Cristy Carlson | July 16, 2020
I know time is a valuable commodity for everyone these days, but gaining assistance from subject matter experts starts by building a relationship. Grab coffee or have lunch, if time permits, and casually pick their brains about what’s happening in their world.
When I was a reporter, we called these background interviews. They are meant to probe a wide range of topics informally. I used them to learn and to develop potential story ideas. People became more forthcoming in a more relaxed atmosphere, and the information I got was invaluable.
These conversations provided me with ideas and a firm footing to start hashing out the beginnings of a story. I could then come back to them and ask more insightful follow-up questions than I would have been able to otherwise.
In terms of working with subject matter experts (SMEs), once you have some initial information, I’ve found it helpful to prepare a draft and give your SME something to react to – with the caveat that you know you’re operating without the full information necessary to produce a finished piece, and that there may be some holes in your story. In general, it’s easier for people to react to something in its formative stage than to know how they can help you with something that they can’t see. Also, it demonstrates to the person you’re dealing with that you have ideas and are proactive rather than an order taker.
This is one way to make their lives easier. There are others, such as:
Do your own research.
Before you begin asking an executive or SME questions about a topic on which you need to create content, find out what other people are saying about it. Check out the publications your executives and SMEs follow, or would follow if they had the time. Know the ins and outs, the issues, the prevailing wisdom, the controversies. Your executive or SME is the expert, but the more you understand on your own, the more productive your conversations will be – and frankly, the more informed you are, the more they will respect you. After all, they may be experts on the topic, but you are the expert on creating compelling content.
Follow the story.
If you’re tasked with producing content and your executive or SME doesn’t have time for you, ask them who might. Chances are someone else on their team has the information you need, and that person may be more accessible. When I was a reporter, if I didn’t get the answer I needed from one source, I’d move on to another. And to another. Whatever it took to get the story.
Don’t be shy about sharing success.
I know busy executives don’t want to be barraged with one more thing to pay attention to, and I’m not suggesting you pat yourself on the back. That said, if some piece of content or your broader strategy produces an outcome that supports your organization’s business goals, your executives would greatly appreciate knowing. It also will help them understand the value of the work you do and the time they spend with you. Plus, who knows? They may be more likely to fit you into their schedule the next time you approach them.
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Cristy Carlson is a senior vice president at Falls & Co. She spent more than a decade as a television journalist and, in her public relations career, has counseled Fortune 500 companies on both the agency and client sides. She also trains executives on how to handle high-stakes media interviews and crisis situations.