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How to email an expert – ten tips for journalism students

December 11th, 2007

Dr Petra

This is the time of year when many journalism students are searching for experts to give them quotes for essays and dissertations. As someone who works closely with the media I’m contacted a lot by students who often make the same mistakes in the way they get in touch – which means I can’t help them as I’d like.

The most common way for journalism students to make contact with experts nowadays is via email. But unfortunately most make basic errors which means their messages are either not read, or not responded to.

Hopefully the following ten tips can help you improve the emails you send out to experts (e.g. academics, scientists, doctors etc) and make it more likely you’ll get a useful quote from them.

Please feel free to pass this on to other journalism students, tutors or colleagues who you think might find these pointers useful.

1. Don’t just go for someone ‘famous’

It’s tempting to go for a ‘big name’ of an expert you’ve seen on the telly or perhaps read quoted in many magazines. But remember the bigger the name often the busier the person, so you’ll be competing against other journalism students and journalists from around the world. Often those who are well known as a rule only speak to journalists who can help them in some way, and sadly they do not value journalism students (who can’t plug their books, products or services), so they may well not speak to you at all. Big doesn’t always mean better since not everyone who is regularly quoted is actually always qualified to do so.

A better way of finding someone is not just through the media but to search using search engines like Google Scholar. That way you’ll find someone who is genuinely qualified, is hopefully going to be far more willing to help you, and it’s a good new contact to keep for future reference when you qualify. Don’t assume a ‘big name’ equals a better grade in your essay or dissertation unless specifically told so by your tutor. It’s the quality of what you write that counts, so you want a great quote to fit the story, not some general ramblings from a well known person.

2. Know what you’re writing about

Frequently when students get in touch they don’t seem to have worked out exactly what it is they’re planning on writing about. That means they may present someone with a request to comment on a piece that actually seems to be three or four features in one. Or alternatively they don’t seem too sure what the angle of the piece is or where the expert they’re contacting will fit in.

It’s common for journalists to contact experts to say they’ve been commissioned to write a piece they don’t know much about it. But it is worrying when journalism students who do have access through their universities to libraries and other resources expect experts to do all their background work for them first – particularly if it’s because they don’t really know what they’re supposed to be doing.

So before you email someone think carefully about what you will be writing/creating and decide exactly what your angle is so you will only be asking them a specific question they can easily follow.

3. Do your homework first

Check the person who you plan to email. What are their skills and qualifications? Are they the best person to contact for your quote? How likely is it you think they’ll be able (and willing) to help you? The experts you’ll be contacting should be specialists in a particular area so ensure you only approach the right person for the right quote at the right time. For example if you contact a psychologist for help with a piece on the effects of TV violence you’ll get somewhere if that’s their area of research. If they’re a psychologist but that’s not their speciality then they’ll be no use to you and you’ll have wasted their time.

4. Watch your deadlines!

Don’t email your contact on a Friday evening if your deadline is a Monday morning! Remember that the closer deadlines get the more other students are also probably desperately in search of quotes. And the more likely your email’s going to end up in the trash. If you are working on a project for broadcast media leave plenty of time to sort out interviews, and if you’re preparing a project for a print or online project still give yourself (and your expert) plenty of time to work.

5. Sending an email message

Your email address
Your email can cause you two problems. Firstly, if it seems like it may be spam it’s not going to end up reaching your target. Secondly, if it is a ‘fun’ name it may make you seem unprofessional – particularly contrasted with a serious piece you are asking someone to comment on. I’ve had emails from addresses like ‘babybunni’, ‘sxygrl’ and ‘bigboi’ that don’t always give a good first impression. Instead of using your regular email that you have for corresponding with your friends, set up an account that just has a straightforward name. Or better still use your university/college account.

Email subject heading
Avoid leaving this blank or just putting ‘hi’ (it’s more likely to get junked as spam). Subjects like ‘help’ also often tend to be ignored. ‘Assistance with project’ or ‘quote needed for journalism student’ allows someone to see what the email is about and read it if they’re interested.

Your introduction
Most of the messages I receive do not reveal who the person is, where they are from and what they are getting in touch for. You frequently get the impression you’re one of a number of people who’ve been sent the same message, and there’s no specific reason for getting in touch with you.

Usually a message reads like ‘I’m a journalism student writing about _______ and I’d like your help’. It doesn’t tell me where the person is studying, what level of study they are at (year of study) or whether they are after a quote for an essay, dissertation, project or student magazine. Your introduction should go something like this:

Dear Dr Smith
My name is Sophie Jones and I am a final year journalism student at Eversley University’s media school. My supervisor is Professor Simpson and she can be reached at s.simpson@evrs.ac.uk. For my final year assessment I have to write a short piece and I have chosen to write about forensic psychology that I believe is your area. My angle is to interview a ‘real life’ forensic psychologist to find out how they work. I would love to talk to you in more detail. Please could you email me and let me know whether you would like me to send you some questions or a telephone number and time when I can call you to discuss this further. Many thanks. Sophie.

This gives the reader a lot more information – and a person to check with if they want more information about you. It tells you who the person is, what level of study they are at, what they are writing about and what they would like the role of the expert they’ve contacted to be. Note the message doesn’t ask the person to do anything at this time apart from express an interest in helping. This is more likely to get a positive response than writing to someone assuming they’re going to answer a list of preset questions (more on this later).

Creating a good impression
If your message contains spelling mistakes or errors of grammar, or is written in ‘text speak’ then it is not going to reflect well on you as a student or as a journalist. And sadly all too many of the emails I get contain spelling errors (including quite frequently the inability to even spell ‘journalism’). Ensure you write your message in a format you can spell and grammar check before sending out. Read and reread it to be sure.

It is not good practice to send an email asking someone to help with your work and then either asking them to do your work for you (e.g. ‘please send me all you have written on this subject’), or giving them a long list of questions to answer. Instead you should check with them if they are happy to help you, and if they reply positively give them one or two (max) key questions you need an answer to that you know they can answer.

Often students say ‘please call me back on…’ and give their mobile number. Most people you email are going to be busy and they are very unlikely to call you back. Even if they wanted to often people are barred from calling mobiles from their offices or mobile calls have to be limited to emergencies only. Rather than expecting them to call you, ask them to reply to your message telling you how and when they’d like you to call them.

Make it clear you are a journalism student, rather than a qualified journalist. That way the person you’ve contacted may be better able to understand your needs and also won’t be under the impression they’re talking to you for any purpose other than a student project.

Saying good bye

Keep your initial email to your contact short and snappy. Thank them for their time and say you’re looking forward to hearing from them. You do not need to add lots more information in the hope they’ll work with you.

6. What to do if you get a reply

If someone gets back to you reply promptly and thank them. This particularly applies if they are unable to help with your work but have still bothered to respond to you. I frequently get angry when I hear nothing back after I’ve taken time to tell a student that although I can’t help here is the name of someone who can, or pointed out to them some ways to improve their practice even if I can’t give a quote.

If someone says they can help you follow this up with a call to them (at their convenience) or an email. In either case only have one or two crucial questions to ask and do not keep them longer in a phone or email exchange than they seem happy with. If they are going to reply via email give them an idea of any word limits you want for quotes and also tell them politely of the timescale they have to get back to you.

7. What to do if you don’t get a reply

If you don’t hear back from someone chalk it down to experience. It may be they’re very busy, they may simply not talk to journalism students, or it could be they’re off work sick, on holiday, sabbatical or maternity leave. Do not be tempted to keep on emailing them trying to get them to change their mind or reply to you. Instead focus your efforts on finding other contacts for your work.

8. What if you have a bad experience?

If you contact someone who is rude, unkind, abusive or inappropriate to you then you should let your tutor know so they can warn future students not to approach the person again, and also speak to them if something negative has happened that requires further action.

9. Keep your tutor in the loop

I often get the impression that students contacting me may not have informed their tutor about the work they are doing. Before dashing off to write your essay or dissertation read any course instructions carefully and ensure you’ve cleared it with your tutor if you intend to contact people for interview. Sometimes keen students rush off to get an interview for an essay or project thinking it’ll get them a better grade, when an interview isn’t required on their coursework at this time. This can lead to lost grades and waste the time of anyone you interview. It also means if you upset someone by the way you go about work and you’re not supposed to be doing it you can land in trouble. So always check you’re on the right track before you proceed.

10. Respect professional boundaries
If an expert has helped you thank them for their time. You can offer to send them your project/essay if you like (although don’t be offended if they say no, it’s just because they’re busy). If you are doing broadcast journalism you may want to send them a copy of any tapes or cds you make. It’s good practice to check any quotes back with them – particularly if you are writing an essay or dissertation (or mocking up a magazine or newspaper article). And it’s fine to ask them if you can keep their details on file for future use once you qualify. It means an addition to your growing contacts group and if you’ve been courteous they should be happy to oblige.

Don’t, however, assume any contact is now there as your new best friend, source of academic help, or your personal therapist. It might sound outlandish but me and colleagues have all experienced journalism students who want to tell us all about their personal problems, list their academic woes, or just email us pictures of kittens.

Part of the skill of being a journalist is not just being able to find someone and get them to talk to you; it’s also about ending things in a professional and respectful manner.

You can find further support for journalists here.

These are just a few tips to help you improve the way you make contact via email with experts. Hopefully by following these you should have a better chance of getting good quotes to help with your work and building relationships with someone who could become an excellent contact in the future when you’re qualified.

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