Inside the Texas Tribune’s formula for small-team social media success

June 24, 2019 11:00

The Texas Tribune has one full-time staffer dedicated to social media, but the digital outlet’s 2019 National Murrow Award for Excellence in Social Media – its second in the category – took a team effort, says Social Media Editor Bobby Blanchard:
Our engagement fellows played a huge role last summer in keeping things running. Our chief audience officer, Amanda Zamora, and other editors here helped guide the ship. And everything and anything we do on social media is a direct reflection of the amazing journalism our reporters do.
Indeed, the “Families Divided” project covering family separations at the Texas border showcased in the Tribune’s social media entry also earned the Tribune national Murrow Awards for Breaking News and Continuing Coverage.
As part of our regular look behind the scenes of Murrow Award-winning newsrooms, I asked Blanchard to share more about the Tribune’s winning social strategy.
This Q&A has been edited for length. For more on Blanchard’s favorite productivity tools, work-life balance, why the Tribune is not on TicTok and more, here’s the full interview.
What does your social media team look like?
Our audience team is run by our chief audience officer, Amanda Zamora. As the social media editor, I report to Amanda and am in charge of keeping the wheels spinning on all our flagship social accounts.
I’m the only full-time employee devoted to social media — everyone on the audience team is hyper-focused in certain areas but we all collaborate very well and play off of each other. We are always joined by one or two engagement fellows — who are either college students or recently graduated college students. They work very closely with me in helping run our flagship social accounts.
During the Families Divided crisis last summer, our engagement fellows were Regina Mack — now the social media editor at Texas Monthly — and Marilyn Haigh — who is now working at CNBC in New York.
Mack and Haigh were instrumental during the summer of 2018 and played huge roles in helping me run our socials during the Families Divided crisis. Our engagement fellows help me keep my head above water. I simply can't do what I do without them.
The entry including several examples of threading on Twitter and including lots of detail in the tweets. It looks like you’re going for engagement metrics rather than clicks back to your site, which many newsrooms try to use social for. Why the different approach?

For us, high engagement metrics on social come with (not in place of) a high rate of clicks back to the site. So we’re going for both. When a tweet or a Facebook post is taking off, we almost always see a spike in traffic to the site from that post. The extra details and the attention to writing makes the social content perform better. Better performing social content results in more people coming to the site and more people following us on social.
So let’s say we have a high-performing tweet thread about the conditions in migrant detention centers — like we did on Thursday. This thread performs several functions. First, it ensures we are a leader and part of an important conversation about detention centers. We’re a leader because we’re adding really important context. It completes our mission of engaging and informing Texans. Second, it elevates Texas Tribune journalism that is a little more evergreen -- like this tracker of unaccompanied migrant children being held in Texas shelters. Third, it increases people’s awareness of who we are and gets more people following our social media accounts.
What’s the workflow – how do you get material from the newsroom to the platforms?
I’m lucky in that I sit in the middle of the newsroom, next to several other editors and close to reporters that routinely break news. I also have Twitter mobile alerts turned on for every reporter in our newsroom plus many of the other reporters in the Texas press corps. I’m rarely surprised by breaking news that publishes on our site. I almost always have a few minutes heads up, if not more, thanks to where I sit in the newsroom and the way I use mobile alerts.
I attend two “stand-up” meetings every weekday with other editors so I am in the loop on our editorial strategy and I know what is coming down the pipeline.
We use Sprout Social as a social content management tool. Everything we publish goes out on Facebook and Twitter. Stories with strong images are featured on Instagram and powerful quotes are turned into quote cards. Other stories that are about wonky policy or are big talkers get explanatory tweetstorms and are turned into Twitter moments. When our stories are being discussed on Reddit, I jump in as u/TexasTribune to add context or other details.
What’s your typical day like?
I sign on around 6 a.m. at home. The first thing I do is send the editors and other audience team members an email that includes the following bits of information: What is trending on our site, what is trending across social, what our peers in the Texas media industry are talking about and what I am planning on talking about on our social accounts that day.
I walk to work sometime between 6:45 and 7:15 most days. Once I arrive at my desk, I always ask myself the following questions:
  1. What is the conversation today around Texas policy and politics that we’re going to try to own?
  2. How am I going to meet the Texas Tribune’s mission today?
  3. How am I going to advance our strategic plan today?
I then start programming out content on our main flagship accounts on Facebook and Twitter. I save time to do some programming on Instagram and Reddit, as well.
The rest of my day is a balance of meetings, analytics work, monitoring developing news, preparing enterprise socials for any upcoming projects and trading off handling newly published stories with our fellows. Every day varies a little bit depending on the news cycle. If something happens, I give myself permission to throw out everything I have planned to ensure we can pivot properly. I can always play catch-up later.
What’s your strategy for balancing longer term planning/strategy and the tempo of news, especially for projects like “Families Divided,” which won Breaking News, Continuing Coverage, and Social Media?
I would estimate about 60%-70% of my time is spent towards running on our daily social operations and the other 40%-30% of my time is towards long term planning and strategizing. I’ve been telling myself for a long time now that it needs to be more like 50-50, but that balance is really hard to strike. It also ebbs and flows. During the height of the Families Divided crisis, almost every second of my workday was working towards ensuring we were elevating our journalism on social and getting the news out. In that moment, that was the most important thing. I give myself permission to prioritize. I block my calendar when I need to block my calendar to make progress on that long term stuff. I literally put time blocks in that say "not available." Because sometimes I'm not available.
As a solo social team, it’s just impossible to do everything and be everywhere. How do you balance everything and have a life?
I’m ruthless in determining what is worth my time. I have to be able to move the needle, meet our mission or our strategic plan AND measure the impact and success of what I’m trying to do. If I can’t measure how successful or unsuccessful my efforts are, how do I know if I’m moving the needle or making any progress?
A healthy work-life balance results in better work. Taking care of yourself is huge. This is a creative job, and I need time to rest and relax to refill my creative juices. Sure, I could work 12 hours a day and be everywhere at once. But my boss wouldn’t let me (thank goodness for good bosses) and my work would really suffer. Maybe I would be everywhere at once, but I would be performing poorly everywhere at once. Time away makes time at work better. The best thing I did for myself to ensure that I had a life outside of work was get a dog. Really.
Take care of yourself outside of work and the product you produce at work will improve. That isn’t possible without management that actively works to support that and remind you of that. I’m exceptionally lucky and privileged in that regard.
What are 2 or 3 things your management does to actively support workplace balance? 
We have really helpful rules in place that are guidelines about when to contact someone after hours that management implemented and follows. Basically, after hours contact about work is for emergencies only. And management follows that. My direct supervisor meets with me routinely to elevate what is on my plate and what all I am doing, and she takes things off my plate when it gets to be overcrowded. And when I have had an especially busy time and possibly longer-than-usual hours, my supervisor tells me to take comp time. The verbiage there is really important. She doesn't ask me if I want or need comp time. She just tells me to take it and it is expected that I do and she follows-up about when that comp time is happening until I take it. 

Follow the Texas Tribune on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Find Blanchard on Twitter at @bobbycblanchard.