Here’s a key lesson I’m obliged to pass on to aspiring reporters out there (aspiring reporters? Do they still exist? *echooo echoo echoooo…..*). You should already know the hard basics about things like following up on FOIA requests, firmly shaking hands with officials while looking them in the eye, getting home numbers for late follow-up questions and all so forth, even (if you spent some time under the tutelage of Decent Reporters) how to camp out in the waiting room and sit there until the source who was avoiding your calls comes out of their office. One of the best (though obvious) pieces of advice I received early on was from the reporter who was the Wall Street Journal’s White House correspondent in 2003 (and a DBK alumna!) who said, “When you’re interviewing someone on a touchy subject, drop your question and then shut the hell up. Make them fill the awkward silence.”
But here’s one no one explicitly tells you in J school: become an expert at charming secretaries.
I don’t mean you should do this disingenuously: in addition to being the gatekeepers to the town managers, representatives, lawyers or other decision makers, secretaries are often the friendliest people you’ll meet while navigating the commonly cantankerous quarters of city hall. They’re most likely not directly engaged in the actual decision making so your probing won’t threaten to thrust them into the spotlight. But they know where to find things and how to get people on the phone and — most importantly — they’re the only one standing between your message and the desk of the person you’re trying to reach.
They’re also often stressed and under-appreciated, with no one stopping to ask about their day. Just little touches of friendliness will win them over to your side.
Secretaries: the key to any scrappy young reporter’s heart.
This also ensure you’re doing the other key lesson you should have learned in J school: getting off your ass, get out of the office and go report.
Just a thought.