February 5th, 2007

You Can Lead an Intern to the Phone--But She Has to Dial It Herself

Last week I headed out to a meeting with a couple of college kids, at the request of the Official Grown-Up who was working with them on publicizing a fledgling museum. It was one of those weird things I do sometimes, where I wasn’t exactly sure why I was going to the meeting, or who these kids really were. Lucky for me, the official grown-up gave me a quick re-cap so we could start off on the right foot: the girls (okay, they’re only about 10 years younger than me, but I can’t help feeling all maternal about them) are interns—PR majors, graduating this spring.


I’ve written and sent out a few press releases, but I don’t actually do any of the PR—no calling reporters, no follow-ups. So we approached the subject from the perspective of “What can PR people do to not irritate the reporters they’re hoping will cover their clients?”


They were a very receptive audience. (By which I mean: I got to drag out some of my best stories about People Who Irritate Me With Their Unceasing Self-Promotion, as well as some of my favorite Let’s Watch Elisabeth Make a Fool of Herself tales. Hey, if I can’t use my own humiliations to help others, then what’s the point?)


Rapidly we reached the point where I had to tell them my number one piece of advice: it’s much more difficult to say no to a real live person—even over the phone—than it is to delete an email. It sounds obvious, I know, but it was a real epiphany for me when I noticed myself reluctantly taking on stories pitched by PR people over the phone—stories I probably wouldn’t have chosen if they’d been e-pitched. But I just couldn’t crush the actual person on the other end of the line.


The official grown-up nodded sagely. “So that’s what we’ll do then,” she said. “Before Elisabeth leaves, you can call the reporter you emailed.”


The girls exchanged glances so terrified I had to laugh.


It made me remember my very first story. It was for a free newspaper a local mom put together every month. I had to interview a couple of 12-year-olds about the uniforms their school had recently decided to mandate.


My stomach churning, I wrote a careful, thorough list of questions to ask them. (And yes, the list started with “Name? Age? Grade?” Because it would be just like me to forget to ask an interview subject his name.) Hands quivering, I dialed the phone. Sitting at a corner of the kitchen table, I scribbled notes as fast as I could. I was sweating by the time I finished. Sweating, still queasy, but also exhilarated. It was my first interview ever, since I’d never even been on a school paper—and it was fun.


It was a long time before I stopped feeling mildly queasy before cold-calling an interview subject. And it was a longer time before I grew confident enough to skip the question-planning phase and just let the interview become a conversation that took its course. (I must admit there are still times I prepare questions beforehand—particularly if the topic is very technical. And I do occasionally feel nervous before contacting potential subjects. But the nausea is mostly a thing of the past.)


All this I told the interns. They laughed in all the right places. But they still looked terrified. So I tried a different tack.


“You make phone calls all the time,” I reminded them. (One girl’s cell rang while we were talking, in fact.) “And after all, reporters are just people. There is absolutely no reason to be nervous! You’re doing them a service. You’re providing them with a story that they need to fill the pages of their paper.”


“Hey—yeah!” one of them said.


But they still looked terrified.


So we moved on to role-playing. They took copious notes on suggestions I made. They backed up and rephrased and took do-overs. And from another part of the house, the official grown-up—who had decided we needed privacy to practice The Call—hollered, “Have you made the call yet?”


At last one of the girls grasped the official grown-up’s cordless phone, slipped out onto the patio, and called up the reporter. When she came back in, she was practically breathless: she’d arranged an interview for the official grown-up. (Naturally it turned out the OG was going to be out of town the date of the interview, so the girl had to call back the reporter and reschedule. She didn’t bat an eye at having to phone again.)


Shortly thereafter, the other intern took a turn phoning a reporter at another paper. The reporter wasn’t in, she informed us—but she added, “As soon as I started talking, I stopped being nervous!”


She was the same one who mentioned—a couple of times—critiques her professors had made of her PR persona and pitching style. I hope I didn’t roll my eyes too hard (after all, I don’t do PR; presumably the professors do, or have done in the past). She was so worried about talking on the phone, about her presentation—and she came back from the patio gleeful.


All the talking I can do (and I can do a lot) couldn’t help those girls reach that point—just like all the instruction their professors give them can only take them so far. Some things you just have to try for yourself. Another obvious epiphany, no? But maybe it really was an epiphany for those two. I was unreasonably proud of myself for having played a part in them getting there. (Is there a better way to end the week than feeling unreasonably proud of oneself?)  

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