Word of Mouth Still Counts

There’s a new study out on how we Americans get our local news, and the findings show that “word of mouth” ranks second among all sources after local TV news. This has important implications for how communities go about informing themselves, engaging people, and, ultimately solving public challenges. In one way, this finding is not surprising. Back in the mid 1990s, the Harwood Institute did a study on how and why people engage on public concerns, entitled “Meaningful Chaos.” What we found then (and which is echoed in this latest study done by the Pew Research Center and Knight Foundation), is that people use numerous information sources, piecing them together in an attempt to paint a picture of what’s happening in the world around them. And to do so, they rely on no one single news source – instead, people actively and intentionally draw on a collection of them.

In piecing together this picture, people are in search of three things: coherence, meaning, and a sense of possibility. These are each basic human yearnings – desires that each of us are seeking to satisfy as we make our way through life. At issue is how well different organizations and groups help people to do this.

To understand these sources and their interplay, the Knight Foundation has been doing great work on what they call “information ecologies” – the web of information sources people tap into and use in daily community life.  On October 17, the Aspen Institute (with support from Knight) will release a new white paper I wrote on how to assess local information environments. Click here if you want to receive a copy. I’ll be writing future posts about the key insights and findings in the days ahead.

But, for now, I want to underscore this one finding about “word of mouth” and its implications for the various efforts to “mobilize” Americans around particular issues, such as education.

Many of these efforts are laudable. But the importance of “word of mouth” is a reminder to those organizations and groups seeking to mobilize people that simply pushing out top-down, heavily messaged, highly packaged campaigns will not work. They run the risk of smelling like (and being!) public relations hyperbole, in which national or even local organizations are seen as trying to amass individuals in support of their organizational agenda.

Whether it’s the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, or the Tea Party, people are sending a clear message that they want to be heard, they want to engage on things that matter to them, and in ways that enable them to take action together. Word of mouth is at the center of these activities, and at the center of people’s lives. Our task now is to engage people in ways that tap into that and honor it.