Try Not to Sabotage the Subject-Matter Expert

Derek LaVallee
Derek LaVallee

A bylined article is only as good as the research that informs it. And a sourcing call is only as good as what you do before, during and after speaking with the subject matter expert (SME). It is important to set a course of action that will ensure that the deliverable is accurate, thorough, on message—and on budget—before submitting it to the client.

We should care why?

Approaching a bylined article simply to get exposure for your client should not be the motivating factor of the process. It is crucial that the piece you submit actually says something.

A placed article should be seen as a way to position the client as a thought leader and a voice of influence on a particular topic. It is for this reason that the development of a solid angle before the call is so critical.

Proper preparation. A foolproof way to sabotage a call before it even starts is to approach an SME unprepared. Due diligence and ample research not only set a baseline of knowledge, but will also position you as a thoughtful and prepared professional.

Based upon your research, targeted questions should be developed and shared with the expert ahead of time. This exercise identifies for the expert the topic you’d like to flesh out during the call and provides them time to formulate their thoughts in advance.

A combination of focused questions based upon sound research and open-ended inquiries provides the SME room to confirm facts and expand on a particularly thought-provoking topic.

Make the call.

Upon first speaking to the SME, confirm that he or she understands and agrees with the viability of the proposed topic. Be prepared to describe the reasoning behind the selection of the direction. You’ve done the research and you know your client. There is a reason that you chose this direction. That said, be prepared for the expert to suggest an alternate point of view based on his or her experience.

At the outset, brandish your credibility to create a tone of mutual trust. This will also show the SME that he can delve deeper into the topic without worrying that terms and concepts will go over your head. As you near the end of the sourcing call, there are a few points that you’ll want to touch upon before you hang up the phone.

Relaying a very brief summary to the SME and restating the angle will confirm and clarify major points and identify missing information. The call should be closed out after one final request for additional thoughts and a restatement of any commitments made by the SME to provide additional post-call information.

Goodbye doesn’t mean forever.

The effort invested after the call is as important as the rest of the process. Building and sustaining relationships with SMEs, and by extension the client, will inspire confidence, particularly in the C-suite.

Follow up with a note of appreciation including a reminder of outstanding commitments. Do not hesitate to reach out with additional questions during the drafting stage of the piece. Neglecting to obtain clarity at an early stage in the writing process could substantially impact the project.

The client-ready draft should be sent to the SME first to serve as a final check of information and solidify the accuracy of any interpretations.

Even though due diligence throughout the process should be able to avoid such a move, if the SME has concerns about the draft, another sourcing call may be needed.

Finally, sending a copy of the final version to the SME will close the loop on this particular project, even though the relationship continues.

Mistakes are costly.

A sourcing call, particularly one with someone in the C-suite of a large, national company or nonprofit, can be a high-stakes game. It provides a perfect forum to impress, annoy or even anger an important decision-maker. One-on-one interactions with someone in the C-suite are few and far between. Acknowledge that importance and approach the call with that in mind.

A sourcing call is the single most important step in the composition process and can have a lasting impact on your relationship with your client.

Thoroughly and systematically executing a sourcing call plan has benefits to that client, your agency and you as a professional that will far outlast a single published piece. PRN


Derek LaVallee is a partner at Kemp Goldberg. He can be reached at

This article appeared in the October 7 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.