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The desperate reporter: How to use sourcing services

July 27, 2017

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One way to hunt down sources for business stories is using a sourcing service, if you know how to do it right. ("Obsolete Book" image by Jamie via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
One way to hunt down sources for business stories is using a sourcing service, if you know how to do it right. ("Obsolete Book" image by Jamie via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Finding sources can be a pain for any reporter. For business journalists, it’s a particular challenge. You need to locate companies that have specific problems and experiences—construction firms  coping with a labor shortage, for example—or individuals who fit specific profiles. The need for geographic and demographic diversity complicates the search.

You can head to Nexis or Google to see who and what is in the news, but they’ve already been covered. Given enough time, you might find sources in conference listings, professional organizations or via a search on social media. But when you’re under a pressing deadline, you want immediate answers.

One shortcut is to contact a sourcing service, such as Profnet, Help a Reporter (HARO) and Newswise. Typically run by PR services, they let you post your query—perhaps you’re looking for an industry expert or someone who’ll share a personal story—and then receive responses from companies or individuals willing to be quoted. There are some downsides, some positives and tips that can make using the services more effective.

Shortcomings and red flags

You have to be careful about over-dependence on such tools. It can lead to laziness. Although you can get good responses, there will be people who will ignore what you’re asking for and try to push their way in regardless of their expertise. You’ll no doubt get responses from PR people on behalf of their clients. That’s not necessarily bad but it can be a waste of time, as reps all too often don’t truly understand the nuances of a client’s work or industry. One of signs that may tip you off to a lack of PR comprehension is when a person repeats your query back to you verbatim, instead of amplifying on your request.

Depending on the topic and outlet, there may be a large number of responses, or next to none. These services aren’t magic wands and you can’t make them your only research strategy. Also, many PR agencies are trying to develop their own query services, but they may be limited to the clients they rep. You want a larger scope. Profnet is owned by PRNewswire. Cision owns HARO. Newswise is an independent group, but has a wider base of potential sources than the independent agencies.

Help sourcing services help you

I’ve used such services extensively over the years. Here are some tactics I use in making these services work for me:

• Each of the three main sourcing services has its sweet spot. Profnet seems better at attracting mid-size to large companies as well as large law firms. HARO is used by many smaller companies, which can give you a rich assortment of sources. Newswise is smaller and tends to focus on university research. Posting on multiple services casts a wider net.

• Courtesy works wonders. Because you’ve asked people to contact you, respond, even to say it’s not a good fit. Very rarely—maybe five times in 15 or 20 years—has someone tried to sell me on a source after I’ve said no. It happens so rarely it’s not worth letting it bother you.

• Be specific. Offer enough detail to let someone identify whether a source would be a fit or not.

• Ask the volunteer source for a few points they’d be able to expound upon. This screens out responses like, “I can help you—call me,” and helps you prioritize which sources will be your best.

• The better-known services give you tools to choose categories of interest, which increases the chance of getting something relevant. There are also databases of sources, so you can search for people with a particular expertise.

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