At the dawn of 2015, I made a New Year’s resolution. I vowed to try to rely less on email and actually use the good old-fashioned phone to reach out to public relations people on my various beats. Even if I didn’t have anything on the agenda, I planned to dial someone’s number just to see what was going on.
You know, how’s the family? What’s the latest at your place?
Of course, New Year’s resolutions never stick. So along with my vow to read more and eat less, I haven’t come close to calling PR folks as much as I had hoped.
I make that admission to show that I am just as guilty as anyone in being part of a horrible trend in media: Journalists and PR people have forgotten how to use the phone.
I’m not saying nobody uses the phone. However, I am fairly confident about this thought: Perhaps not since Alexander Graham Bell unveiled his new invention has the phone been used less in media interactions at many levels.
“If [using the phone] has become a lost art, that’s a damn shame,” said Vince Wladika, the former PR head for Fox Sports who now does consulting for companies like Comcast and Tribune Media.
Indeed, it’s all about sending emails, texting, and communicating through social media these days. If you are a reporter, think about how many calls you receive from PR representatives making a story pitch. I’m fairly sure the answer is, not many.
To be fair, many PR representatives will counter that the majority of reporters would prefer to be contacted by email with a story pitch. There’s an implied, “Don’t bother me with a phone call.”
Kevin Sullivan, who served as communications director under George Bush, recalled being with a reporter at an event when her phone rang.
“She said, ‘I don’t answer the phone unless someone has an appointment to call me,'” said Sullivan, whose consulting firm Kevin Sullivan Communications includes many sports clients.
Sullivan’s point: “We rely on emailing and texting at our own peril.”
The negative ramifications are felt many ways. With only email communication, stories don’t get flushed out properly. Basically, the chain of emails revolves around setting up an interview with the subject and then perhaps some follow-up exchanges between the reporter and PR person, usually in 75 words or less.
“If you’re doing it by email, you don’t hear the tonality, the innuendo in someone’s voice,” Wladika said. “There’s no real exchange of ideas.”
There’s more. Back in the old days, like the 90s and early 2000s, I had regular conversations with PR people. How else were we going to communicate?
However, I can’t tell you how many times those calls led to a story, often a really good story, when I wasn’t necessarily looking for one. It usually was the result of hearing something that had me going, “I didn’t know that.”
That doesn’t happen with email.
“It just can’t be as meaningful when there’s no conversation,” Sullivan said.
Malcolm Moran, the director of the sports journalism program at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, believes there’s something even bigger at stake with the heavy reliance on emails.
“The technology has overtaken relationship building and maintenance,” Moran said.
Indeed, relationships seem to be the biggest casualty of the email/text age. They can’t be the same when reporters and PR people aren’t having phone conversations, much less face-to-face contact [another infrequent exercise].
Wladika wondered if enough emphasis is being put on relationship building at the college level.
“Are people being taught to cultivate their contacts?” Wladika said.
Moran can’t speak for other schools, but he emphasizes it to his students.
“I tell them, ‘If you’re not making an effort to get to know [a PR person], why would they have reason to share anything with you?'” Moran said.
It goes beyond just working a story. Sullivan notes his life would have been completely different without those relationships. His career also includes being the PR man for the Dallas Mavericks and heading PR for NBC Sports.
“Everything good that happened to me professionally was the result of a relationship,” Sullivan said. “How do people do it today using emails and texts? How do you get those kinds of deep relationships?”
Sullivan, though, says it isn’t just the younger crowd when it comes to not using the phone. It is everyone.
“We’ve become so comfortable with digital, we’ve gotten out of practice [with the phone],” Sullivan said.
The irony, Wladika notes, is that in the age of cell phones, people are more accessible than they’ve ever been. Reporters and PR people should be talking on the phone more, not less.
“Theoretically, you can reach people anywhere at any time,” Wladika said. “Yet we don’t take advantage of it.”
There’s still 2-plus months left in 2015, but it’s not too early fire up a New Year’s resolution for 2016. Everyone in the business should reintroduce themselves to the good old-fashioned phone. And then resolve to use it.
Recommended reading in sports journalism:
James Andrew Miller writes in Vanity Fair about the fallout from Bill Simmons’ departure from Grantland.