Subject  matter experts: how to find and choose expert sources

Talk about a story that gives you the shivers . . . in 2012, Forbes shared the tale of Ryan Holiday, a “self-styled ‘media manipulator’” who was quoted numerous times in print and online publications. Here’s the problem: “He is not an expert in barefoot running, investing, vinyl records, or insomnia. But he is a liar.”

In other words, he presented himself as an expert to multiple journalists on multiple topics and was polished enough to fool them.

And, way back in 2010, Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) presented a thoughtful piece about how the very concept of expertise has changed because of the Internet. We now have self-proclaimed experts, as just one example, who gain wide followings through their blogs; some of them surely have “expertise,” however that is defined, while others are questionable.

So, what’s a poor journalist/writer/blogger to do? Well, as the nightmarish saga of Ryan Holidayreminds us, getting the expert quote is, at a minimum, a two-step process: first find potential expert sources and then vet them carefully.

Primary sources: two-step process

Part one: finding sources

To find potential experts, here are some sources:

HARO (Help a Reporter Out): In this service, you sign up for a free account and, when you need an expert source, you submit a query. You need to include the place where it will be published, along a short description of what you need and your deadline. Your request is sent out in one of the three daily (M-F) email digests sent to experts and their public relations firms (according to HARO, to more than 200,000 people). The experts then contact you via your preferred method.

If you’d like, you can ask that the place of publication be listed as “anonymous” when it is sent out to experts. The up side to that: if you (or your editor!) don’t want a competitor to scoop you on the story, you aren’t giving your plans away. The down side: some experts most likely won’t respond to an anonymous query.

I’ve used HARO many times and been pleased with the results. Sometimes, I get more responses than I can use; occasionally, I don’t get any. In only one instance, my query was rejected, and that was because the publication site had too poor of an Alexa ranking.

ProfNet (now part of PR Newswire): I have also used ProfNet numerous times, with decent results. And, the site that was rejected by HARO was accepted by ProfNet. Having said that, I’ve gotten fewer responses with ProfNet than with HARO, although it may be the nature of the types of queries I’ve submitted.

ProfNet sends queries out to 14,000+ public relations professionals throughout the day, rather than having them sit in a queue for hours. You can also use their ProfNet Connect service, where you can search a free database of nearly 50,000 experts to find one or more that suits your needs. Plus, you can sign up to receive expert alerts, where available experts are featured.

The Search Guru discusses how to find and select the best expert sources for your online content

I am currently testing Publiseek. This service is similar to HARO and ProfNet but you can also request:

  • Items for a gift bag
  • Guest post writers
  • Speakers for an event
  • Props or locations for a film
  • Products to review for your blog

You can also share general publicity opportunities.

I am also testing Response Source and Pitch Rate (Yes. They’re similar to the others.), and I applied to the Media Kitty service, which is located in Canada (7-day response time).

Plus, here is a list of expert source websites from the Society of Professional Journalists. Also check to see what databases your public library supports. For example, here is what is available for people in the Cleveland area; if yours supports Gale Group Publications, then the Encyclopedia of Associations is worth its weight in gold when searching for expert sources.

Part two: vetting sources

Once you’ve identified your subject matter experts, do some more homework. If you’re not convinced, read this article: A lesson in vetting your sources (or how not to look like an idiot).

Does your expert have a website? If so, here are tips on vetting that website. If he or she is an author, take a look at his/her books. Who published them?

All other things being equal, I’d feel much more comfortable discovering that a well-respected academic press is standing behind someone’s work than if, say, the books were self-published. I wouldn’t disqualify someone because his or her books were self-published, mind you. I’m just saying that, if a source was published with Yale University Press, that would be reassuring, while self-publishing authors are still a question mark to be explored.

What professional organizations does this expert list? Can you verify them? Who else quotes this expert? The New York Times?

Secondary sources

Best advice: choose good ones!

In more detail, secondary sources are great to use to:

  • Get the background for a story before contacting subject matter experts, to avoid wasting their time with elementary-level questions
  • Provide some of the information in an article or blog post that also contains primary source material, either from your own expertise or from interviews

Warning: make sure you are using quality secondary sources.

To find a list of excellent websites for secondary-source material, read “Research Sources for Writers: A Guide to Backing up Your Words.” To highlight one of these: Directory of Open Access Journalsprovides access to quality-controlled journals and their articles. At last look, 9,714 journals (5,642 of which are searchable at the article level) with 1,623,392 articles were available through this site/service.

To spotlight another: the Internet Public Library was founded by a class at the Michigan’s School of Information. It is now maintained and further developed by multiple colleges and universities.

Also take a look at the MILNE Library/State University of New York at Genesco website, the online writing lab (OWL) at Purdue University and Drew University’s online resources for writers.

To make sure that you aren’t perpetuating a myth, check with Snopes before publishing. If you’re still uncertain of the reliability of a piece of information but find it crucial to include, do so – and then list the source and state that you were unable to independently verify that info.

And, finally, to search full books and encyclopedia entries, plus magazine, newspaper and journal articles – if you don’t mind paying – then Questia is my recommendation.

How have you found quality expert sources? Secondary source material? Did you ever regret using any of them? Please share below!