Tuesday, February 24, 2009

You too can become an expert!

Who decided Arianna Huffington could debate the global economic crisis with Steve Forbes in the pages of The Wall Street Journal?

Why are industry sector consultants considered legitimate go-to guys by the press for overviews on the news when they may have conflicts of agenda?

If you've puzzled over these cosmic questions and others like it after reading the newspapers, then welcome to the wonderful fuzzy world of "experts."

Since there is no certification to reach expert status, and you can't get a license doing it from the back of Rolling Stone magazine, then you can become an expert too. Don't look so startled. Yes, if you know something about a topic, in the eyes of many TV and radio producers and journalists, you are an expert. As a matter of fact, in this age of competing with bloggers, you're probably over the approval hurdle already, so don't come down with laryngitis anytime soon.

Sometimes the guy who gives the best quote is "an expert," even if they don't have any great and deep knowledge of the topic. Their spitballing guess is as good as the next person's. But if you're the first person and not the "next" person, just come up with the pithy line and you're in.

Some journalists see other experts that their peers use, consider them "safe," and then call them up for their opinion, which could be the equivalent of virally spreading an error if that expert is, shall we say, unqualified?

But being an expert is also throwing yourself in to a battlefield at the risk of being exposed. The worst part is when the so-called expert knows their knowledge is limited, but doesn't care as long as the phone keeps ringing with interview requests. One industry consultant "expert" confessed this to me once and it's bothered me to no end that he went on with this charade and nobody saw through it.

Industry consultants "are great folks for chatting to, but very bad for quoting in stories," a top-level editor at one of the country's largest newspapers told me today.

This editor had a few choice words to say about being an "expert," in case you decide to jump into the pool or push your client in:

  • How does a journalist measure the legitimacy of a source?
" Resume. Quality of info. Reputation. Experience over time."
  • About questionable experts, which they nicknamed "quote of last resort":
"We internally make some markers too. Banning certain 'rent-a-quotes.'"
  • Do you ever see anybody quoted in your paper or other paper and say to yourself "Ugh."
"McKinsey, because they know stuff, don't tell, and it's all about a) puffing up their clients and b) getting new clients.

"Anyone famous for simply being a blogger. Like Jeff Jarvis, who I happen to like. But he's just a more modern type of talking head.

"Anyone who's a journalist.

"In general, all 'expert' sources are considered bad form unless you're doing a very specific story on what the experts say about plan A or B."

The other catch is, of course, that there's no shortage of experts. What's it going to take for you to bump Peter Greenberg off his spot as the Today show's resident travel guru? Hire an assassin or plant poison in his foie de gras?

1 comment:

Ray Hancart said...

Drew - I work with a couple clients that actually have credible spokespersons and as of the last 6-9 months it has become much more difficult to even get what used to be the "low hanging fruit" interview. With that said, once a legit expert connects with a media member the key is still growing that relationship to the point where other so called experts simply aren't needed. Thanks for the great post!

Ray Hancart
Fahlgren Mortine Public Relations