Tracking Down Sources for Business Stories

by August 3, 2016

When I returned to consumer journalism after taking a three-year break, I found, to my dismay, sources had become increasingly evasive. Whereas before, I remembered everybody wanting to see their name, research and wisdom published in the likes of the Economist, the Guardian or the Financial Times, instead I found sources distrustful, with many requesting email interviews instead. Through trial and error, I found the following strategies helped me reach even the most resistant sources and persuade them to give me 15 minutes of their time for a quick interview.

Try multiple points of entry

Traditionally, reaching a national expert or an executive at a large nonprofit or corporation simply meant going through their marketing/public relations team listed under the contact us section of the company’s website. I find that approach alone no longer works. A McKinsey Global Institute study shows the average business communicator sees over 100 emails a day and Americans spend on average a third of their week reading, deleting or sorting through emails, we can no longer assume our audience actually reads our message.

Use social media

On that note, I find surprising success approaching executives at Fortune 500 organizations through their LinkedIn profiles. I simply try connecting with them on LinkedIn and then send them a personal email via that service. Additionally, I’ve liked sources on Facebook then simply sent my interview request via a message. Usually a social media associate forwards my request on to the specific party within the communications team and I hear from someone promptly. Recently, I had success writing about Sir Peter Jackson, the iconic New Zealand film director, for a series I’m writing for the Guardian Labs Studio. I wrote the message to the Facebook page and heard from the communications person within 24 hours. The person said they’d received my email request too, but it was the Facebook prompt that got their attention first.

Pick up the phone

Nor do I settle simply for an email pitch of my interview request. I always follow up almost immediately with a phone message too. Inevitably I reach the person’s voicemail but I always offer my elevator pitch outlining the following core elements:

  • Who I am
  • The story and scope
  • Why I must gain insight from their expert
  • My deadline for an interview and where I’m based

Clearly state what you need

In reaching your expert, also ensure your message is clear, concise, and states within one or two carefully written paragraphs what you need, why you need the interview and by when. Stating the expected publication date helps also, along with the other experts you plan to interview for the piece. The gatekeeper on the executive’s schedule will appreciate having this core information upfront. To ensure your reader retains and absorbs your message, employ design techniques such as a bulleted list, subheadings and clear concise subject lines within your email as well. All these extra steps make a difference between getting through and finding your interview request in a slush pile.

Provide previous clips and readership metrics

Try appeasing and reassuring your source and their marketers by providing previous articles you feel showcase your writing and reporting in responsible ways. When writing for the Guardian and seeking experts, I also include a PDF file of our readership numbers hoping that this additional information might persuade the communications team to approve my interview request.

Photo AW9FYG by Creative Commons Flickr user Sam Churchill. License: 2.0 generic cc by 2.0

Debbi G McCullough runs Hanging Rock Media. She writes and edits for the Guardian’s Guardian Labs, Washington Post’s WP BrandStudio and the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. She also teaches business communication part-time at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and is a United Nations Foundations press fellow 2016.