Being a reporter is life training, if by ‘life’ we mean testing the extremes of clinical Attention Deficit Disorder (versatility!?… horizontal knowledge??), learning the art of the linguistic bluff (write it with authority, son!), and harassing perfect strangers (that’s called: source building).
While I was born with more than enough of those first two traits, I’ve had to work over the years at acquiring the third. I gaze with envy at my hack colleagues who find real joy in the around-the-clock hounding of those with power and knowledge and potential skeletons-in-closets.
No, I am not the steamroller, take-no-prisoners, just pick-up-the-damn-phone type. Still, I figured out early that the fruit of that perennial chase is the basic currency in which the news business trades. And if I wanted to participate/succeed in any meaningful way, I would have to take up the hunt.
Just how to go about it is more art than science, and depends on the nature of the hunter. I’ve always looked at it as the search for the sweet spot between insistence and politeness, patience and impatience, creative thinking and single-minded stubbornness. Oh, and luck too. When it works, it can net some timely scoops, and exclusives that make up for all the humiliating phone calls and ignored emails; and yet there are just as many occasions when the best intentions and foresight are useless if the stars line up against you.
Now, 20 years later, trying to get my news startup off the ground, I am benefited by the acquired skills at knocking on all the right doors with all the right techniques. Who is THE person I must talk to? How do I get to him or her? And since plan A often fizzles, how do you maintain the momentum of the pursuit over the course of the day or week…or even months…when no one seems to be taking your calls?
Now, rather than sources or some prized VIP interview, the targets of my attention are colleagues, media executives, all-around smart people, possible funders and potential business partners. Whereas agreeing to talk to a reporter working on a story has a rather obvious up side or down side, often the people I have tried to track down over the past year face both less risk and less payoff in taking time out of their busy schedule to hear me out.
It’s very clear, in other words, that it’s me who needs them more than they need me. Hopefully the moment will arrive that both investors and partners — and employees — will see how I can help them too!?
But at the start of the startup, after 10 months of knocking on doors (and 20 years as a reporter), here’s a quick list of what I will politely call my hounding techniques…
1. Try to get an introduction, or at least a name you can cite as a reference.
2. Try to find out (or guess, if you have to) if the best first contact should be by email or phone. These days it’s almost always email. (Note: Facebook/Twitter/Skype Chat/Etc are not good alternatives.)
3. If it’s email, your first follow-up should be email. If it’s phone, your first follow-up should also be email.
4. Edit down. Be brief in all correspondences.
5. If you haven’t heard back in a while, and you are just dying to follow-up, it’s probably worth it to wait two more days. But no more than that.
6. Be friendly with assistants, secretaries, spouses to increase likelihood that your messages are put on top of the pile.
7. Once they do respond, be utterly flexible about when and where to meet or call.
8. Follow up with a brief thank-you email that finishes with the ball continuing to move forward — though not a new favor to ask or appointment to fix.
9. Don’t be afraid to show you have just a touch of humor/irony (if you do. do you…???). Nevermind. Keep it straight.
10. Know when it’s time to quit/Never Quit. If someone is simply not responding after four or five inquiries (even if they initially seemed interested) let it go. For now. And never sign off with nastiness or burn bridges… for they may yet come around.
Remember that any help you get is gravy. Be grateful for everything. And then some day, it’ll be your turn to do the helping. In life…In news…In business…. Karma counts.