If you have heard of the term 'ghosting' you may associate it with relationships or friendships rather than work or business. A relatively new phrase, it essentially describes the scenario where someone you were in contact or communication with suddenly starts to ignore your messages.
As freelance journalists, we are all used to our cold pitches going ignored but what happens when an editor who actually commissioned you to do some work suddenly stops answering your emails? Does it mean you do not actually have the commission, that they do not like your work or that you have somehow offended them? What do you do when you are being professionally ghosted?
The first thing to say is that this is incredibly common and all freelancers will have examples of this happening at some point in the commissioning process, both before and after they have submitted their copy. It is not usually because an editor is being rude but simply that they are overwhelmed and not keeping on top of their emails. They may have made a mental note to find an answer to your question, then just forgotten all about it or they may not have seen your message at all. The trick is to not take it personally, be professional and take the following steps to get the answer you need.
The first thing to understand is that editors get a lot of emails. One section editor on a national newspaper told us she receives around 2,000 a day. So it is no surprise that messages from freelancers get missed, even from people they work with regularly.
If an editor appears to be ghosting you the chances are they have not seen your email, have not had a chance to reply or are waiting for a decision to be made at their end. They could be waiting on final pagination numbers or the outcome of a news conference meeting.
Make it easy
The easier you make it for an editor to reply the quicker they can do it. For example, put in an email subject headline 'Quick query about word count' and then keep your email content brief and to the point.
This is a tactic used by freelance writer Jill Foster, who advises: "Keep it all in the subject line: URGENT quick q about the story you wanted."
You can also offer solutions. If a case study has fallen through, list three different options and ask the editor to pick one. This means they can quickly respond in a few words with 'Let’s go with B'.
Give a deadline
If you need a response within a certain timeframe then make this clear. Again use the email subject heading, for example, 'Need decision on case study by 1pm today'. And in the email also make it clear when you need to hear back by. This will help an editor to prioritise your email once the deadline is looming.
Do not give up after sending just one email. Editors we have spoken to say they do not mind being chased over and over again if they have commissioned someone or if it is a freelancer they regularly work with. Nine times out of 10 an editor will apologise for not responding to your first five emails.
Persistence really does work but use common sense. Do not bombard an editor with the same question several times a day.
Try a different time
Editors all work in different ways depending on their own habits and the news cycle of their organisation.
Freelance journalist Hannah Fearn advises sending a chasing email about 7 am before the editor’s inbox is "absolute bedlam".
Alex Lloyd, who writes for the Mirror and Express, agrees: "I often schedule emails so they land early before editors get swamped."
And if sending an email in the morning never elicits a response, try sending them at a different time of day such as mid-afternoon. Play around with different days or times during the week until you find the sweet spot.
There is a balance to be struck between chasing an editor for a response and not being rude. You should not apologise for trying to get a reply, or for sending multiple emails, but equally, you need to be aware that there is probably a very good reason they have not responded yet. Avoid asking why they have not responded or using confrontational language and always remain professional.
Repost the information
Rather than pressing Reply and creating a confusing thread of messages, create a fresh email and repost the information you are trying to convey. This might be reposting the question or the full pitch, so it is easy for the editor to see exactly what you are referring to without having to hunt around in their inbox.
Pick up the phone
If you are on a tight deadline or several emails have gone unanswered then giving the editor a call can be a really quick solution. Not all editors answer their work phone or give out their mobile numbers but it is always worth a try if you can get hold of their number.
Sean Dodson, journalism course director at Leeds Beckett University, advises calling early in the morning before staffers have got to work.
"Depending on how well I know the editor, I’ve dropped them a text before or given them a quick call if I have an urgent question pre-deadline," says freelance journalist Emma Sheppard.
Contact a colleague
Is there someone else on the team that you know is under less pressure and is more able to respond to queries? Sometimes contacting the deputy or assistant editor can be a good way to nudge the person you are trying to get a response from. If it is money you are chasing then find out who is responsible for payments in the accounts team and contact them, copying in the editor.
Do not take it personally
When you start freelancing it can be really demoralising if you have developed a relationship with an editor or received your first commission from them and then all of a sudden they stop responding to your messages. But it is crucially important to understand that this is not a reflection on you and it is completely normal.
Do not expect to get an acknowledgement response when you file a story. If you want one, then just add a few words to your email saying 'Please let me know you have received this copy'.
"In my experience, it’s quite common to not hear back straight away when you’ve filed copy. They’ll reply when and if they want any changes," says Sheppard.
Know when to move on
There may come a point when you do need to take your commission elsewhere. If you have done everything you can to get a response to a query and cannot finish the story without it, then set yourself a cut-off point. Explain to the editor politely that if they do not respond by a set deadline you will take the story to another outlet.
By following these tips, you can take the anxiety and emotion out of 'ghosting' and take professional steps to ensure you get the answers you need to do your job. It is all about understanding what pressures might be happening at their end and making it easy for them to help you. If you have exhausted these tips and decide to walk away, that too is your right, and probably a wise decision rather than continuing to have a working relationship with someone who has proven to be unreliable.
If you want to learn more about ghosting, we cover this in the first episode of the upcoming sixth series of the Freelancing for Journalists podcast, which you can find in all the usual places. You can also see our back catalogue of episodes here.
Learn more about the commissioning process and how to build good working relationships with editors in our How to Become a Successful Freelance Journalist training course, with Lily Canter and Emma Wilkinson, starting 1 November. Working as a freelance journalist is not just about generating great story ideas and writing the perfect pitch. Successful freelancers also have to be able to negotiate rates, build up contacts and know-how to brand themselves - click here for details and bookings
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