Maybe you are working as the corporate communicators specialist for a major business in your community and you need to determine how the CEO wants to position the decision to open a new factory overseas. Maybe you are producing advertising for your computer manufacturer client and you need to understand what types of ads have worked in the past. Maybe you are writing about a possible financial scandal at the non-profit foundation in your state that is supposed to help low-income residents gain employment skills. In each case, you want to interview the key people who work at those institutions to get the benefit of their expertise. For these examples, you know the name of the specific person or people you need to interview.
Other times, you may need to identify an appropriate private-sector institutional source who can speak knowledgeably about your topic or issue. Using some of the search tools mentioned here can help you identify the right person and prepare for the interview.
The Who’s Who volumes (Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the Midwest, Who’s Who in the Press, etc.) are sources of biographical information about an entrant. These are good resources only if you have a specific name you are looking for.
“Biography master indexes” can help you locate biographical information published in various books, magazines, and newspapers. These are valuable resources for communicators because they provide supplemental or supporting information about individuals beyond what you can get during an interview. If some facts have to be verified, if the person in question will not agree to an interview or is unavailable, these biographical references are often the only method for gathering the required biographical information. A resource guide to biographical sources in the UMN library can be found here.
Hundreds of online news sites and news indexes can help you locate background information about possible interviewees. The powerhouses of news searching have been the large commercial database services such as Newsbank, Proquest Dialog, LexisNexis or Factiva. These provide cross-title searching of multiple news organizations’ materials – for a fee. These large subscription database services are best accessed through a public or university library, or through the media organization library that may have subscriptions to one or more vendors for all staff to use.
The growth of news websites has been a boon to the researcher. Even publications too small to have been attractive to the major news database vendors in the past now have their articles available in electronic backfiles. So if you want to be sure you’ve done a thorough job of identifying background information about a private-sector interviewee as part of your preparation for an interview, you would want to identify the news organization websites on which you want to search.
NewsLink – Find newspapers, magazines and radio / TV websites by region and by category.
Radio Locator — Links to more than 10,000 radio station websites and more than 2,500 audio streams from radio stations in the U.S. and around the world.
LinkedIn is the social networking site used by individuals and organizations to advance their professional careers and institutional goals. Once you create a LinkedIn profile, you have access to thousands of individuals and organizations. The more contacts and connections you have through your profile, the more contacts you will see when you conduct searches. You can follow a company LinkedIn page if you are doing advertising or PR work for that organization. You can locate specific individuals by name or conduct searches for types of people (business managers using Six Sigma management techniques; CIO’s at consumer electronics companies, etc.)
Private-sector institutional interviewees pose special challenges for communicators. Many are well-trained to talk to communication professionals, wary of saying too much and sophisticated in their ability to take control of an interview. Particularly for private sector institutional sources such as business executives or advocacy group spokesperson, you have to be diligent in your preparation and persistent in your questioning to generate anything new or useful from an interview and to counter-act the spin they might put on the information.
Sources such as senior business executives are likely to be surrounded in their day-to-day activities by people who defer to them. They are not used to being asked rude or challenging questions, or to being subjected to criticism about their actions. Therefore, you need to phrase your interview questions in a way that demonstrates respect.
Just as with public-sector institutional sources, it is possible to ask difficult questions while still remaining on friendly terms. For instance, you can ask an executive about a controversial decision by phrasing a question such as, “Some of your critics suggest that discontinuing that product line will allow your competitors to enter the vacuum created. How do you respond?” Maintaining your neutral stance during the interview is crucial to a successful interaction.
Business executives are especially well trained not to reveal too much information. They are concerned about sharing something that might affect a company’s stock price, about inadvertently providing information that might advantage competitors, or about somehow putting their company in a bad light.
Assume that a business interviewee has been briefed about you and your media outlet before the interview. Before you can even schedule an interview, you may be asked to provide information about the topic of the interview and some of the questions that might be asked. This forces you to think carefully about your interview purpose and to structure questions that optimize your efficiency for generating the information you need. You will rarely have the chance to go past the allotted amount of time with a business interviewee, so you need to get into the substance of your interview quickly.