9.19 Informal Contributors

What motivates an informal source to talk with you?

  • A printed sheet of people's faces
    Stefano Montagner – People – CC BY 2.0

    Are they outraged at something and want to get their viewpoint heard?

  • Are they concerned and want to help tell the story?

  • Have they been paid a stipend to participate in your focus group?

Consider, too, why you want to talk with them:

  • Are you trying to fill in the details about an event from eyewitnesses, in which case you need to talk with several sources?

  • Are you interested in opinions to give a broader perspective to the topic you are covering?

  • Are you looking for a better way to reach your audience for an ad campaign?

The art of interviewing is complex and your approach to different kinds of sources will be different. With informal sources, the better you can determine motivation and mood, the better you’ll be able to figure out what to do with the information and reactions you get.

Among the most valuable people-finder resources on the Internet are the telephone directory services. A service such as AnyWho allows you to look up by name, by phone number, or by address. For example, if an accident happens around a particular address, you could use this reverse look up by address to find the names and phone numbers of the people who live there who might serve as eye-witnesses.

Pipl searches the “deep web” for information on specific people. The Pipl search engine locates information that cannot be be found using regular search engines. You can search by name, email, username or phone number and the Pipl search engine will generate results from public records, social media posts, online shopping sites where someone posts reviews, and more.

Spokeo is another search engine that scours the digital world for information about individuals. It can be searched by name, email, phone, username or address. Journalists can use it to locate public records and social networking information about individuals. Strategic communicators can use it to find background information about clients or donors.

Facebook is the familiar social networking site with now more than 1 billion users across the globe. Depending on the privacy setting an individual has chosen to apply, you may be able to locate the person you want to find via Facebook. Media organizations can also create Facebook sites to solicit comments, feedback and information from customers or audience members. Using Graph Search on Facebook, you can combine more than 100+ personal details to conduct a search. For instance, you can search for “people who work at ABC company in New York,” or “photos taken at the World Cup by people from the United States,” or “sports teams liked by CEO’s,” or “Democrat women who like guns,” or any other myriad of combinations. The possibilities are endless, as are the pitfalls for unethical or unscrupulous use.

Twitter is the micro-blogging site that has been described as the SMS of the internet. Individuals and organizations have established Twitter accounts and their Tweets can be searched in a number of ways. One of the most useful search tools for Twitter is Keyhole, which allows you to search in real time by hashtag, @ sign, keyword, mention or URL. Strategic communicators routinely monitor the Twitter-verse to detect audience chatter about clients, journalists use Twitter to locate individuals on the scene of breaking news who are Tweeting, or to find mentions of individuals in other people’s Tweets. Again, the possibilities are immense.

In a recent incident where a planeload of passengers was required to sit on the tarmac for six hours, a reporter found someone who had been through the experience from a posting on a Twitter feed. The reporter then contacted that Tweet source directly to conduct an interview using that person as an eyewitness to the airline’s and the airport’s handling of the problem.

Digitally-based “review” sites such as Epinions (products and services), Yelp (restaurants) or TripAdvisor (travel destinations, hotels and amenities) provide access to individuals who have personal opinions they share concerning their experiences. Of course, you must verify any information you find using these sites, contact the individuals who posted the information to get permission to use that information, and recognize that many of these sites include positive reviews posted by employees of the company who want to help make a good impression.

If you were preparing a “pitch” for a new advertising account for a hotel chain, you would certainly want to search reviews sites such as TripAdvisor to see how travelers have been rating the hotels before deciding you wanted the business. If you were doing PR for a company whose product has been recalled, you would want to search Epinions for information from people who purchased the product and are now discussing the recall.

Scanning social networking groups for relevant types of people is a good technique for finding useful contacts who may be otherwise difficult to identify. If you are covering a story about a disease, you might contact an association that has expertise about that disease to see if they will put you in touch with some people who are living with the disease. But it is likely that the people suggested by the association have been pre-screened and coached on how to talk to the media. If you want truly “person on the street”-type sources to talk about their experience with a disease, you’re better off going to a social networking group on that topic and either identifying some people through their posted messages or by sending a “I’m interested in talking with…” type of message to the group.

Many of the informal sources you interview will be inexperienced. When interviewing these sources, understand that they may not appreciate the implications of talking with you. It is even more important to disclose to the inexperienced source exactly how you will use the information revealed during the interview with him or her. In the news setting, interviewees must understand that what they say can be used in the news report with their name attached. In the case of a focus group, the moderators ask participants to sign a release stipulating that they understand how the information is going to be used.


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Information Strategies for Communicators Copyright © 2015 by Kathleen A. Hansen and Nora Paul is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.