July 25, 2016

10 Commandments for Interview Sources

telephoneMany of the sources I interview for articles are the embodiment of professionalism and credibility. They answer their phones when they say they will, offer great quotes, and just generally rock as experts I want to interview again and again. Others flake out, ignore emails, and make me question why I decided to interview them in the first place. This article is for people who fall into the latter category.

Now, if you find writers annoying and don’t need the press because you already have more readers or customers than you can handle, feel free to ignore this advice. But if reporters aren’t asking you for repeat interviews and you want to increase your visibility via media interviews, then consider these ten commandments.

  1. Thou shalt not insist on email.
    I have conducted interviews by email in a few circumstances, but some editors consider this a lazy shortcut (and I definitely don’t want to be seen as lazy). Truth be told, email doesn’t elicit the kind of conversational sound bytes I’m looking for. Yes, it’s much harder to misquote an email as opposed to a phone conversation, but oftentimes responses to emails have been heavily edited to sound bland and corporate.The other reason I try to schedule phone interviews is that it helps confirm there’s a real person on the other end. I’m pretty sure that some of the responses I get to HARO queries (Help a Reporter is  a free service for matching journalists with sources) are made up, and hearing someone’s voice and asking more specific questions (“Where did you say this was? How did your son react?”) helps me apply my BS radar. After all, someone who lies over email may not want to be questioned by phone. Often I’ll ask follow-up questions via email because I’ve already talked to the person and gotten a feel for who they are. If you’re worried about time zone issues, I will do my best to accommodate your schedule. If you’re worried about long-distance phone charges, we can do a Google Hangout or talk via skype. That is not a good reason to bypass the phone.
  2. Thou shalt include contact information in emails.
    Please don’t make me hunt for your phone number. On several occasions I’ve confirmed an interview time and asked for the person’s phone number, only to discover at the appointed hour that they never gave it to me. Include your phone number in your email signature but don’t assume that this is enough. Sources who email me from their smartphone often forget that their iPhone message doesn’t include their email signature.On the other hand, don’t be that person who gives me six billion ways to contact them. “If I don’t pick up my office number, you can try my cell phone or my Google voice number or find me on skype or have me paged or …” Decide what is the best method of contact and be reachable there.
  3. Thou shalt set a mutually agreeable time to talk.
    When sources tell me to call them whenever, it inevitably leads to a game of phone tag. I call them and get voicemail, they call me back while I’m on another call or scarfing down my lunch or on my way to a meeting, and the cycle continues ad infinitum. I’m not the type of writer who wants to catch you at an inopportune time and pressure you to say something you’ll later regret. I’d much rather we choose a time when we’re both relaxed and mentally prepared for the interview. It’s more productive and respectful of both our time. So, please let’s pick a specific day and time. Some of my colleagues use online tools like Doodle to schedule interviews but I prefer to suggest times via email.
  4. Thou shalt consider time zones.
    When someone asks if I’m available at noon, my response is usually, “what time zone are you in? If you’re on EST, then yes.” Always mention your time zone when you’re scheduling an interview. People move around and take their cell phone number with them, so I don’t assume that just because someone has a 617 or 212 number, they’re in the Northeast.When I know someone is in Seattle, I’m less apt to suggest a 9 a.m. interview because that would be 6 a.m. in their neck of the woods and that’s just cruel (unless they volunteer that they’re a morning person or like to squeeze in phone calls before their day job). Likewise, please don’t ask me to do an interview at 5 p.m. PST on a Friday because that’s 8 p.m. my time and I like to power off my laptop for the weekend (on any other weeknight, I’d try to make it work). When someone is in a different time zone, I always list the time in both time zones so in case I’ve made an error, they can correct me (this has only happened once but I’m glad the source spoke up).
  5. Thou shalt not blow off interviews.
    I understand that stuff comes up. Your boss pulls you into a last-minute meeting, you get stuck in traffic, your daughter starts projectile-vomiting moments before our scheduled interview time. All of these are reasonable excuses for not answering your phone. But “I forgot” or “I just rolled out of bed and hadn’t looked at my calendar yet” makes you sound flaky. I often send calendar invites for this very reason. I try to respect your time, so please respect mine. It’s possible that I’ve declined other interviews or rescheduled a doctor’s appointment to accommodate your scheduling request.
  6. Thou shalt respect deadlines.
    Sometimes I have a month to write a story but usually I have to turn it around more quickly than that (which is why I start lining up sources ASAP once the contract is inked). When I write that I need to schedule phone interviews by November 15, please don’t suggest we talk on November 25. If that’s truly the soonest you’re available, then this isn’t going to work.Likewise, it’s helpful to mention if you’re about to leave on a three-week safari without email access. Sometimes my editors ask follow-up questions and expect a 24-hour turnaround time so sources who respond quickly are always appreciated. If I know you’re on safari, I can get the info from someone else (for instance, ask your assistant or a colleague to send photos) or set reasonable expectations with my editor.
  7. Thou shalt send photos (if asked) with photo credits.
    Many times editors want the journalist to collect photos of sources. Don’t bother attaching these to a HARO response, because HARO doesn’t forward attachments. If the reporter asks for photos, please send them along with photo credits. We can’t guess who took the photo, but we want to give that person proper credit. Including it in your original photo email eliminates unnecessary back and forth.
  8. Thou shalt not speak “off the record.”
    I’m a nice person so if you tell me something “off the record,” I’m not going to publish it (though I might be tempted). But other journalists are not so nice. A lot of the things people say “off the record” are actually pretty harmless so they probably don’t need to get their panties in a twist worrying that their boss will read about the time they accidentally brought home a paperclip and fire them. But if it’s so juicy it could get you fired, don’t say it. Save these deep, dark confessions for your friend or your therapist.
  9. Thou shalt make reasonable requests.
    Asking for a link to the article once it runs is totally reasonable in my book. Demanding to be paid for your time or approve the article before it’s published is not (it’s also unethical). Insisting that I link to your blog or mention your book when it’s completely unrelated to the article will not fly. Remember, the writer is being paid by the publication. It’s not the source or publicist’s job to micromanage the writer, review her work, or determine the angle for the piece. I want to represent you accurately but I can’t have your company or your client’s agenda drive the piece. And in some cases, my editors don’t link to anyone, even when it is relevant to the piece. I don’t make the rules, I just follow them, so please don’t take your anger out on me.
  10. Thou shalt not harass the writer.
    Some editors publish articles right away, others sit on them for months. I wish you didn’t have to wait months to see your name in print or online, but sometimes that is the world we live in. Please don’t send me weekly emails asking to know the status of the article or the publication date. Oftentimes I don’t know. But when I assure you I will send you a link as soon as I know one exists, I mean it.

Journalists, anything you’d add to this list?

Sources, do you have any pet peeves you’d like journalists to consider?

Leave a comment and let me know!

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Mark Luckie’s Twitter Tips for Journalists

Twitter is now part of the modern journalist’s toolkit, but not all of us use it as effectively as we could be. Last month, the National Press Foundation hosted a series of webinars with Mark S. Luckie (@marksluckie), manager of journalism and news at Twitter and former social media editor at the Washington Post (for further reading, check out this interview I did with Mark and four other journalists for Ebyline).

I live-tweeted all three webinars and picked up several useful tips in the process. Some of the strategies are more geared towards newsrooms than freelancers but much of the information is also applicable to us.

Here’s a recap of what I learned from each webinar along with the video replay: [UPDATE: YouTube’s embed code was acting up for these first two videos so I’ve removed the embedded videos for those and linked to them instead. Click the titles if you’d like to watch the videos. I left the third video as is.] 

October 9: Reporting with Twitter

  • The goal for journalists should be to be part of conversation and to use Twitter to amplify news that’s happening, especially voices that aren’t typically heard in newsrooms
  • Find local sources or search by geography by entering “near:zipcode” or “near:city” in the search bar (Note: Mark intended this for the Twitter search bar, but I discovered it also works on Google!)
  • Find Twitter’s advanced search options here: https://twitter.com/i/#!/search-advanced
  • Tweet your beat by sharing news and commentary on the topics you cover. Journalists see a spike in follower growth and engagement when they do this.

October 16: Engaging with Twitter users

  • The first step to engagement is asking questions and responding to those who answer. For instance,  “Know anyone who __?” or “How would you __?”
  • Hit reply to tweets to keep the conversation semi-private (direct messages or DMs are even more private). If you want others to see your tweet, include characters before the Twitter handle. For instance, “.@Urbanmusewriter” or “Hi @UrbanMuseWriter” instead of “@Urbanmusewriter.”
  • Build anticipation for stories by posting video clips, behind the scenes tidbits, or archival coverage while putting together newer articles (Note: if you’re a freelancer, find out how your editors feel about this first).
  • When hosting a Twitter chat, choose a hashtag that’s short and memorable, set a time that works for most people (factoring in time zone issues), promote the chat on your website and other places (not just Twitter) and filter questions as the chat is unfolding.
  • Create online engagement offline by using tweets in TV broadcasts, in print, or on the radio.
  • Use a tool like TweetDeck to help you track your freelance articles, including the news organization, your name, and the name of the article & its URL.
  • It’s OK to schedule tweets but reschedule your tweet if there’s breaking news so that your scheduled tweet won’t get buried or seem out of touch.

October 23: Using Twitter safely and legally

  • The first step in using Twitter legally is to share who you are. Add your full name to your profile so people know who you are.
  • Having a private Twitter profile isn’t a license to say or do inflammatory things. Journalists should have a public profile.
  • When users tweet to a proprietary hashtag used by a newsroom, their approval for using tweets is implicit. Otherwise, contact Twitter users if you plan to include their Twitter tweets in your story.
  • Link to the tweet when quoting it online. Depending on the content management system you’re using, you might also embed the tweet.
  • If you wouldn’t want your mother to see it, you probably shouldn’t tweet it.
  • If you manage multiple accounts, make sure you’re tweeting from the correct account (yup, I’ve made this mistake myself).
  • Proofread tweets, test the link, verify and run facts by editor (if applicable) before tweeting.
  • File a ticket at support.twitter.com if your account has been hacked, you’re being subjected to harassment or impersonation, your personal information has been stolen, or you have a copyright complaint.
  • One way to measure the quality of a Twitter account is to look at the number of lists the user is included in. Follower numbers don’t tell the whole story on quality.