Friday, May 11, 2012

Sources Who Make the Cut

OK, so there is no real easy way to explain to PR professionals why some of your sources make the cut for a story and others don't.

But I had a scenario arise this week with a story I was doing on a tight deadline. The course of events are a perfect illustration as to how these particular people made the final cut into the piece.

First of all, let me say that I almost always (always!) only quote three people in the average story of about 1,000 words. That's been the rule of thumb during my 22 years in the business.

Now let me show you how that played out this week:

I've used a resource for about a dozen years called Profnet. If you're unfamiliar with it, Profnet allows journalists to post online the particulars of a story they've been assigned and who they would like to interview for the story. I've used it since I worked for The Associated Press in the late 1990s, and as a freelancer, it is my first go-to place when I need to quote people from around the nation who I otherwise would never encounter.

So on Tuesday, I put up a Profnet request for one of my stories, which is due this coming Sunday (in the next 2 days).

And just like in the past, the responses came flooding. Within about three hours, I had a list of about 10 sources from which to choose. 

If I'd been working for AP and had a deadline of "five minutes ago," I would have taken the first responders. As this was a magazine story with more flexibility on time, I could carve through the list at my leisure and choose the best options.

Now some people respond to Profnet with a very long email that lists their qualifications. Others respond by specifically addressing the story topic and citing statistics or data that pertain to it. (Those are usually my first choices.) And others don't need to go that far. For example, if one of my responders is a well-known politician, author or celebrity, they are an automatic "yes." Sorry to be blunt about it, but the big names carry a lot of weight and credibility and interest with my readers.

I have 1,000 words of copy to write, and my editors are strict that I keep story length. But everyone who responded looked great for this topic, so I chose five sources.

Now we come to a crucial juncture, because not all of those sources are still going to be in the story. Do you know who gets in?

Those who make it into the story are those who set up the interview immediately and then actually are there when I call them on the phone.

It's as simple as that. Line up the interview asap and then be ready to take the call.

You'd think that every person would make it.

But they don't.

And you'd think that each person who stands me up and calls me later will still get in.

But they don't. (Unless they're a celebrity, they don't.) 

The reason is simple.

My time is valuable.

Yes, I'm a freelancer, and as such, you might think my time is flexible. It's not. I freelance for a reason -- to be able to aptly balance my work life and personal life. If I say to someone, "I have five interviews on Monday, but I can get you in at 2:30 and have a hard stop at 3 p.m. to meet my child's school bus," that's what I mean. I make no apologies for mentioning the school bus. Some people may say that's unprofessional, but I'm an open individual and want others to understand where I'm available and where I'm not and why I'm not. If the interviewee stands me up and calls at 3:20 p.m. when I'm now engaged with doing homework with my child? Too bad.

The reason I can adopt this flippant attitude goes back to what I said earlier. Let's rewind it, shall we? .............. I had 10 people respond to the Profnet and selected five. Five are too many for 1,000 words. If you stand me up, you might be doing me a favor (unless you're a celebrity). If you stand me up and I still need a source, guess what? There are five more people in the wings who didn't make the first cut who are ready to be quoted in your place.

So now, I'm writing my story.

And do you know how many people are in it?


One stood me up. One didn't get back to me quickly enough. I only have enough copy room for three, anyway. 

One last thing. You may wonder, "What would you have done if all 5 had been available as promised?" Sometimes that happens. But there are always at least two of them who have their own agenda and don't want to play along with the story angle assigned by the editor. Always.

And they get chucked.

I always end up with three.

And now if you'll kindly excuse me, I have a story to write.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff. I'm getting educated. Thanks.