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Social media is a virtual Rolodex for journalists and media relations people

Finding sources is easier than ever when almost everyone you know is connected to you online.

On Friday, a friend of a friend received an unsolicited message on Facebook from a reporter at a top national daily newspaper who was writing an article on layoffs. This acquaintance updated his status to read “Chad just got laid off” or something to that effect. So it got me thinking – is locating sources on social networking sites a growing trend for journalists? It would make sense – your connections on LinkedIn, followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook and MySpace are a virtual Rolodex… no need to keep a little book of sources to refer to when almost everyone you know is connected to you online.

So I emailed the newspaper reporter to find out more. Does she do this all the time? Is she successful? Her response? “Wow, I’ve been caught! This is actually the first time I’ve done this so I can’t really say right now. So far, I haven’t spoken to anyone I contacted via Facebook (I have lots of irons in the fire).”

Well, that was a dead end. How could I find other journalists who find their sources online? Oh yeah… maybe I could use my social networking connections to find sources!

So I did just that. On Twitter, in addition to just sending a tweet to my followers, I decided to included the #journchat hashtag (Journchat is a Twitter group of journalists and PR professionals) so that anyone who follows that group would also see my questions. I’ve found hasthags to be really helpful on Twitter.  I also updated my Facebook status and submitted a Question on LinkedIn. Within 10 minutes, I had over a dozen responses. I was pleased at how helpful everyone was on LinkedIn, surprised by the viable recommendations and comments from childhood friends on Facebook and excited about the conversations that started on Twitter.

Overwhelmingly, journalists quickly responded with success stories of finding sources on social networking sites. A few mentioned Help A Reporter, the brainchild of Peter Shankman, as a great place to start when looking for sources. Almost everyone mentioned taking an interest in their community and really listening to respondents as crucial in successfully finding sources online. Here are just a few of the stories that sources shared:

Singing the praises of Web 2.0:

Music journalist James Hale discusses how much easier the Internet has made his job: “I’ve used both LinkedIn and Facebook to connect with potential sources, with a high level of success in both cases.  Even after being online for 17 years, the Web continues to make me more efficient as a writer. Social media is just the latest improvement.”

How to use specific Web 2.0 tools:

Louise Julig, writer, editor and blogger at ThoughtsHappen.net recently conducted an experiment using the LinkedIn Polls feature to design a poll around an upcoming article about eldercare that she wanted to get some personal stories for. Louise shares, “I used the free version and then used LI’s option to send the poll out to 50 of my contacts along with an email explanation, and about half of them responded to the poll. A few left comments on the poll, which was a feature I didn’t know about, and others emailed me or invited me to call them to discuss their stories. I was really touched by the willingness to share. I think showing a sincere interest in what people have to say does generate a response.”

Blogger and freelance writer Andie McCutcheon uses Facebook status update to “find people matching certain criteria (i.e. ‘looking for university dropouts’)” and almost always has “someone who knows someone who fits.”

Media outlets that started their own source communities:

Thomas Haizlip, owner of Skills for Success in  Greensboro, NC,  pointed me to WUNC-FM, Thomas’ local NPR station. WUNC started the Public Insight Network which keeps files on local experts in particular fields and then shares those contacts with their reporters and editors. According to Thomas, “They are asking people to register for their area of expertise and be willing to serve as a source to ‘spotlight’ their knowledge. I really like their positioning statement because it comes across as respectful and engaging to listeners.”

Kevin Sablan of the Orange County Register is one of four OCC staffers that operate the Twitter account @OCReggie. “We decided to create @OCReggie in late November, after a small handful of us used our personal accounts to reach out to Orange County residents during the wildfires that struck Southern California in mid-November. We didn’t want our personal tweets to be misconstrued as the ‘thoughts or opinions’ of the Orange County Register or its affiliates.” @OCReggie has grown quite a bit since its launch 2 months ago (congrats!) and is used to share ideas and stories, filter story ideas to reporters and participate in general outreach to the Orange County community.

Some offered advice on which sites to use for which audiences:

Freelance journalist Menachem Wecker has used LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook and also tracked sources through blogs. He says, “I’ve found Facebook best for students, especially if there is a certain region I am looking for, while the others are far better for sources who are not currently students.”

Vancouver Sun Digital Life writer Gillian Shaw points to many of her fellow Sun staffers who are on Twitter. “I use [social networking sites] as do many of my colleagues.”

Blogger Kevin Fenton asked a few of his friends who are journalists if they use social media for sources. One freelancer told him that he was on social media sites, but didn’t use them for sources. “He said that the age gap may be important,” Kevin added. Of course, I would argue that, like me, Kevin utilized social media to locate sources for this blog post. 🙂

Whether you are a journalist or a PR professional, the morale of the post is the same: authentic, honest engagement in online communities can provide a robust library of sources and networking contacts that can benefit you in the future.

About Heidi Sullivan

One of PRWeek’s 40 under 40 in 2012, Heidi Sullivan is Senior Vice President of Digital Content for Cision and a self-proclaimed social media metrics nerd. She leads the company’s digital and broadcast content teams, the global research team for Cision’s media database, Cision’s social media community team and the company’s content marketing strategy. You can find her on Twitter @hksully.

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