24 October 2007

Contacts

A (I think) student hack raised a question today on a journalism forum I hang out on - namely that it must be impossible to get a decent job without the all-important "bulging contacts book". This phrase is such a hackneyed cliché it's been around since before the red tops were invented. It conjures up an image of an ageing Filofax, creaking at its seams, leaking loose business cards and assorted scraps of paper, and all held together by an elastic band because the leather strap broke decades ago.

Ha! Another romantic myth...

There's no such thing as a bulging contacts book. It's merely standard recruitment ad jargon and what it boils down to is not who you know but whether you know how to get hold of people who can supply you with the contacts you need for a story. And those people are often a few PR types and the best mate of your sister's ex-boyfriend's boss.

When I was starting out, those recruitment ads would intimidate so much I never dared to apply for many jobs that I would dearly have loved to have. I didn't know loads of celebrities. And you know what? I still don't. Unless you count a couple of reasonably well-known stand-up comics and a cult novelist, none of whom I've yet managed to persuade to be interviewed, or to write for a mag I commission for.

What I do know is people. I have, like most people, a handful of close friends, plus a wider circle of acquaintances. I network a lot in the business community and keep in touch with PR people. I keep every business card that's thrust at me, stash numbers in my mobile phone, file emails that have contact details in them and keep a Rolodex. If I need to find someone to talk to, all I need to do is flick through that lot and then, if I still draw a blank, I may ask favours from other hacks.

You don't really need to have Posh Spice on direct dial in this business - what you do need is knowing how to get hold of her spokesperson in three moves or fewer. And there's the rub - it's not who you know but whether you know how to find the info you need or not. I'm not the kind of hack that would sell their granny to the Daily Sport for a fiver, neither do I have the kind of family members who are willing to sell their stories to the media. Does it matter? No. Because I have a wide enough circle of contacts that a couple of phone calls or emails should suffice to find the right people I need to talk to.

5 comments:

sally said...

Haha - you already know I'm gonna disagree, don't you?

I wouldn't hire a plumber on the basis that he'd read a boiler manual and knew where to get some more.

Similarly, I don't hire a financial reporter on the basis that he knows a few people and he can hang out on ResponseSource and get 400 replies from PR flunkies in under 10 minutes.


Wherever you store them - in a traditional red and black or in Outlook, contacts are the lifeblood of many a working journo, and I wouldn't consider hiring a reporter who didn't have 'em.

If you're just relying on a few friends and family and ResponseSource, are you really a journo?

But i'm feeling spectacularly argumentative today, sorry...

wordsmith_for_hire said...

I'm not disagreeing - did you get beyond para 3? Because after that, I made it very clear that I know far more people than my mates and how to access ResponseSource (which incidentally I have never yet had to use).

I think there is also a massive difference between a reporter, who really does (as you said elsewhere) need to have the contacts to bring in a story overnight or risk being sacked, and a feature writer who definitely has more time to talk to the people they need to talk to.

I think I made it very clear that journalists do need a wide range of contacts (which I certainly have). But judging by a lot of the requests on hacking forums, many people don't seem to know where to look to find the right people and end up getting a fellow hack's brother-in-law to be a case study...

sally said...

Yes, I suppose I'm being unfair - as you say, some hack forums do suggest that too many journos confuse being able to get people for case studies through friends of friends and "having contacts"

But I'd perhaps argue that being able to get hold of Posh's spokesperson in three moves or fewer isn't having contacts, either.

Having the mobile number of her former nanny, or her driver, or the person who handles her books? That's having contacts. Anyone can call a publicist, surely?

sally said...

Actually, scrap that - contacts come in all shapes and sources and it's dumb to be elitist about them. And different contacts work best in different stories, too.

I guess ultimately though that someone who doesn't have their own contacts going into a story is unlikely to get beyond sanitised, media-trained spokespeople and their comments, except by a lot of hard work and dumb luck (in my case, at least).

wordsmith_for_hire said...

That's what I was trying to say, Sally. I may not know the CEO of Hot Shot Inc. but I could probably get hold of contact deals fairly quickly by either a net search, PR person, or asking one or two people for a lead. As hacks, it's much more about knowing how to find the information than actually having it to hand. It's not difficult once you know where and how to look.

I have to agree that if I was hiring, I'd expect any candidate to at least know how/where to look for someone if they don;t actually have them as a direct contact. Not much point in hiring a sous-chef who can't boil an egg... :)