Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Public Relations 101- Return A Freaking Phone Call

With a background as a journalist and as a public relations professional, I feel fortunate to have been on both sides of this fence that I currently straddle- albeit uncomfortably.

As a public relations professional, I make it a priority to be as cooperative with the media as possible. I want them to write about the companies I represent when these companies have something important to say. I also want the media to have all of the facts and information to write a fair story when they are writing about a less-than-flattering topic regarding the companies I represent. This is the dance you must learn in public relations. Sometimes the media will write about what you want them to, and other times they will write about what you wish they hadn't. But above all, keeping those communication lines open is paramount.

As a reporter at a daily newspaper, nothing was more irritating than to leave messages with people you needed to get comments from, and as your deadline loomed, the people hadn't returned your calls. In the back of my mind, I would find myself thinking that if it was possible to work around this person next time, I would do so.

These days I play the role of reporter and public relations professional, which makes this dance even more interesting. I am a freelance writer for several Polk County publications, and I've had two instances recently that to me, really drive home the title of this blog- return a freaking phone call!

Instance #1- I recently wrote an article about company Christmas parties, the reasons for having them and the potential liabilities involved. My husband works for Publix (I love Publix, so it pains me to write this), and I learned that the employees in his department had raised their own money to host a Christmas party. I wanted to speak to the organizers and make arrangements to get photos at their party to accompany my story. I called a fellow Florida Public Relations Association member involved in PR with Publix, and she referred me to the appropriate person I needed to speak with to obtain permission to conduct this interview. I called that person and emailed her. I called four times. I emailed twice. I spoke to another woman in her office. I never- NEVER- received a call back.

I was indignant. And, I said to myself, "Screw it. If they don't want good publicity, I'm certainly not going to force it down their throats."

Is this a professional attitude? Certainly not. But take note, PR professionals: this is how MANY journalists react when you don't do what they want, when they want it. It's an ugly truth, but it's the truth, nonetheless.

I went to this Christmas party with my husband and wound up meeting the organizer I had hoped to interview for my story. It turns out that she knew I had been inquiring about an interview. The woman who never returned my phone calls had been working behind the scenes to get me my interview. Here's the problem: I never knew that, so I moved on to other sources. The party organizer couldn't have been more disappointed to hear that I no longer planned to include the Publix angle in my story. She was apologetic, and was sure to tell me she had been seeking permission to speak to me through her chain of command. This is a concept I understand well. I would have been glad to hold off on the story, had I known that my requests were being addressed. Instead, I felt ignored and disregarded.

Incident #2- This is a story idea that isn't dead yet, so I'm intentionally being a bit vague. I've placed two calls to a source at Lakeland Regional Medical Center about a feel-good story I hope to do for a local publication's spring issue. The group within the hospital has an on-going complaint of never getting any media attention. I'm prepared to help change that by doing this story. The friend who told me about the story idea gave me a point of contact at LRMC. I've called this person twice, and she hasn't called me back. I spoke to my friend recently and told her I've made two attempts, to no avail.

The friend calls the contact person and finds out that she has received my messages, but she is going through the public relations representatives at the hospital to get permission to speak to me. Again, this is a concept I understand. So why not call me and tell me that, so I at least know you've received my messages?

So what am I getting at, dear PR professionals? Return a freaking phone call!!! If a reporter calls and wants to do a story, but you must first clear it through your internal processes, that's fine. We understand. But CALL US AND TELL US THAT. Don't leave us hanging, thinking that you're disregarding our requests for interviews.

And to those of you who include not returning phone calls in your day-to-day PR practices, let me share this with you: you are soooooo not doing yourselves any favors with the media. Reporters are avoiding people such as you like the plague. You are the ones on whom we hinge our hopes of getting those great quotes by deadline. And you are the ones who disappoint us. And then, you become the ones we put on our mental list of people not to call, because you refuse to return a freaking phone call.

I would love to hear from journalists and PR professionals on this one, so I welcome your comments. Don't hold back!


Kristen Toney said...

LOVE THIS, Lorrie! And may I say you were never on my "avoid like the plague" list when I worked with you in the past!

Anonymous said...

Seems all human relationships. sales, etc., could benefit from this logic. ANSWER FOR PETE'S SAKE. Yes, no, or not now - all suitable answers and most of us are quite capable of accepting them as answers.

Just my opinion, worth just what it cost ya.

Lorrie said...

I got some more comments on this post via email today, and felt like sharing them. I'm leaving them anonymous and taking out info that might identify them, but here we go:

"Lorrie, Well, of course I agree with you wholeheartedly. I can't tell you how many people have danced their way out of the pages of the (publication) by blowing me off.

Lorrie said...

Another comment from a TV reporter:


You hit the nail on the head---with a sledge hammer. It's even worse for t.v. sorts. If I don't get a call back immediately, I have to move on. At day's end I have to have a story on air--period. There is no putting a story off.

Interesting that I am going through the same kind of situation right now with (a local non-profit organization). That's not the kind of stuff that t.v. news is made of and would be a much harder sell than blood and guts, but it seems like a wonderful project. Anyway, they sent marketing materials to me. I have called twice over the last few weeks, and nothing. I dont get it. The value of the airtime we could provide would probably break their budget.

Someone can tell me no, but ignoring me, or just not responding to me in a timely manner pisses me off bigtime."

Lorrie said...

This one comes from an editor, complete with a correction. Which leads me to refer to a previous blog about checking your work! Here it is:


LOVE THIS ARTICLE! You are definitely speaking my language; I can't tell you how many times I've become frustrated with un-returned e-mails and phone calls, thrown my hands up and said, "Too bad, no story for you!"

And, of course, being the editor I am (I'm sorry) I found a discrepancy...

'In the back of mind, I would find myself thinking that if it was possible to work around this person next time, I would do so."

I think you meant to say 'In the back of MY mind.' I couldn't rest until I had pointed that out to you.

Anyway, love the article; it's so true.

Jack Gillen LPD said...

There are many days when I have wished I did not have to return phone calls....Sounds like a "refused to comment" would hurt more than the truth. A good reporter will get the facts anyway...

Denise said...

I was just complaining to my editor about not being able to get responses to assist me in the feature I am working on when she referred me to your blog.

I cannot tell you how many times I have dealt with this. I have asked this question so many times...whats so hard about picking up the darn phone or sending off an email. Especially in these days of technology, you can get on email at any time any hour, not interrupt anyone and respond at leisure, yet, its like pulling teeth.

I am so happy you addressed this issue Lorrie. Kudos!

Anonymous said...

AMEN! I've had to put off stories or go ahead without quotes and information from key people because I didn't get any sort of response from them. Sometimes I never even knew if they received my e-mails and phone calls.