If I were a smart journalist just making my way in the industry, I’d be trying to find a way to distinguish myself from my peers – something to give me a competitive edge.
With all this talk about journalists embracing digital media, I’d start having a look at where – up to this point – technology hadn’t much impacted on what I was being told about journalism. By finding this, and by exploiting it with new digital ideas, I might find a good way to make a name for myself.
So… what would I choose if I was a reporter now?
Well, I think it would be the contact book. We are all told when we’re starting out that one of the most important thing for a journalist to do is build up their contact book. Nowadays, we’re also told about building up our social media profile too.
But, whilst it’s immensely useful having a lot of interesting people following you on Twitter, the most effective thing about a contact book is that you can contact the right people directly when you need them.
So, if I were a smart journalist trying to build up my contacts, I’d first read up on the basics of the Data Protection Act.
Then I’d start trying to understand how to use a database. I’d develop a way for both me and other people to add to it. If I’ve had a great conversation or got information from someone on social media, I’d politely ask if they give me their email address so we could stay in touch. I’d also ask them if I could drop them a line every so often to let them know what I’m working on.
I’d try and add fields of key words that would mean I could search for relevant people later (even if I’ve forgotten their names).
I’d also figure out how I create email lists out of this database, so when I need to I can contact a range of people who may know something about a topic I’m writing about.
I’d realise this whole process was an utter pain in the arse but, in the long term, what i’m doing is establishing long-term direct contact with potential sources. It would also give me something that a lot of journalists don’t have and brands will potentially pay a lot of money for: a large, direct-contact database. That’s something that could give me the competitive edge in tracking down the right person for my story in the future. It could, done right, also give me one of the most organised, useful contact books in the industry.
Which has to be useful… right?
But social media can be an invaluable way of building your contact book. I think your phraseology was interesting – “our social media profile”, “lot of interesting people following you on Twitter”. I’d rather see “our social media networks” and “following lots of interesting people on Twitter”. One smacks of broadcast mentality – which I’m sure was not what you’re implying, but is a mindset many people in mass market media slip into very easily – the other of the sorts of use of social media tools which facilitate contact book building.
There are multiple ways of developing relationships that become the closer ones that we could count as contacts – from the phones, to face to face meetings, to vents, to introductions by colleagues – and the best reporters I’ve worked with have been as adept on developing their contacts on social networks as they are face to face.
Yes, I’m afraid I had a very particular audience in mind when I wrote that. I think there are far too many people that assume that if they attach themselves to an established brand interesting people will follow them and they will then be able to make Twitter work for them.
What I didn’t make clear, perhaps, is that the social media contact is still important. You really do need to be able to connect with people across all platforms and go to them. What I think I was trying to say is that having someone in the “people I follow” list is useful, but being a bit smarter and trying to systematise the way you store and manage those contacts seems to be a good idea.
Put simply, we’re constantly talking about how journalists can make data clearer and more useful. Why not do that with the contacts email list/twitter people you follow/contacts from forums/people who might fill out a form to find out more on your blog/people you talk to on the telephone/people you meet on the street or pub?
I remember my first contacts book – it has Buck House under B for Buckingham Palace. I thought it was just great that I had the phone number of the queen!
But this post actually reminds me more of CRM database software that companies use to track customer relations and enables you to send out mass email outs to relevant sectors. I actually bought a CRM program called Ace! http://www.program-ace.net/web/enterprise_solutions/crm/ years ago to help with doing some PR work on the side for a charity. It worked pretty well if you kept it updated.
Anyway the years have passed and Saleforce.com apparently now lead the way in CRM software. I haven’t investigated but I suspect it would work pretty well for a journalist seeking to put all her contacts into a database with keywords and other contact/relationship information.