I was having lunch with a reporter friend this week and he casually mentioned something that nearly knocked me off my seat.
I am a former newspaper reporter, having worked deadlines and ink before the Internet became a common tool. Working a beat meant I left the newsroom and wandered through the local city hall and county courthouse. Not only did I know my story subjects personally, I could see the family photos on the walls of their offices and often talked about what they did on weekends outside of work. I talked to them regularly on the phone.
That was also in the mid-1990s before September 11, when access to government officials was much easier than it is today. In fact, I rarely recall worrying about media relations officers as filters, relying on the local police sergeant for tips and the state DOT press office for standard road closure alerts. But of course all that has changed.
Not only can we no longer wander through public buildings without some kind of purpose, pass or escort – which as a reporter I rarely wanted or asked for – but government public information officers and media liaisons are now a part of nearly every government agency at nearly every level of government.
From the government side, there generally is much more control over media access to our government officials. As a state DOT communication officer, I relied heavily on email and phone calls to work with and coordinate with reporters. Few ever saw the family photos on my wall.
But clearly, things have shifted even further than I realized. And maybe I should not have been surprised when my reporter friend said to me, “I’m surprised that almost no one calls me anymore.”
As he finished his sentence, I paused for a moment wondering if the sun in my eyes was blocking my ears. “Yeah, I’ll get 35 press releases emailed to me every day, but I rarely get a phone call.”
No phone calls? How can that be?
The reporter explained that a few sharp PR folks call him regularly. He knows them by name and knows the kinds of stories they will bring him. And, that is helpful. But apparently he gets many more emails than phone calls.
I asked about Twitter. Did he get story ideas there? I recently heard a panel of reporters talk about how a huge percentage of reporters use Twitter to monitor their beats.
Yes, my friend said, Twitter is very helpful. But, he added, it is nice to get a phone call every once in a while.
“If someone calls and they can explain their story in 30 seconds, I’m open to it.”
As we left lunch to return to our offices, I felt foolish. There is little doubt that social media have proven to be a helpful suite of tools for sharing information with various audiences. With nearly 9 in 10 American adults owning a cell phone, and at least 20 percent owning some kind of tablet device, the Internet is not only ubiquitous it is mobile. It follows us everywhere – regardless of where we are or what time we are there.
I realize now that in closely tracking the evolution and implementation of social media in our industry over the last few years, I had forgotten something very important.
Social media and electronic communication tools are additive. They build upon and enhance. They do not replace.
And my takeaway: It is great that we are efficiently pumping out the news and information, but we cannot forget the relationships. Phone calls, emails, faxes – whatever the communication tool – we cannot forget to build the relationship.
After all, this business is called public “relations” for a reason.