Many years ago when I got my first reporting job, I was unaware of how desperately people would want to get my attention so I would write about them.
Today, as a freelance writer and publicist, my Outlook is filled with the names and contact information of some of those savvy self-promoters who did, in fact, wind up as sources for stories I wrote for national publications that gave them more credibility than they could have bought with a million dollars’ worth of advertising.
Why did certain people get my attention while others landed in my circular file?
There’s no question that timing had something to do with it – and maybe a little luck. After all, if I had just been assigned a story on root canals and received a letter out of the blue from an oral surgeon who had written a book on the subject, he’d be the first person I’d interview. On the other hand, if his letter came a week after my story ran, it wouldn’t have mattered how much he knew. He’d be out of luck for at least a couple of years – unless I could find a different publication or a different slant on the subject matter.
For those cases in which timing didn’t play a role, many of the people who got my attention did so through well-thought-out news releases and press kits. Others I found on my own.
But the best of those sources, the ones with fine-tuned skill and an instinct to deal with the media, have become sources I have turned to again and again over the years. Are they smarter and more knowledgeable than their competitors? In many cases the answer is no.
Can anyone learn to be a good source and thus the person on a particular subject to whom reporters turn first and in fact to whom they turn over and over again? Yes.
Savvy Tricks of the Trade
These savvy sources have learned a few tricks of the trade that are often overlooked by overzealous business people with something to sell and no earthly idea about how subtle this sales pitch has to be when they’re part of a news or feature story.
Number one in my book is that they routinely communicate with me effectively.Many send out frequent press releases to let me know what is going on in their world that would be of interest to the readers of publications I write for. When I need additional information, they have it readily available, know where to get it or can tell me where to go for help.
Many people have dazzled me in the beginning with fancy materials, but when it came down to the interview, they were busy forcing their agenda on me rather than listening to and succinctly answering my questions.
If these people got into my Outlook at all, it was with a notation, “talks too much. Boring.” Chances are, however, they never made it in.
The sources I turn to again and again are astute at listening to my explanation of the angle of the story and adapting their responses accordingly.
A Favorite Source
One of my favorite sources is Dr. Bruce A. Baldwin, a psychologist in private practice in Wilmington, North Carolina, who has given me probably two or three dozen interviews.
Among the books he has written is one on his concerns that Americans are spoiling their children with too many material goods. When I told him a national woman’s magazine wanted to talk about how it’s okay to lavish your kids at Christmas, I knew I was treading on shaky territory since he generally advocates restraint in this area. However, he adapted his information so that I could use him as a source by qualifying how parents must instill a sense of compassion and responsibility at the same time that they provide an abundance of material goods.
It was a great interview. Dr. Baldwin didn’t compromise his integrity and got a plug in for his book. My editor was happy with the story and I was able to get a pat on the back – and a check! Dr. Baldwin has probably been too good at this game since he hears from me more often than he gets his electric bill, but I joke that he can always change his number to an unlisted one.
Of course you don’t have to be a psychologist to figure out how, in most cases, you can adapt to the needs of the media. Just listen to what the reporter is asking, answer only those questions and keep your answers short and to the point.