• 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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  • 05Jan

    I have been talking to a lot of executives over the years, gathering information for press releases, case studies, and strategic plans. And as I have become more involved in customer relations, I spend a lot of time talking to IT managers and C-level executives about tactical issues that affect their business. Interviews are tough, because you don’t want just the Jack Webb interview – “Just the facts” – but you want to get the Piers Morgan interview, with deep and colorful, quotable responses.

    Many marketing and PR pros (and even journalists) are being consumed by the ever-increasing demand for content. They have lost the fine points of conducting a really meaningful interview that yields more than just who, what, when, where, and why. Interviewing is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced or you get rusty. I want to thank Carol Tice for providing a refresher course from the freelance writer’s perspective. Here are some of her tips on the best way to conduct an interview, adapted with some of my own experience to make them more relevant for the marketer:phoneinterview

    1. Email exchanges are not interviews. I have been relying more on email questionnaires for convenience, but the information I get from those exchanges is always sparse. I have seen more journalists and analysts doing the same thing, and I have to urge my clients to dig deeper and provide a little color with the facts when they write their responses. Carol also notes that emails are not really quotable as part of best journalistic practice; live interaction is always preferred. You always get more from a spontaneous exchange that is fresh and quotable.

    2. Make a connection. I find that the best interviews come when you establish a rapport with your contact. Take the time to set the stage with a couple of ice breaker questions about family, sports, the weather – something to forge a connection. If you need to use that contact in the future, then be sure to leave the door open for future discussions, and try to leave a thread to reestablish the link. If they are fans of the Red Sox, for example, open with a baseball reference they next time you call.

    3. The subject is as worried about the outcome as you are. Your job is to gather the information for that killer case study, application profile, or for use in a press release. You have something at stake in the conversation. So does the other party. He or she wants to make sure you get your facts straight and don’t make them look foolish to their boss, their peers, or their customers. Use that mutual concern to work together toward the common goal – getting the best story down on paper.

    4. Be prepared. Don’t walk in cold saying, “tell me what you do.” Do your homework. Read the company  web site. Understand the basics of their business. Research their business challenges. You want to bring sufficient knowledge to the interview to ask meaningful and revealing questions, not waste time asking questions to which you should already have the answers.

    5. Respect the interviewee’s time. Schedule your interview in advance, be prompt, and be brief. Executives don’t want to waste a lot of time talking to you so be focused and get the information you need. If possible, leave the door open for a follow-up call or contact for clarification or more information, when you can go into greater depth if you have to.

    6. Be prepared to follow up. Thank your sources. Keep them apprised of the progress for a specific project. Get them to review the content as part of your fact-checking. Be sure that you have your subject’s complete contact information, and determine who else in their organization should be involved in reviews and approvals, or who else might provide additional information.

    Developing marketing content is not the same as writing for a newspaper or a magazine, but the rules of a good interview are still the same. Your objective is to get the best story you can, with all the facts and in living color. The final approval process will be different. You will won’t just be fact-checking, but you usually share the finished product with the interviewee for formal approval. That doesn’t mean you should put the onus on them to fill in the blanks or correct a sloppy interview. Think like a reporter and get everything you need the first time around. It saves a lot of effort and embarrassment later on.

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