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How to get experts to talk

April 27th, 2005

Dr Petra

Journalists and TV researchers rely on experts to back up their stories or programmes. But frequently their approach is off-kilter meaning experts won’t join in. Here’s how to avoid the most common pitfalls.

Spell the person’s name correctly
If you email or write to an expert, ensure you spell their name accurately. Failure to do so implies you’ve not done your homework, or they’re just one of many you’re contacting (more on this later).

If you are talking on the phone or meeting in person, again check you have their name right. Ask for the correct pronunciation of their name. Certainly don’t follow in the footsteps of one TV producer I recently met who insisted on calling me ‘Tanya’ in spite of being told it was ‘Petra’. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence in her abilities or her faith in me.

And for pity’s sake don’t call them by the name of a colleague by mistake. Whilst it could be complimentary, if you accidentally call them by the name of their arch rival, sparks could fly.

Get their title right

It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Using the wrong job title, or missing a title off completely, can imply disrespect for some experts. Others may not care about using a title, but may object if you decide to replace ‘Professor’ with ‘Miss’. Definitely avoid abbreviating their name, or starting on first name terms unless you’ve been asked to. Most experts will immediately invite you to call them by their first name, but if in doubt err on the side of politeness.

Include a subject heading on your email

If you’re making initial contact via email, ensure you include a subject heading or your message may never even get read (or could be deleted as spam). Avoid just launching in with a list of demands. A personalised and accurate greeting (see above) is more likely to get someone’s attention.

Make them feel special
If you contact a person via a group email ensure they don’t know it. Better still, even if it’s time consuming, send individual emails and address the person by name. Being on a group list either makes you aware you’re in some kind of unspoken competition, or that you’re not all that important, or that the person approaching you considers you to be on a par with others in the list. Could be flattering. Often isn’t.

Don’t make them feel they’re second choice. I had an email recently asking me to be part of a PR event. It opened with a request for my speedy response – “it is quite urgent as we had to drop one [expert] we had been looking at”. Who else had they contacted? Why had they dropped the other expert? Who was the other expert anyway? Letting someone know you’re not their first choice isn’t an incentive, and can make you look unprofessional. They’ll probably know you’ve called other people; you don’t have to rub their face in it.

Get their area of expertise right

Find out their speciality. There’s nothing worse than contacting an expert on the off chance they can help you with a random story idea that’s not in their area. It puts them on the spot, wastes their time, and reinforces you’ve not bothered to find out much about them. If someone’s life’s work is in genetics and you call and ask for a quote on pet bereavement (and yes, that did happen), they could get a bit miffed (yes, that happened too).

Respect their profession
I heard a classic recently. An eminent professor friend of mine was approached by a journalist who said ‘so you do some teaching, yeah?’ Yeah, and over thirty years medical research experience. I had a similar comment from a TV researcher who started our conversation with ‘you’ve a link to an academic institution?’ I’d have preferred them to know I’m a university lecturer. Experts are proud of their professional status, so it’s important to find out what they do, either in advance of talking to/meeting them, or by asking them. Don’t tell them their job, get it wrong and you’ll risk alienating and offending them.

Know who referred you
If you call an expert, tell them who put you in touch. It could be a colleague, or perhaps something you’ve seen that the expert had worked on, or maybe a professional body referred you. In the latter case, ensure you get this right. I’m a member of the British Psychological Society, who pass my details to journalists. I can’t tell you how many of them start our conversation with: ‘I got your number from the British Sociological Group, The Criminology Association, or the British Psychosocial Thingy’. It doesn’t bode well if you get the basics wrong.

Ensure you do make contact

A minority of journalists are not above putting in a quote from someone based on what they think they might say. It’s soul destroying seeing a quote you never gave saying the opposite of all you value. On a par with this is taking up a lot of an expert’s time simply to use their ideas with no quotation. Many experts or their employing institutions check up on media coverage, and misquoting is a definite no-no that is picked up on.

Remember, they don’t have to talk to you
Most experts are very busy, and certainly those employed in universities do not have dealing with the media at the top of their very long ‘to-do’ list. Those that are media-friendly are fitting this work in alongside their other tasks, so if they can find a reason not to talk to you they will.

Your job’s to ensure that doesn’t happen. Following the steps above will make it far more likely experts will cooperate with you.

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