Commentary

The Message On Voicemail: Do It Right Or Not At All

Apparently, there’s something that people find more horrifying than the IRS, back waxing, and the Jackass movies. That thing would be voicemail. 

I recently asked a question on my LinkedIn page: Should publicists leave pitches on voicemail? Being on the fence about the matter myself, I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelmingly negative responses I got. 

For example, retired Crain Communications editor-columnist Ron Aldridge says “Voicemail is a lazy way. The best course is to establish a relationship with the writer or editor before you start pitching him or her.” Restaurant critic and lifestyle columnist Jill Weinlein agrees, saying “No voicemails. Pitch a well-written email that has a great opening line.” Ditto says Family Theater Productions’ Kate O’Hare and Personal Solutions’ Sheri Goldberg. “No voicemail. Email.”

I also researched the matter online and discovered that it was quite a hot topic there, as well. Pan Communications’ Rebecca Haynes calls it “disrespectful” in her 2015 Adweek article, “The Art of Phone Pitching.” Beryl Love of USA Today said “We should ban voicemail for now” in a Help-A-Reporter-Out-sponsored panel session held two years ago in Washington, D.C.

While I agree in theory with everyone’s comments, I wonder if there aren’t times when voicemail is still a necessary evil.

For example, I do agree with Ron Aldridge that you should develop relationships. When I was a VP at Turner Broadcasting, I knew every TV critic and reporter on the West Coast, which was my region to cover. I often shared meals with both trade and consumer journalists and became a valuable resource to them on the industry in general.

But now, as a boutique agency owner, I’m more of a generalist—although my main focus still remains in the pop culture and entertainment worlds. One minute I’m pitching the fashion press and the next minute I’m contacting video game reviewers. One day, I’m calling Denver and the next day, I’m in Nashville. While I do establish new relationships all the time and, of course, keep up with the ones I already have, it’s still a challenge to know every journalist in my universe. 

And if they don’t respond to email or pick up the phone, voicemail seems to be the only other option, unless you just want to give up on them and move on. Or send them another email or two—or use social media instead. “I have had two stories come out of a pitch on Twitter,” said Diane Castro, SVP at Fuse Media. “Monitor what the writer is interested in and the types of stories they tweet. Then tweet back a succinct pitch!”

But what if the reporter is just flooded with emails and tweets? “The problem with emails is that everyone gets so damn many,” says former L.A. Times TV reporter Scott Collins. “I got 100+emails per day in my last two jobs and it was a chore just to work through the spammy ones.” Collins, by the way, does not mind getting a voicemail. Neither does his colleague Susan King, another former L.A. Times reporter.

With so much competition on the email and social media front, it might just be unavoidable to call and leave a voicemail if the reporter doesn’t pick up, especially if your news is time-sensitive. If I were a journalist and there was a hot story that my competition had, but I didn’t get because the publicist didn’t leave a voicemail, I’d be mad!

I think it actually boils down to two options: 

If you know the reporter and his preferences, then, by all means, abide by them. Two large media database companies, Cision and Meltwater, actually provide this information as part of their services. If he/she does not want voicemail, then respect their wishes. Note that there may be a generational difference of opinion: “Email is great for many reporters who are Gen X and younger. Most Baby Boomer reporters and editors I know still like to be called,” says Global 5’s Andy Orrell.

However, if you don’t know the reporter’s preferences, then maybe take a chance if you’ve tried emailing and calling several times and still don’t get a response. But be realistic about it! Does your story really warrant a voicemail? If you’re announcing the debut of a new TV show with A-list talent, then I say go for it. On the other hand, if you’re pitching a profile on one of the participants in your aging reality series, then I’d suggest you reconsider. 

If you do decide to leave that voicemail, have an entertaining and informative elevator pitch ready to go. One of the main reasons journalists hate voicemail pitches so much is because they are so long and boring. Practice, practice, practice until you are so captivating, the reporter can’t help but listen to the whole message. Also, be sure to leave your phone number twice at the start of the voicemail so the reporter doesn’t have to rewind and listen to the whole message again to get it. Whatever you do, don’t commit the cardinal sin of calling and not leaving a message—that’s “the worst thing,” according to Peggy Goodwin, principal, The Goodwin Company.

Speaking of practice, the reason I got into this controversial subject in the first place is because I teach an entertainment PR course where I usually make my students leave me a voicemail for experience sake. 

As W. Keith Sewell of Atlanta DreamFactory said: “Becoming comfortable with a vocal or in-person pitch is a necessary skill for writers in TV and film. If you haven’t established a rapport with the potential buyer or producer, emails go unnoticed.” Ditto for both budding and seasoned publicists!

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