• 05Jun

    The phone interview is dead. Long live the email interview.

    Okay, that’s an exaggeration. However, the email culture is eroding the old fashioned way of interacting with the press, and the way the press interact with their sources, including my clients. Although many reporters still call for quotes and information, more of them are emailing it in, asking for written responses only. This is good and bad for the PR industry.

    I am old enough to remember the days before email, when you had to actually pick up the phone and call a reporter and risk the wrath of interrupting him or her on deadline or getting the verbal cold shoulder – “Not another ^&^&$##@ flack pitch call!” One of the good things about phone work is that it forces you to really do your job and know your stuff, or rather your client’s stuff. You had to be prepared before you dialed with a concise elevator pitch,explaining who you are and why you are calling. You also had to be prepared to read the mood coming over the phone wires: “Is this a good time?” “Are you on deadline?” Can I just a minute to explain why I am calling?” To work the phones you had to be on your game, with a smile in your voice and information at your fingertips.

    trash-mailEmail has changed all that. Now there is more back and forth. More time at the front end of the process to hone your pitch and get it right in writing before you hit the “send” button. There also is more time at the back end to hone your responses and tailor what you say. That’s the good news.

    The bad news is that email doesn’t promote relationship building. It doesn’t provide a chance for dialogue, or for exploring new opportunities or points of discussion beyond the topic at hand. Email tends to be very transactional and lacks color by its very nature, so the challenge is to make your point in writing in a way that is memorable and repeatable, especially if you are trying to do an email interview.

    Email also allows reporters to ignore you in a different way. I can’t think how many pitches or messages dropped into a bit bucket somewhere along the way. Either the reporter on the receiving end marked it as spam, or deleted, or just plain missed it. One of the challenges about email is that it’s easier to pitch reporters, even it it’s a bad pitch. Every ill-formed hey-do-you-want-to-interview-my-client pitch racks up with the hundreds of other pitches in the reporter’s email inbox.

    However, email is becoming more prevalent for interviews, even if it is not necessarily more efficient. I can’t think how many times I have seen a HARO or Profnet request stating “Email responses only, no phone calls please.” But email is an efficient way to deal with logistical issues and other concerns. If you can’t get your client on the phone or you can’t get schedules to align, the time shifting enabled by email could be your only solution. I recently had a challenge interviewing a customer in Moscow for a case study. There was an eleven hour time difference and even when we tried to schedule a call at midnight my time, we couldn’t seem to get together so we resorted to an email interview.

    Some argue that email interviews are lazy and irresponsible. How can you be sure you are getting an unbiased story without a chance to ask candid questions? Doesn’t an interactive exchange both assure better quality information and less bias? There is an argument to be made for that, as stated by Alison Kenney who blogs for PR recruiter Lindsay Olson of Paradigm Staffing:

    A couple of well-regarded blogs have commented on this practice [of email interviews] recently, although mostly from the perspective of the media.

    American Journalism Review wrote about the practice from the journalists’ and editors’ point of view (which is well worth a read). The post expresses concern that email interviews “promote lazy reporting and the use of unreliable sources…”

    PR Daily recently asked, “Is the phone interview dead?” and lamented the lack of color an email interview has in comparison with a phone interview, as well as the lack of natural “back and forth that comes from a conversation. Plus, there’s no personal relationship building, however slight, when everything is done in written form.”

    In response to the PR Daily post, Clay Ziegler did his own experiment and called a dozen working journalists to quiz them about their interview method preferences. He concluded that the phone interview lives and why that’s a good thing.

    Like most changes wrought by new technology (and social media, in particular), old practices may not go away, but new practices – including using IM, Twitter, Facebook and email to get information and quotes for a story – are becoming more and more accepted.

    Alison offers some insights into what to look for when dealing with an email interview and I recommend you read her blog entry.

    Times change, and best practices change with them. New technology enables new approaches and procedures, for good and ill. However, just because we have the means doesn’t mean we should always use them. I am reminded of the texting phenomenon; the balance of having my wife send a text reminder to pick up something at the store versus the teenagers sharing the same couch and texting back and forth rather than having a conversation. Sometimes technology just gets in the way. The same is true with email interviews. They have their place, but there are times when you just need to pick up the phone.

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  • 06Mar

    spam-big

    Not long ago, I wrote a blog post about the lost art of telephone pitching, which received a lot of comment from a number of my peers on LinkedIn. Every PR professional has something to say about this topic, and the conventional wisdom is that you need to use a number of different channels to reach editors, beyond e-mail. Or as one of my commenters noted, “E-mail is for novices.” But I think the issue of editor outreach goes far beyond the means of communication and need to focus more on content. Editors should look on PR professionals as allies, and it is clear that, with the explosion of e-mail, social media, and other electronic communications, we now have more ways to spam editors rather than engaging with them.

    Which is why I was particularly intrigued with a guest blog posted by Alison Kenney on Lindsay Olsen’s PR blog calling for “A Restraining Order for the PR Profession.” Apparently, in the eyes of the press, PR professionals have become cyber-stalkers, and they are calling us out on our behavior. Kenney cites a number of pissed-off analysts and editors who are maintaining an online hit list of PR offenders, including Josh Bernoff of Forrester, who complains there is no way to “unsubscribe” from press e-mail lists; Chris Anderson of Wired who maintains a list of PR firms of PR firms he has blocked; the Bad Pitch Blog, and a host of others.

    I think it’s not about the medium, but the quality of the message. With the advent of new technology, PR professionals have become lazy and are using electronic channels to substitute for one-to-one communications. Even the best pitch will be offensive if it’s off-topic, which is what happens when you get a junior account executive spamming different editors with the same storyline without customizing it first. Just because you have the technology to send information to reporters all over the planet doesn’t mean you need to wield it. If you have a strong news story, then you can use one of the wire services to tell the world, but you still need to approach reporters with caution.

    I have become a big fan of HARO (Help A Reporter Out) because they make their rules about spamming, but they enforce them. HARO has become a safe haven for reporters seeking resources because they know that off-topic responses to requests for information will get the offender banned from the system. This is the ultimate opt-out – being sent to that unique circle of PR hell where you are prohibited from pitching. HARO works because reporters get responses to specific informational needs, not abstract queries about not even remotely related topics.

    I blame the growth of technology as much as the laziness of PR professionals. We have created so many means of communication that it has become harder than ever to choose the path of least resistance. Will a reporter respond to an e-mail request?  A LinkedIn request? A Facebook post? A phone call? Chances are it will be “none of the above.” The noise level for communications has become so loud that it’s no wonder that even the most targeted and insightful queries fall between the cracks.

    So what are we to do as a profession? I tend to agree with Bernoff that it’s time we cleaned up our act. We need to be judicious about the use of e-mail and electronic communications; keep it real; and keep it relevant. Take the trouble to read before you pitch to find out what the editor is really interested in. Try to make a personal connection so you aren’t just an anonymous spammer but a person behind a message. If you can make a human connection with a reporter through Facebook, a phone conversation, or some other means, then they will be more forgiving of a faux pas, if you don’t make a habit of it.

    And most important of all, remember who is responsible for your success. Your job is to connect your clients with editorial contacts who need to hear their story. If the reporters won’t listen, you are out of a job. As I always tell my clients when they ask me to do something stupid that I know will piss off an editor, “After I am no longer working for you I will have to call that editor again, so alienating him always does me more harm than good.”

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