Using LinkedIn: a journalist’s guide

Kim Pittaway

Facebook, Facebook, Facebook. Given the number of stories about social networking that focus almost exclusively on the electronic equivalent of the world’s largest high school hallway, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s the only way to connect with potential sources and colleagues old and new. The problem, of course, is whether you really want to see your new boss’s stagette party pics (well, maybe you do) or share your own Vegas videos with both personal and professional contacts.

There is another option: This business-oriented social networking site was launched in May 2003 and now has more than 25 million registered users. The site’s basic functioning is standard social network stuff: You set up a profile, you invite people to connect to you, once they do you can see their connections and vice versa. What’s particularly useful, though, is that you can also search for people by name or company, and LinkedIn will show you how you’re connected to that person, a sort of online “six degrees of separation”—though you may be only one or two connections apart.

Once you see the connections, you can ask those to whom you are connected directly to introduce you or pass on a message, a nice alternative to the online cold call. (Basic accounts are free, but if you purchase an upgraded account you can contact those for whom you don’t already have email addresses directly through LinkedIn’s “InMail” function.) And because your profile is set up in resume format, it’s a quick way for potential clients or recruiters to get a sense of your expertise—and for you to get a snapshot of a potential source’s expertise as well.

I’ve been using for a few months, and have seen a couple of benefits. First, I’m terrible at keeping an up-to-date resume, and having to create—and keep current—an online version has been worthwhile. Second, it’s been surprising to realize how wide my network actually is: once I started adding people—and checking out their connections—I realized my web of professional connections was much bigger than I thought.

But that’s just the basic stuff. While you won’t find stagette party pics and you can’t send pals virtual beer steins or animated smiley flower bouquets, for journalists who are searching for sources, job-hunting or trolling for freelance work, or simply looking for help with professional issues, can be useful. Here’s how:

Finding sources
There are a couple of potential routes here—some simpler if you have an upgraded account (the first-level upgrade costs $19.95 US per month). First, you can click on “People” in the top navigation bar and search by name, company, job title or country. With a free account, you can connect to those you turn up through your connections; with an upgrade, you can contact them directly.

Trying to track down people who worked at a particular company during a specific time period? While the “reference search” tool was designed for recruiters checking up on potential hires, it’s also a useful tool for journalists—but again you’ll need to upgrade from the free account to use it. Type in a company name, the years you’re interested in and you’ll get a list of LinkedIn members who fit the bill. (When I typed in “Telemedia” and “1988 to 1996,” LinkedIn returned 34 potential connections.)

Another option is to simply pose a question to the LinkedIn community. Click on “Answers” in the top navigation bar and type in your question. You’ll be prompted as to whether you want to ask the question within a specific category or pose it privately to selected members who are already among your own connections. (You can also answer questions. Answer them often and well enough—questioners can designate who best answered their query—and you could be designated an “expert” on your profile.

In an effort to boost her profile, one colleague aims to answer three to five questions a day, five days a week, though she admits it can sometimes become just one more way to procrastinate on paying work. And to be frank, when I see that someone has answered 302 questions this week as the featured “top expert” had in one recent week, I don’t think expert—I think underemployed.)

Finding work
When Toronto-based editor and writer Rebecca Zamon was job-hunting, she faced a common problem: job ads that listed the HR department as the contact, or directed applications to a nameless job title in the company. “I used my LinkedIn account to try to find the appropriate person at the company, the one to whom I could actually address the cover letter and send the follow-up email. I can’t attribute my getting a job to this tactic but it did seem to earn me some returned calls.” Toronto-based editorial consultant Lisa Murphy was contacted through LinkedIn about two unposted jobs. “Although neither one was quite what I was looking for, I doubt I would have been top of mind for these people had I not recently linked to them,” she says.

The site also features its own job ads and links to outside job ads, which display with a “who do I know at Company X” button. Click it and you’ll turn up connections at that company sorted by degrees of connection.

Finding help
Caitlin Kelly, author of Blown Away: American Women and Guns and a Tarrytown, New York-based freelancer, recently used LinkedIn to solve a problem no freelancer wants to face: collecting a fee from a client who’d stiffed her. “When I needed to find a collections attorney in Kansas City to sue a deadbeat client there who owes me $5,500, an attorney on LinkedIn in San Francisco—a total stranger—gave me two Kansas City names and one referred me to my guy. It was the quickest, easiest and most effective solution imaginable.” Kelly has also used the “Answers” section to expand her knowledge in particular subject areas, as well as to troll for story ideas and scout potential sources.

Kim Pittaway is a Toronto-based
freelance writer and editor and a consultant with Magazines Canada’s Travelling
Consultant Program. She is former editor of
Chatelaine. View Kim’s LinkedIn profile here.