online community for applicants to the Knight News Challenge to be mentored as they worked on their applications for this contest, which is geared toward funding projects that address community information needs [using digital technology]. We did a statistical analysis and looked at whether someone who went through this garage experience … had better chances to win in the end, and we saw that there was not really much of a difference. Even though it was a good experience, we decided to take the garage and, again, convert it to a blog. That for us is really a key learning, a key insight, how the combination of blogging and tweeting—we are certainly not unique in this realization—really works and is the right way to go, whereas just wanting to create a walled discussion garden for yourself is just not going to fly.
Read the official job description from Knight.
Watch the video below from Knight to hear Marc talk about this position.