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Facebook's Local “Today In” Section Offers New PR & Marketing Possibilities

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The expansion of Facebook’s section for local news and discussions could offer substantial benefits for local publishers as well as public relations and marketing professionals with local angles to promote.

Facebook first started testing its “Today In” feature in six cities in January but has now expanded the local news section to more than 100 US cities. The section aggregates articles from local publishers and “less-formal” information sources such as local page posts, events, current discussions, school announcements and interest groups. The new feature enables Facebook users to find local news in one location. Users can access the section through the app’s main menu or opt-in to receive a digest of local updates in their Facebook news feed.

Facebook Users Like Local News

Engagement with both the standalone section and the digest has been high so far, according to Facebook. Given the feature’s success, the social media platform will probably continue to expand the section to other cities. That could be good news for local publishers. Many community news outlets struggle to gain readership and ad revenue and the local news section could evolve into a strong referral source. Brands that target certain geographical areas will also gain a new PR and marketing avenue. Even PR and marketing teams that don’t typically focus publicity on local news and events could benefit. With some creativity, PR can usually find a local angle to most news releases and media pitches.

The opportunities for Facebook “Today In” placements are especially clear for local not-for-profit organizations or national organizations with local chapters. Besides pitching news articles to local publications, PR pros can also consider Facebook Groups that focus on local news and events. It’s critical to develop a community strategy and offer relevant content and not treat the pages as just another place to broadcast your content,

Facebook’s surveys show that people want both what ‘s typically considered hard news like breaking news or information about past events like city council meetings, crime reports and weather updates — and community information that could help them make plans, like bus schedules, road closures and restaurant openings. Facebook’s filters screen content to weed out spam, hate speech and misinformation.

A Communications Tool for Emergencies

Police and other first responders can communicate news through the feature. Columbia, S.C., which was hit hard by Hurricane Florence, was one of the cities with the local news section. Police departments posted information about downed power lines, school districts gave parents school closure updates and community groups shared tips about which stores still had supplies.

“These are the things that really paint a nuanced portrait of a community,” says Facebook Product Manager Anthea Watson Strong. “It’s especially apparent during a crisis like Florence, but it’s true during less newsworthy times, as well.”

Research shows that local news generally leads to higher levels of what Facebook calls cross-cutting likes: When people across the ideological spectrum engage on the same piece of content. In other words, it can break down the so-called echo chamber.

“Long term, I want it to be a place where people can participate in high-quality public discussions about the issues affecting their neighborhoods,” says Watson Strong.

To learn if the feature is available in your city, go to the Facebook app and tap the menu icon and look for the “Today In” option.  From there, you can opt into receiving regular updates in the news feed.

Facebook also tweaked its algorithm to include more local posts in news feeds earlier this year. “People consistently tell us they want to see more local news on Facebook,” wrote Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post. Local news helps people understand community issues and can boost civic engagement and reduce divisiveness, Zuckerberg said.

“When I traveled around the country last year, one theme people kept telling me is how much we all have in common if we can get past some of the most divisive national issues,” he said.

Bottom Line: Facebook’s greater focus on local news could offer organizations a new PR and marketing tool. Realizing the popularity of local news and discussions, the network will likely continue to expand its Today In section to more communities across the country.