Most newspapers use their Twitter feeds to draw eyeballs to their own copy, seldom linking off-site, according to a new study. Even individual reporters' accounts are often little more than strings of links to their own printed words.
But for every journalist like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, whose Twitter account is a stroll down the memory lane of his own headlines, there are many who use the medium to communicate and gather news.
Can PR professionals reach out to them through Twitter? I tweeted to ask Andy Carvin, senior strategist at NPR, whether Twitter is a good way to pitch a story, and he snuffed out the hopes of legions of PR pros with a quick reply: "No, not really."
Well, all right, then. But before you close down your Twitter account and return to emailed pitches, others insist that your 140-character talking points can help you build relationships with reporters and call attention to that source they need right now for a story.
Reporters respond to @ messages
Patrick Garmoe, social media strategist for PureDriven, says journalists do monitor Twitter and tend to respond to @ messages. Naturally, the bigger the name of the reporter, the less likely he or she is to respond.
"In general I've found Twitter is the best practical way to get directly through to journalists," says Garmoe, who has written about the topic for SpinSucks. "I always compare it to being in a convention hall. They're open, they're meeting people, and you can just walk right up to them."
Because Twitter is what Garmoe describes as a niche product, it doesn't suffer from as much noise as one finds on LinkedIn, which he likens to exchanging business cards or taking part in a speed-networking session.
Freelance business journalist Lin Grensing-Pophal prefers to search for sources on LinkedIn. Nevertheless, she finds Twitter to be effective in some circumstances.
"I think it's useful to follow trends, to pick up on what certain people are saying about a topic or issue," she says. "I've found that through HootSuite, where I can enter a particular search term for a topic I'm interested in and see what people are saying and get links to other articles and resources."
Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia University professor of digital media who teaches about Twitter, suggests there's no reason to be shy about reaching out to journalists. Reporters essentially are doing the same thing when they try to get a source to comment.
But it's best to take time to cultivate a relationship with reporters.
"One day, follow them," he says. "Another day retweet them. Then eventually ask them for something. But if the first time they ever hear from you is a request, they're more likely to ignore you. … You get a little Twitter love first before you make a request."
Don't just be an asker
If you're going to retweet someone, don't just click the automatic retweet button; it's a little impersonal. Instead, quote them in a tweet of your own, and include RT and their @ handle, Sreenivasan says. When you do so, tell your followers why this is important, or even simply add an "Amen!" or "I agree."
"Don't always be an asker," he says. "Be a giver. Be part of the ecosystem and participate. If a journalist makes a request, respond to them when it's not your client. … But if it's just me, me, me, and my client, you're not going to get a lot of traction."
A blog item for Vantage Communications suggested several ways PR pros can use Twitter—and some cautions about how you do it. Stay on topic and don't spam, author Nicole DeByl writes.
For all of us who are thrilled to be hearing "The Little Drummer Boy" already in the malls and pharmacies, she offered a bit of seasonal advice: Take advantage of slow news periods around the holidays.
DeByl writes that a colleague "checked in on different feeds for relevant blogs and found out that Mashable was having a slow day and [was] up for pitches, so we went for it and they covered our client."
In his piece, Garmoe suggests finding reporters by searching through Muckrack. Also look through the "contact us" pages for local media outlets to track down reporters' Twitter handles, he writes.
"One huge reason to use Twitter is you can actually track people down a lot of times," he said in a phone interview. "The Twitter handle is listed at the end of a news story … so it's easier to get to that information. I don't feel like it's as obtrusive a way to reach out to somebody."
One way many reporters use Twitter—even if they are not posting about it—is to monitor hashtags of topics or towns that interest them. They search for nuggets of information or story ideas there.
"I know that they're looking for information; they're seeking it out," Garmoe says. "But they're seeking out the experts, the people who are hard to track down, because those are the ones that they need to talk to."
For Garmoe, monitoring hashtags paid off for his firm in Duluth, where they were chiming in on topics of interest. A TV station ended up inviting them on for a regular gig talking about social media and technology.
"That's a dream for any company to become the news station's expert," he says, "and that was a relationship that grew out of Twitter."
Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com, where this story first appeared. Follow @russellworking on Twitter, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.