Every PR person knows that most phone calls to media people are received by voice mail rather than a live person. It's frustrating, but it's a fact of life. It's particularly exasperating when our supervisors or clients think that we have "media contacts" and private phone numbers that enable us to get through the clutter of e-mail and voice mail. Based on many years of successes and failures, here is some advice.
Be Prepared: Before you make a phone call, be prepared to leave a voice message. Write the message and then edit it so that it is brief and informative.
An example of a first draft: This is Richard Weiner in behalf of Shake-A-Leg Miami. On Friday at 10 a.m., Mayor Cruz and other government officials will inaugurate an eco-island that will become a public park in Biscayne Bay. I sent you an e-mail with all of the information. Can you and a photographer come? My phone number is 305.865.3262.
Now, here's the edited version: Can you sail with Mayor Cruz on Friday morning? Shake-A-Leg completed a one-million dollar rehabilitation of an island in Biscayne Bay and we will sail out to it from our marina in Coconut Grove. Call me, Richard Weiner, 305.865.3262.
The result? The event was covered by The Miami Herald, five TV stations and several other media outlets.
Stay on message: Note that I omitted the reference to a prior e-mail. Few things annoy media people more than a caller who asks them, "Did you get my e-mail (or letter, news release or previous voice message)." More advice: After your write the anticipated voice message, read it aloud. It should be conversational, with tonal quality and inflection.
Here is one way to follow-up an e-mail with a voice message. Re-read the "pitch," event advisory or news release and find a detail that was omitted or could provide an update, and use that as the reason for your call.
Subject now, details later: Now, let's assume that God smiles on you and you get through to a live reporter, broadcaster or other media person. It's embarrassing that many PR people are not as prepared as they could be. I've seen PR people who were so flustered when a live voice answered that they froze and hung up. So again, I recommend that you write it down.
I usually start with:
"Is this __?" (Don't assume that you were connected to the person you asked for.)
"This is Richard Weiner. Do you have a minute now to talk about __?"
Whether it's voice mail or a live conversation, do not devote most of those precious first seconds to identification. I have heard pitches that began with: "Good morning, this is ___ of the ___ PR firm in ___. We just started working for ___, a major ___ in ___ and ___, the CEO, is a great interview about ___."
Unless you or your organization are well known, I suggest that you start with the relevant subject and follow with a brief ID. This article is about voice mail, but I must note that the same rules of brevity apply to e-mail. The most important part of an e-mail is the subject line. As with voice mail, you have only an instant before the recipient chooses to press the delete key. The subject line in an e-mail is akin to a headline in a news release. Every word is vitally important. PR News articles have discussed the need to limit the number of words.
Incidentally, do you know that an * at the beginning of a subject line indicates that there is no other message? It's a quick way to have a back-and-forth conversation with an editor or other busy person.
I won't go into more details, because this piece is a skinny about voice mail. "Skinny" is one of my favorite words. It means facts, or inside information. The origin (etymology is the fancier word) of skinny is "getting down to the bare skin." Merriam-Webster states that its first use was in 1938, but I think it was used by sports announcers before then. If you know the origin, call me at 305.865.3262. If I'm away, you may get my voice mail, so be prepared.
Many years ago I had the pleasure of spending a day at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, where I observed the development of voice recognition. It's now so efficient that many companies use it on their 800-numbers. A common frustration, dubbed voice mail hell, involves going from one spot to another, getting stuck in a loop and unable to leave a message.
Did you notice that I have been using voice mail as two words? Merriam-Webster cites the first use of this term in 1980. Actually, the first patent was in 1983, but the term was not trademarked. It's the modern equivalent of the answering machine (which still is used). What is your voice mail greeting? Is it brief, informative and yet conveys something distinctive about you or your company? I live in Florida and my greeting is in English and Spanish. Hasta la vista!
This article was contributed by Richard Weiner, an author, lecturer and public relations consultant. He is the author of “The Skinny About Best Boys, Dollies, Green Rooms, Leads, and other Media Lingo” (Random House). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.