A Well-Mannered Reporter's Secret Weapon

May 31, 2012

I have a reporter in my newsroom who thanked me yesterday for her new “secret weapon.” I gave her a simple tool that takes very little of her time, and has resulted in high level sources calling her back quickly, public relations people smoothing the way instead of blocking it, and people who don’t frequently listen to our station still remembering her name.

She is so impressed with the difference it’s making in her reporting that she may very well be angry if she discovers I’m revealing it here. She believes it gives her an edge over the other reporters on her beat. 

What is this trick that melts the hearts of the coldest CEO, and gets busy PR people to move your name to the top of their “call back” list?

The hand-written thank you note.

Yes, I’m serious. That tedious exercise your mother put you through every time some distant relative sent you five bucks for your birthday may feel like an anachronism, but that’s part of what makes it so powerful.

In this day of instant communication, quick emails and texts sent while driving (even though we know we shouldn’t), the hand written thank you note stands out.

I’m not suggesting you send a thank you note to every politician who speaks on a conference call, or every spokesperson who parades in front of the microphone at a press conference, or the city council member you busted and forced to resign.
(Can you imagine Woodward and Bernstein writing a thank you note to President Nixon – “Hey Dick, thanks for setting us up for life….”)

But you don’t have to think very hard to find people we work with or interview that do deserve a thank you note. How about the family who welcomed you into their home to share their story? How about the court clerk who found just the document you needed? How about the politician who said, “Sure, you can spend a whole day on my campaign bus.”

You don’t need to suck up or cross any ethical lines, just send a note to say “thanks.”

If you’re like most reporters, the last time you wrote a thank you note was either after your wedding or after a job interview, and you might be a bit rusty. It really isn’t that difficult.

First – invest in some stationary. Don’t send a thank you note on a large post-it or a page ripped out of your reporter’s notebook. Check with the folks in your sales department, they may just have boxes of blank cards with your station logo on it, and envelopes to match.

Second – write the darn thing. It only needs to be a few sentences and can be pretty formulaic. Start by thanking the individual for what they did for you. Next, mention how you and your audience benefited from their actions. Perhaps it was just what you needed for the story, or it helped the audience understand a difficult issue, or whatever. It’s always great to end with a mention of any positive audience reaction the story received if you have any. 

Third – sign it legibly.

That’s it. Put a stamp on it and you’ve now separated yourself from the pack, possibly earned a few brownie points, and definitely pleased your mother.