Obtaining an Interview: The fine line between formal and informal means in the social media age

By Meagan Flynn

There is almost nothing in the world more irritating, anxiety-strickening, and stressful than when a source is not returning your call and your deadline is just around the corner. Maybe it’s the direct interviewee who isn’t cooperating. Maybe it’s the PR rep–that’s even more annoying. Calling the not-even-famous person ourselves would just be SO much easier, right? We wish that was journo-legal.

So, out of desperation, we must resort to extremities.

Last year, the mall Santa wasn’t returning my calls. So, on a deadline, I drove to the mall and interviewed him on the spot after a group of stead-fast believing children left. The photographer gave me a free picture…

It’s important to remain formal and within reasonable means for the sake of our own credibility, but in recent years, that standard has become more flexible.

This is something I’ve realized in the past few weeks, actually. Last week, I came to the end of the road in pursing a story about Green Bay Packers player Bryan Bulaga for the capstone mag, Man Up. I had tried almost everything (within reasonable means, of course). By everything:

1. Persistently blitz the hell out of the public relations guy. Clearly, I wasn’t being taken seriously. “Hi, I’m a writer from Drake Univerisity’s–” Immediate loss of priority. I call back two days later. Send another email. Call four days later. Email again. Nothing.

2. Contact some sports writers I know from my local paper who have written stories on Bulaga. “Joe has his phone number! I’ll get that to you.” “Oh, he doesn’t think you’ll be able to interview Bulaga, actually. But you can try…” Back to square one. 

3. Look up Bryan Bulaga on Facebook–just for kicks. Oh my God, we have two mutual friends! Facebook message the two long-lost friends from back home. Awkward? Whatever. Do you know him personally? Have a number? Family friend? I receive nothing helpful. Facebook message Bulaga..? Tempting… OK, let’s not get crazy.

4. Email two Green Bay Packers beat reporters from city papers: some journo-to-journo advice. Both listed names of alternative PR contacts, all of whom they admitted are difficult to receive an answer from. They weren’t surprised that I hadn’t been lucky–“access is limited, even for us.” So, at the end of their messages, they both added:

“I’m guessing you also tried to tweet him?”

“Maybe you could try reaching out to Bulaga on Twitter. Perhaps if you send a tweet his way and tell him what you’re doing,  he might respond.”

Tweeting him? I reread the emails. Are these people joking? Nope. I was alarmed that two journalists from high-end Wisconsin city papers would legitimately suggest such a thing. But maybe this totally informal last resort was all I had left.

Unfortunately, before I had the chance to break free from conventional, formal source-seeking, the Packers’ PR representative called me back–strangely it was just after I finished reading the two emails. “Sorry, we don’t grant college journalists access to the players,” he said.

You bet I was furious. Age discrimination, anyone? But, I thought, at least he had the courtesy to return my call.

Afterward, the two journalists’ suggestions to tweet at my interviewee target stuck with me. Is this what our society has come to? Apparently, by the standards of two established journalists, social media is now an acceptable means by which to contact hard-to-get interviewees. I’m still hesitant. I still would have felt self-conscious about any of my followers, and especially my editor, seeing on their feed that I was trying to set up an interview with an elite professional athlete via Twitter.

But an interview is an interview. How we secure them seems to be no longer as important as it was during the pre-social media era. These two beat reporters work story to story, clinging to whatever information they can get their hands on. To them, meeting deadline with quality information takes precedent over the means of obtaining their sources.

“To heck with anyone who tries to stop you. Keep trying,” the reporter from the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal told me. “Wish I could help you out, my access is so limited and my time so much so, it is a nightmare just to get my own copy.”
In short, her message told me, “Gotta do what you can.”
And that’s when I thought, dammit, should I have just Facebooked him?
Based on what we’ve all been taught conventionally, how would any of you feel about reaching out to a prestigious source via Twitter or Facebook?



6 responses to “Obtaining an Interview: The fine line between formal and informal means in the social media age

  1. I would feel uneasy about contacting a source via Twitter or Facebook. First, Twitter’s 140 character limit restricts specificity. A personable, professional, specific interview request requires more than 140 characters, and sending tweet after tweet could irritate a potential source.

    Second, my Twitter blends my professional and personal life. While I tweet journalism-related articles, for instance, I also tweet about my weekend plans. Because my Twitter includes professional and personal tweets, I would not contact a source via a tweet.

  2. I agree, Taylor. I’m more worried about not being able to seem legitimate in 140 characters like you said. On the interviewee’s end, it’s like, “who the heck is this person?” Then, after he doesn’t respond and you finally reach him via email or some other formal means, he’ll think, “oh yeah, I remember reading that tweet from you that I chose not to respond to.” It just seems illegitimate.

  3. I understand your concern about contacting a source via Twitter. It’s so short, and (like Megan said) illegitimate. If that’s the only option, I guess that’s what you have to do. If you can get the person’s attention, you may be able to move the interview to a more advantageous mode of communication.

    I think Facebook might work better just for the simple fact that you aren’t tied to 140 characters. At least, you can say what you truly mean.

    I think the problem with both is the fact that they are not professional means of communication. There’s still a stigma about social media. Maybe, that will change in the future.

  4. Very interesting topic. The line of formality for source interviews is definitely blurring. But I agree, I think you gotta do what you gotta do to get that interview.

    Last year I worked on a PR campaign for childhood obesity in Des Moines. We tried contacting Shawn Johnson’s people and they politely declined. We were a little frustrated but then we looked to Lo Lo Jones. We decided to tweet and see what happened. She direct messaged us back with a phone number of her assistant and she wanted to let us know she would help if she could. WE WERE SHOCKED. But it was pretty awesome.

  5. Pingback: Being Taken Seriously as a Student Journalist | Media Editing

  6. Cecily, that is seriously one of the most awesome things I’ve ever heard from a journalist hah. That is just….awesome. You’ve definitely given me some more confidence in that tweeting method now!

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