Business books include case studies and perspectives from executives. Executives live in impenetrable corporate fortresses. How can you get them to go on the record?
I’ve already written about how to find the stories — through your own experience, existing vendor case studies, and news articles. So my starting point for this post is that you’ve identified company X as one with a story worth telling. Beyond that, you should start with a specific accomplishment of company X — a breakthrough product, an amazing marketing program, or sustained customer experience excellence, for example — and want to describe how that happened in your book. Call this Step 0: finding the target. Now how do you get the story?
Step 1. Find the right person to interview
That’s not always the CEO. Even if you’re writing about marketing, it may not be the CMO. But you want the highest-level person who can tell the whole story.
To do this, find somebody who has gone on the record about what you’re writing about.
For example, right now I’m setting up an interview with Ingram Spark, a company that helps authors to self-publish and distribute their books. Ingram Spark is part of Ingram, which is a huge company. So who should I interview?
The Ingram Spark website is no help — it’s set up for authors, but doesn’t list executives. But a little research shows that Ingram Spark is part of Ingram Content — that’s probably the level I’m looking for.
Is there a CEO of Ingram Spark? I did a search and found this: an interview with Robin Cutler, who has been the director of Ingram Spark for five years. Now I know two things: first, that Robin Cutler is the right person to interview, and second, that’s she’s spoken on the record about her business.
Existing articles and blog posts are an excellent resource for this. So are vendor case studies. If Company X hired Vendor Y to help with a project, and Vendor Y wrote a case study about it, that case study probably quotes an executive from Company X — and that person is potentially open to speaking with you.
If your company and its accomplishments aren’t on the record yet, you may have to network through other contacts. That can work, but it’s much faster if you find them talking online.
Step 2: Get an introduction, most likely through the PR department
How do you get this executive to speak with you? You probably don’t even have their email address. Even if you do, they’re less likely to respond to a random email. Sure, you could message them through LinkedIn, but many won’t respond to random inquiries that way, either. No, you want an introduction.
Go through public relations — they’re in business to help executives get coverage.
So how do you find the PR? You could find a PR page on the company’s site and pick the PR contact that seems best. But the easiest thing to do is to find a press release with the target’s name on it.
For example, when I searched “Ingram Spark Press Release,” I found this:
Ingram Announces New Chief Information Officer
NASHVILLE, TN (June 3, 2019) – Ingram Content Group®(“Ingram”) announced Steve Marshall as its new Chief Information Officer (CIO). As CIO, Marshall will oversee all IT operations as well as lead Ingram’s overall strategies as a technology services company. . . .
I have no interest in Ingram Content Group’s new CIO. But at the bottom of that press release is the name of PR contact with an email and phone number. And PR contacts, almost always, will respond to your emails and calls. It’s their job.
Step 3: Write a brief, personalized, and persuasive pitch email
Your pitch should include a subject line that says exactly what you want (an interview with the target executive). And it should include the following elements:
- The PR contact’s name in the body of the email (showing you did your homework and will treat them as an important connection).
- What you’re seeking (say, a 45-minute phone interview). Don’t be coy about the length of the interview — your PR person is going to have to represent what you want and why and how much time it’s going to take.
- A short description of what interests you, with a link. For example, “I saw [target name]’s comments in [article or vendor case study] and I’m very interested in how they accomplished that. That company is one of the few who have [accomplishment], and I’d love to write about that in my book.”
- Information about your book and your background. How many books have you written? How long have you been researching this? Who is your publisher? You want to assure the PR person that the visibility you are providing is going to be worth the executive’s effort.
- A polite closing, including a deadline. “If you can get back to me in the next ten days, that would be very helpful.” Don’t give more than two or three weeks, or your request will be forgotten.
The main thrust of this email is “I know about the company’s accomplishments, I plan to write positive things, I have experience, and I have a publisher.” The other crucial element is to treat the PR person as a valuable professional. PR people get dumped on by media all day long — if you’re nice to them, they’re more likely to respond.
Step 4. Conduct the interview cordially but professionally
After some back and forth with the PR and, possibly, the executive’s admin, you’ll get your time on the phone.
If they ask for questions ahead of time, send a few but say those are typical of what you’re asking. Don’t send a complete list.
If they ask for final approval of the text, don’t grant that. (Otherwise whatever you write will sound like a company press release.) Instead, agree to allow them to review the final text for accuracy. (Language is crucial: review, not approve.)
If you said it would take 40 minutes, take less than 40 minutes. Start with easy questions and go to harder ones. Be as fascinated as you can muster about what they’re doing. Take careful notes or record the interview. Go in with a plan about what you’re going to find out, but be prepared to go in whatever directions seem most productive. But don’t leave anything out.
You’re unlikely to get a followup interview, and asking for one marks you as an amateur. If you need some little fact — well, you have the PR contact’s name and you made friends with them, so they can track down that little detail.
Step 5: Get the final facts verified — at the end of the book process
After you’ve written the case study, don’t send it out for their review. At least not right away.
Wait until you’ve completed the manuscript and are ready to send it to copy editing. That’s when to go out for fact verification.
Why not as soon as you wrote it? Because you’re going to change the story, rearrange it, and rewrite it a few times. They should see, not your first version, but your (near) final version. (It’s also less likely to have typos in it.)
You’ll be very glad you made that PR connection earlier, too, because that PR person is going to help get your prose reviewed and verified before you publish it — and they’ll likely be a lot more responsive than your interview target.
What about gotcha interviews?
Companies are rarely willing to talk about situations in which they screwed up. Nor will they be pleased if you set up an interview under the pretense that you’re writing a positive case study, then end up writing a hit piece.
You could go through the same process I cited above, but the PR person and the target will feel burned — and you’ll have ruined any relationship you have. Even if you are a very well known author, companies are unlikely to go on the record with an interview where they know you will describe how they did everything wrong.
This doesn’t mean you can’t write case studies about disasters. But you’ll most likely have to rely on secondary sources — articles, other people’s interviews, and public statements.
Unless you’re writing a book about crisis communications, most of your case studies will be about people who did things well. The process I’ve described here is the one most likely to get you the case study interviews you need to write them.