I am a baby boomer, which means I was born long before e-mail, the Internet, and the Web. I was even born before the advent of touch-tone phones and answering machines – when I was a child my parents had a party line. Remember those? For some reason, the telephone has fallen from favor as a business tool. I recently ran across a quote from President Rutherford B. Hayes, who made one of the first telephone calls on from Washington to Philadelphia on Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention. Hayes exclaimed, “An amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one?”
In the age of electronic communications, we have adopted the same philosophy. Why pick up the telephone when you can sit at your computer and compose your thoughts in an e-mail. Or what about the new concept of unified communications? It’s now normal for me to check on Skype or IM to see if a client is available and ask a simple question as a text message rather than sending an e-mail and waiting for a response. With IM I get “presence” which means I can see if the other party is online and then I can ask a question for almost immediate response via chat or, if necessary, escalate the communication to an Internet phone call with the touch of a mouse, then follow-up with an e-mail.
Which leads me back to the telephone. Somewhere along the line, the PR profession has lost the art of the phone call. These days editors, reporters, and PR people hide behind e-mail. We draft compelling “pitches” designed to titillate an editor’s imagination and yield a positive response – “That sounds interesting. I would like to talk to your client.” However, e-mail has also created a communications black hole where all flack spam is relegated. You can draft the most compelling pitch in the world with interesting factoids and an innovative story angle no other publication has ever considered, and if it doesn’t get read it’s all for naught. I know that I must process almost 1,000 e-mail messages daily. When I log in to my mail in the morning I see the messages pile up in different folders and I go through them, determining which are news feeds with interesting tidbits, which are solicitations, which are spam, and which are editor or client requests that need immediate attention. The process is rather fast and indiscriminate and those messages that don’t require immediate attention are often left unread until they are deleted.
And that’s the problem. E-mail is too easy to ignore, and to misread. I don’t know how many times I have received an e-mail from a colleague or client and misread between the lines, injecting mood and meaning that just wasn’t there. And text messaging is worse. If you have teenage children you know they won’t pick up a telephone call but they will (usually) respond to a text, which leads to a different level of miscommunications. For example, I recently had a text exchange with my stepson:
- Me: “We’re taking mom out for her birthday at 7:45, will you be home?”
- Him: “Kk”
- Now the time is 7:30. Me: “Where r u? We will be late”
- Him: “You said 7:45.” Me: “That’s the time of the dinner reservation. We still need to get to the restaurant.”
You get the idea.
Which is why I think President Hayes was totally wrong. Sometimes, you have to pick up the phone. There is nothing more satisfying to me than getting an editor on the phone, talking to him about his magazine and readers, and then presenting a case for my client. “Where does this story fit in your universe and how can we make it relevant for your needs?” You forge a different kind of connection with a telephone call. You hear a human voice on the other end of the phone and you develop an audio picture of the other party. You exchange ideas – which is really hard to do in e-mail – and you can come to an understanding quickly. When I can actually engage with an editor on the phone, we can quickly determine if the story is interesting, relevant, and what we need to change to make it suitable for his or her readers. It’s a lot more efficient than blind e-mail pitching. Of course, you have to contend with the black hole of voice mail, but then every voice mail gets followed up with an e-mail, right?
There is an immediacy to the telephone that just can’t be denied. You have to use courtesy and common sense – “Hello, I am calling for Acme Company about a new Road Runner capture solution. Do you have a few minutes to talk about how what this might mean for your readers?” You can only forge a real relationship by telephone. Social media is great, and you can talk to your “virtual” editor friends through Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn, but at the end of the day they remember the phone call, the laugh, and the offer to help them with information they can take to print. If you think about “reverse-engineering” this process, if you were an editor, who would you contact first to help you with an editorial problem? The guy who sent you an e-mail or the guy who you talked to on the phone about your story needs, the weather, and who is gonna win the World Series?
Do yourself a favor. Pick up the phone!