Slave to Technology

If you read my blog, you notice a trend: I often talk about what public relations needs to do, and how it needs to change. Sometimes it's a broken record, but it serves a purpose.

Now, I can be like a social media expert (something, btw, I never call myself because boy, is that a career-limiting path) and just talk about social media tools with no real world experiences or examples. Talking tools for tools sake makes you, well, a tool. Don't tell your audience about the new social media tools that have launched, because in a year or two, most of them are likely to be ignored or dead pooled. Or, in five years, we'll all talk about how quaint it was that we would recommend this or that to clients ... with no real ROI on the tools.

At the end of the day, social media and public relations is getting so caught up in the tools, that it is forgetting that it is just technology. The PR people and the firms are too dependent on technology and the tools - and these tools expand beyond social media. It includes email and instant messaging and using the computer all the damn time and never leaving the office. The tools that that PR people use almost exclusively in media relations are email and IM, and unfortunately ignore that phone looking thing on their desk.

That's a problem. A big problem.

During the big brouhaha on PR is dead, Frank Shaw built upon my post and said some of the things I meant to say.

It is not just about the relationships, but building the right relationships within the right verticals, and doing your research prior. And, yes, that takes time and involves sitting in front of the computer.

But, well, my computer monitor died - the notebook still works (I can hear it!) but the screen is dark. No clue why, and just need to go to the "doctor" to get it checked out. But it was a good reminder that we are too caught up in technology. We have so fallen in love with technology, that we can't do anything without it.

So, once upon a time, I was working at a PR firm. I was asked to help out on a media tour, and while I didn't know the client well, I knew the story enough to send out a quick round of email pitches (which another person had claimed to do). The difference? I actually called the reporters, and booked the media tour via phone.

Yes, I do good phone. I was able to get on the phone, quickly encapsulate the pitch into 30-seconds for a reporter, and get the meeting. I booked the tour in two days.

So, instead of just talking about tools and pontificating, here's my advice to PR firms with junior staff. Or, to any PR person that wants to have better media relations skills.

  1. Put away your keyboard. No, seriously, have the keyboard taken away. Emails can be answered at a later time, and if it really is an emergency, the client will call you and your coworker will walk over to your office. But, in PR, very rarely is anything in PR an emergency (such, well, that will be a life and death situation). Put away the keyboard, and only use the phone.
  2. Call up a reporter and offer to meet for coffee or lunch. No, it's not to pitch them, but to find out what stories they want to write about, and to learn more about them. It's this real world networking thingie. I know - a total mind fuck!
  3. Pick up the damned phone. Deals aren't closed via email. Pitches aren't closed via email. Media tours are not booked or finalized via email. It's done by phone. It's simple - the strong use the phone, the weak stick to email. Pick up the phone and talk to reporters and analysts.
While technology has its place in public relations, we have been over-relying on the tools for so long that the basics of public relations - the relationships and the connectivity with face-to-face meetings and the ability to do good phone - have been lost. It's the few that can do it, and do it well.

We have become slaves to technology - and it has only become worse with the social media tools. Break the chains and get back to basics.

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40 comments

  1. amen! the phone: what a concept.

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  2. What she said. I don't need to tell you you're brilliant.

    I'm calling a couple reporter friends of mine for lunch now.

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  3. I will link to this often.

    Waiting for your upcoming post on Handwritten Thank You Note 2.0

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  4. Yes. People seem to have forgotten about that object on their desks. Great reminder.

    I for one abhor long chains of emails that could have been resolved with one quick phone call.

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  5. Ha! Ah, yes ... the phone. That amazing PR technology break through! ;o)

    Oh, and another one ... face-to-face interpersonal communication. Ah, the memories. Oh, wait ... I still do that!

    Ya' know, I have to remind myself to remind the students, all this new PR tech shiny thingy excitement is really just an addition (when/where appropriate) to the real skill area of PR - communication. They hear me talk about the 'new' and sometimes, I guess, they begin to think it is all I care about. Nope, I have to remind them, balance is the key.

    Hold on to the traditional practices and work in the new where appropriate. Don't let it replace the tried and true, as it is a perilous path.

    The new shiny things will never replace the wonderful reality of interpersonal communication. And, no one should ever try to make it replace it, either.

    Thanks, Jeremy!

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  6. I really like this post, with an exception of course. If a member of the media has specifically asked you to pitch to them by e-mail. Don't piss them off and pick up the phone.

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  7. Great post- it's all about cutting through the noise.

    Just don't try this with Tom "Facebook-me" Foremski. :-)

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  8. I preach this all the time in class. Social media is just a tactic. A valuable one that current students should have a firm grasp of, but a tactic nonetheless, just like the fax machine and email.

    Bottom line, PR is about relationship building. What tools you use to accomplish your objectives/goals should be dependent on your audience.

    Great post! Can't wait to tweet it...

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  9. @b.l. ochman - I know, it's a shame, right?

    @jason falls - expense the lunch - that's the one thing I didn't mention. If you are meeting reporters for lunch, pay and expense them. If your firm won't reimburse, run for the hills.

    @ike - thanks. I am a Luddite that loves his thank you notes. :)

    @donna papcosta - the long internal email chains say one thing to me: passive aggressive behavior. I never understood why I seem to be one of the few people that would get up and walk over to talk to someone. Well, besides that I hate sitting there in a chair all day.

    @robert - as I tweeted, you were the inspiration because of the talk we had about people just lecturing on their blogs with no real world advice. So, I went with real world advice. Unfortunately, I see a lot of phone phobic PR people, and that's a bad thing.

    @scott toncray - well, that's true when you don't have a relationship. I have a good relationship with a freelancer. People know not to call her in the morning hours, or she'll rip your head off. I always call her at 10.00 AM to say hi,and that I'll call her in the afternoon. She yells at me and then laughs - that's because we have a good working relationship, and I'm goofy enough to get away with it. Build the relationship, and you'll be able to pick up the phone.

    @jeb512 - Totally forgot about that. But, well, there's also the Twitter only pitch and other new rules. And, well, that's those people only. Each reporter DOES have his or her own quirks that you follow.

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  10. So, if I'm reading this right, you're suggesting that listening (not just reading, but real voice listening) is important? Amen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I'm one who gets caught up in the Shiny Object Syndrome. And it's a good reminder that the old fashioned way (hearing voices, seeing faces, or ideally BOTH) is a powerful form of communication.

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  11. I am so relieved that I was actually on the phone with a reporter right before I read this -- made me feel like I was on the right side of the balance.

    Thanks, Jeremy, this post is another real treat.

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  12. I don't mean to play devil's advocate here, Jeremy, but can you point me to a PR professional who has abandoned the phone and focused 100% of their activities on social media technology? I'm running down my mental list and can't think of one. The people I know have added social media to the available channels but still make plenty of calls and build personal relationships with people (not just reporters, by the way).

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  13. @bill - I'm glad to hear that professors are trying to get the kids to understand. All professors should bring in phones and make kids call up reporters. :)

    @barbara b. nixon - oh, I didn't even get into that whole listening part. ;) The shiny objects ARE fun. I'm an early adopter. But, well, I find that posts on the tools themselves serve no purpose in PR. It's noise and blogging to hear oneself blog (and to self promote).

    @shannon paul - you're such the good one. But, yes, it's a balance.

    @shel holtz - I have no trouble with devil advocacy, as it was my gig in college. But, walk into any agency, and notice how quiet it is. I could name names - a lot of names, but it serves no purpose. And, I'm not just talking social media technology, but technology used as a crutch to not have to get on the phone. The post was mainly a primer for entry-level PR people, and for them, the relationships with media matter most.

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  14. Great post, Jeremy - you've got a new fan.

    @ShannonPaul - Thanks for tweeting this.

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  15. You got it right...the phone seems to be a lost talent for PR folks. My first PR job my boss made me sit in her office for the first few weeks so I could listen to her on the phone and then subsequently so she could listen to me and give me advice. Best thing anyone ever did for me in the PR skills category.

    /kff

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  16. Thanks Jeremy, it's nice to refresh people's minds about the basics of public relations.

    Me being a bit biased, I can't believe that PR pros actually have abandoned the phone, or the face-to-face methods for that matter.

    Mechanics are mechanics - tools give them additional capabilities and more efficiency. This holds true for most any profession.

    Tools won't make you a PR pro, but they can certainly make you better.

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  17. I totally do well on the phone, but for some reason cling to the fact that I'll manage to get out all the information I'll need to and have concrete answers over email. But that's not to say that I couldn't just use email as a follow-up or auxiliary tool. This was a good poke in the eye for me. Thanks, J.

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  18. Thank you for this Jeremy! Your words, encouraging me to pick up the phone, are exactly what I needed to hear today.

    Communal office space, be damned. I'm making some (loud) phone calls...

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  19. Regardless of the tools you use, public relations, media relations, community relations are all about RELATIONSHIPS.

    It's incorrect to make a blanket statement saying some tools are better than others. It depends on the situation and the people involved.

    Anyone who is all-electronic and never meets a reporter for coffee is wrong. A person who will only use a phone or personal meeting rather than taking advantage of some awesome electronic tools is wrong, too.

    You can't do anything in life effectively if you don't strike the right balance.

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  20. Ahh, the crutch called "e-pitching." When I first came to Mullen, a colleague jumped in to help me pitch on a national media relations campaign. I had developed very targeted media lists and done some cursory research on those reporters to make sure it seemed relevant to them.

    We met a week later and she gave me a pitch report that literally said "sent e-pitch" for EVERY contact on her portion of the list. There had been no follow-up of any kind. She used the ease of email to fire away and sit back and wait for a journalist to bite.

    I said, "At some point you have to pick up the phone." She didn't work here for long after that.

    I will speculate that one reason younger PR folks avoid the phone is because of the lambasting PR gets by journalists in blogs, on micro blogs, etc. They hear reporters say "don't call me" and "send only emails" and they get petrified to pick up the phone because of perceived risk of getting yelled at or becoming the subject of a pissed off reporter's new blog post.

    All the more reason to share media relations best practices with them to lessen the chance of that. But I think that's one of the reasons they avoid it.

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  21. As a new player in the "tools" space (although we're more of a meta-tool http://vibemetrix.com), I think you're both right and wrong (of course :) ) about this.

    I think relying on social media, or tools, alone is only tenable in a very small number of specific cases. There will always be a place for aggressive, phone, real face-to-face networking.

    _But_ I think you're drawing an equivalence between using the phone and using social media tools. Emailing those same reporters you should have called anyway, is (I don't believe) what the point of most of these new tools is. It's *not the same thing*.

    The real power of new tools is to engage with people you would never have been able to talk to before. In my mind it's like two kinds of PR, one that speaks to reporters / journalists to broadcast pitches over larger media channels, and another that connects in a more direct way to the emerging conversation on the internet that falls outside the control of traditional media.

    I think the hand wringing about traditional PR being "dead" is (as usual) over the top, there will always be a place for traditional PR. However, the point is still valid that there is a "new movement" of information and brand discussion happening on-line that you won't be aware of, and can't even begin to deal with *unless* you use the new tools.

    The test for PR professionals will be how to balance these two different ways of getting the message out.

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  22. J-man,

    Some good points, but let's not forget that some of these so-called tools have helped many people in PR be able to develop better relationships. I don't think it's an either/or thing as we have discussed many times in the past when we both worked in PR.

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  23. Analogies are dangerous but...

    Do you get the impression that there are a lot of would be carpenters and builders out there more concerned about adding the shiny new hammer to their belts instead of the houses they could/should be building?

    Also -- right there with you on phones although I know they are just as easily done wrong -- voicemails to nowhere, phone tag, and not setting up proper find-me-follow-me.

    For the phone challenged, camp out, get an audience, do face to face and press flesh. But above all, know your team and surroundings or face to face will seem confrontational if you move outside your pocket. Proxemics can be read as confrontation or desperation depending on the party involved.

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  24. I know more PR people who do all the right things you highlight, Jeremy. The trend you talk about involves a small number of people.

    The trouble is, though, that the small number has disproportionate reach, in my view because of those technology tools. It's when you see the consequences of carelessless and other poor practice that it looks like it's a severe problem.

    Your post is a nice reminder of common sense.

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  25. Kathy Venice6:19 PM

    Brilliant! Such a nice reminder that PR is relationship building. Clients rely on us because we have the relationships established and have built a rapport with the appropriate people. All the other bells and whistles are great tools but if you don't have the basics you're in trouble.

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  26. Todd And7:41 PM

    I love this topic and your stance, Jeremy. You can't beat the adrenaline rush of pitching reporters over the phone and, even better, turning a "no" into a "yes."

    Phone pitching phobia was around well before the social media craze and was magnified by cramped cubicles. For many, cubicles caused whisper pitch voices and low confidence levels. Unfortunately, the phone phobia seems to be getting worse with the younger staffers and social media is partially, if not mostly, to blame.

    I worked at C&W, Golin and Weber with a number of proud phone pitching A-types, but still had quite a few colleagues who clammed up when it came time to pick up the phone. Normal.

    Aside from the fear of rejection (or the fear of being overheard being rejected), the biggest problem I noticed was junior staffers not fully grasping or personally believing in the story that was being sold. Granted, some stories were lame and probably wouldn't/shouldn't get covered. But some were brilliant with easy pitches that deserved the phone call first.

    Plus, phone pitching delivers more results, and often higher quality coverage too. Bottom line, for the best results, pick up the phone. Yes, even if the reporter is listed as "prefers emails" or "emails only." If you pitch right, the reporter won't mind... as much.

    The PR agency staffers who did pick up the phone were the ones who stood out, got promoted quicker, bigger raises/bonuses. They were developed as the media experts and given the critical reporters to pitch. Survival of the fittest.

    -Todd

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  27. TravisV7:24 AM

    It does seem like on every outreach efforts, the lion's share of results are achieved through the phone call. And how many times do you connect with a reporter and they don't even recall seeing your email?

    If they read your email and have any objections / questions, great chances are that it's just going into the trash. At least on he phone you have a chance to respond.

    But you also have to be smart enough to realize that just calling up some reporter you don't know and launching into an elevator pitch is going to annoy the shit out of them. If you caught them in the middle of something and you leap into your self-serving dialogue without bothering to gauge whether they want to listen, you are going to catch some heat.

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  28. Hello,

    I am reading "Net Slaves", true tales of working the Web, by Bill Lessard, Steve Baldwin.

    Any thoughts?

    Pat O'Mahony,
    pomahony2@hotmail.com

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  29. Moderation is always the key, but it seems hard to balance out the new and old technology these days, especially in PR.

    While I admit that new technology and social media have taken over a brilliant part of PR activities, there are still many practitioners who use things like the telephone, snail mail, fax, etc.

    Part of this is because of client preferences, but another part is that, like you said, 'older' technology can accomplish some things way faster.

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  30. Dead on as usual. I admit to having a hard time on the phone. I am a better face to face person (and now that you met me, you know that!)

    The greatest sentence in this post was that phones are for the strong, email for the weak. I have to remember that one. ;)

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  31. This is so true not only in PR, but recruiting too. Email and all the tech helps in the job, but it doesn't and should never replace the power of the telephone.

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  32. I personally think on all fronts PR gets too caught up in the medium and not the message.

    A lot of PR pros came from the journalism side, but honestly very few come from high-level outlets. I was lucky enough to leap to the NY market via CNN, making my transition to a major city much easier. As my tenure there spanned part of the tech bubble, I can't tell you how painful it was to be bombarded on the phone continually with what amounted to telemarketing via script. Think about how much time it would take to spend 2 minutes on the phone with each of the 100 or so PR pros that called each day. Once you ponder that, you see why frustration in journalists builds to such a high level given the fact that so many pitches are mistargeted.

    To me, what we need more of are short, succinct messages that get to the point. That takes people who know how to write. My experience has been that the method you use to communicate doesn't matter that much as long as you send a clear, concise message to the right people and have a decent story.

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  33. steph bailey3:11 PM

    Social media is becoming a much more popular trend in today’s society. Especially with the younger generation, we use the internet/computer for everything and forget about the importance of building relationships face-to-face.

    I think that you bring up a good topic; I am about to enter the pr industry as a student. My professors always stress that face-to-face meetings or phone calls are more effective then sending an email. In the time that it takes to write an email you can simply pick up the phone and call the reporter or clients. The reporter that you are pitching to will have more respect for you and you will build a solid relationship with them.

    We all forget about the interpersonal communication skills that we put on our resumes when we start working. As life is getting busier we still need to take the time to build relationships the right way, thank you for reminding us.

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  34. Patrick Hazel8:21 PM

    I think steph makes a good point, face to face interactions are much more valuable and are appreciated in the public relations industry. Remember as PR practitioners it is our job to represent our companies and interact actively within workplace environments. On the other hand, there is a time and a place for the email. Some business people are to busy for phone calls or meetings and the email is a great tool in that case.

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  35. Hi Jeremy,
    I came across your blog a few weeks ago and in between my very hectic grad school schedule I've been entertaining & educating myself here. I know I'm late on this post but I just wanted to say something as someone who's in school and is very new to the PR industry (i.e. a few internships).
    I remember the first time I was instructed to pitch news outlets by my supervisor I was SOOOO terrified. Actually terrified is an understatement. It has alot to do with my generation (20-somethings) being so 'connected' communicating face to face has gone out of style for us. We send txts, facebook msgs, wall posts and some even prefer to leave vmail msgs just so that we don't get drawn into long convos. There's just too much going on that we feel the need to hit and run. I definitely agree that telephone pitching is something that should be taught in school as it would help students get over some of their apprehension about talking to strangers. Just my two cents.
    Love the blog btw

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  36. I totally agree with what you're saying. While technology is nice and sure makes things easy and simple, sometimes we forget that technology is supposed to be complimentary to our other, more "humanly," tasks.

    I hate feeling like everyone has become just a blank face behind a computer. Where's the personality in public relations?

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  37. It does seem like on every outreach efforts, the lion's share of results are achieved through the phone call. And how many times do you connect with a reporter and they don't even recall seeing your email?

    If they read your email and have any objections / questions, great chances are that it's just going into the trash. At least on he phone you have a chance to respond.

    But you also have to be smart enough to realize that just calling up some reporter you don't know and launching into an elevator pitch is going to annoy the shit out of them. If you caught them in the middle of something and you leap into your self-serving dialogue without bothering to gauge whether they want to listen, you are going to catch some heat.

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  38. J-man,

    Some good points, but let's not forget that some of these so-called tools have helped many people in PR be able to develop better relationships. I don't think it's an either/or thing as we have discussed many times in the past when we both worked in PR.

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  39. I'm not in PR, thank God, but my mother was. I am one of those who will not answer the cell while driving, nor will I answer while with a client. I contact my clients by phone. I do not text, and I check e-mail twice per day at most. My employers are most frustrated and angry with me as a result. It seems as though we've put people behind this electronic idiocy. I may well be fired for this behavior, yet I cannot possibly make myself a slave to this nonsense. Nor will I "Facebook" and be a pawn of dataminers. (I am likely dating my self with this comment.) Would love to read comments.

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  40. I know more PR people who do all the right things you highlight, Jeremy. The trend you talk about involves a small number of people.

    The trouble is, though, that the small number has disproportionate reach, in my view because of those technology tools. It's when you see the consequences of carelessless and other poor practice that it looks like it's a severe problem.

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