Call dismay

Kevin Spacey won a well-deserved Oscar for his work in The Usual Suspects, but for trade journalists everywhere his career highlight will remain those early scenes in American Beauty, where he struggles in vain to get a source on the phone.

Slumped in an office chair, Spacey’s B2B hack appears

to have made the cardinal mistake of dialing the person he’s looking for directly, rather than going through PR. No wonder he ends up arguing with somebody’s minion. “”You put out this press release, but he’s never there,”” Spacey’s character says. “”Does he even exist?”” Ah, we’ve all been there, Kevin. The worst part is, getting them on the phone is only the beginning.

Journalism schools love to keep their students outside the classroom as much as possible doing man-on-the-street interviews and covering events, to the point that graduates have no idea how much time they’ll be spending pushing redial. In the B2B world, they also won’t realize that most of the sources they speak to do not approach these calls as an informal conversation but a valuable marketing opportunity for which they are well rehearsed.

The first time a call goes awry, a novice journalist might keep it to herself. Given time, however, the first thing any hack does once they’ve hung up is immediately turn around to everyone else in the cubicle and ridicule or complain about what just happened. Don’t let this happen to your client. Here’s how:

Glad-handers: There are sources who want to grease the wheels by discussing weather, recent sporting events, our “”Canadian accents”” or shockingly personal details about their own lives. A little small talk is fine, but these are business calls and should be treated as such. Once the introductions have been made, the interview has officially begun.

Preamblers: Sources will frequently listen patiently as journalists ask their first question, but instead of answering it they offer to provide a 15-minute overview of their company history. If we’ve done our jobs right, we should have already researched and become familiar with your organization. If we haven’t, it will become painfully obvious by the stupid questions we ask, at which point anything is fair game. Just give us the benefit of the doubt first. Of course, these preambles are usually suggested by:

Butinskis: New journalists are sometimes surprised to have their calls monitored by PR people, but the best of them fade comfortably into the background. There are others, however, who somehow see their role as interpreter. “”Shane, what I think Rick really meant to say was that we’re really differentiating ourselves in the market with some leading-edge products,”” one of them might say, for example. This only goes to show how ineffective the PR person’s media training has been, and I, along with many other journalists, grit our teeth until the Butinski’s finished and ignore them before asking the next question — to the source. On the other hand, at least we can hear their responses, which is more than you can say for:

Sources on the go: Many senior business executives are constantly travelling, but arranging interviews over cell phones is almost always a bad idea. Reception is never what it could be and there is nothing worse than listening to a thoughtful answer as it becomes garbled and then incomprehensible as the source drives through a tunnel. Practically any call is better than none for a hack on a deadline, but find a conference room or even a payphone. The only comfort is knowing who was doing the speaking, which is not the case when:

The Gang’s All Here: If journalists have an inflated sense of self-importance, it may derive from those interviews when the entire senior management team feels compelled to sit in on the call. Conference calls that bridge the reporter with the vendor and the customer can be useful, but in seven years I have never asked for more than one person on a phone call. When there are three or more, distinguishing voices becomes difficult. It also becomes awkward when you end up asking nothing of half the people on the call.

Most of us get past any of these obstacles since we’re really focused on getting what we need for the story, but why make yourself look bad in front of the journalist that will be writing about your strategy? We won’t let on what we’re thinking to your face, but sometimes it’s a good thing you can’t see us on the other end of the line. We’re not all as good at acting as Kevin Spacey.

[email protected]

Shane Schick is the editor of IT Business Pipeline.

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