ADVICE: The Phone Interview Lives, and Why That’s a Good Thing

by Clay Zeigler | Public Relations

phoneinterviewlives

“Is the phone interview dead?” asked a recent PRDaily post that declared, “reporters hardly pick up the phone to talk to sources, let alone cover stories by face-to-face meetings. Interviews are now done via email, Facebook, Twitter and Skype.”

That can’t be true, I thought. Newsrooms couldn’t have changed that much since I left them in September after 26 years. But just to make sure, I asked a dozen working journalists for their thoughts. Their responses make clear the phone interview is not dead, and why that’s a good thing for good journalism as well as good public relations.

Like an in-person interview, a telephone conversation offers an immediate exchange of information, and, more importantly, understanding. A reporter can ask questions and the interviewee can respond. Ideally they can continue until they understand one another’s positions. The telephone allows for a level of detail, clarification and nuance not possible with other electronic methods.

That’s vitally important for PR people, who want reporters to have the best possible understanding of their position. They want to be able to steer the discussion toward the stronger aspects of their story and away from the weaker ones. That’s possible on the telephone, which has other benefits: It can be used to provide very basic background, and both sides can better tell when they’re being deceived.

Of the dozen journalists I reached out to, all but one who responded did so in enthusiastic defense of the phone interview. And while most feel it’s in fine health, a couple worried about its future.

‘Everything’s Scripted’

“In Washington, you get people in person or you get them by email,” said Jessica Meyers, the new transportation reporter at Politico. “There’s not much of a conversation where you call up and chat.” The capital’s pace is a factor, according to Jessica, who also observed that younger journalists may not be as comfortable using the telephone.

“I think that’s sad because the real interviews happen in person or on the phone,” she said. With email, “I don’t think you get honest answers as easily,” Jessica said. “Everything’s scripted; everything’s planned.”

Told of the phone interview obituary, Dennis Noone said, “I don’t buy it.” The editor of the Nevada Appeal in Carson City said, “I find the phone to be the preferred method of communication, … and I don’t say that because I’m an old-school dinosaur.”

“The phone cuts to the chase better. It helps you get a read on people,” Dennis said. “It’s a more immediate and more personal way to get to a relationship with people that you don’t get with email, Facebook or Twitter.”

Dennis said he thoroughly backgrounds job candidates and others on social media, but for communicating with them, “I’m a phone guy.”

‘A Losing Battle’

Bruce Tomaso, breaking news editor at The Dallas Morning News, termed the phone interview “not dead, but not the vital tool it once was.” Bruce said it is “entirely possible to do lucid interviews by email or Facebook.” He added, “I always preferred in person to phone anyway whenever possible, so I don’t regard the decline of the phoner as much of a loss.”

Asked whether he thinks the phone interview is deceased, Morning News education reporter Matthew Haag said, “Not at all. Emails and social media can work but don’t replace [the] phone.” Matthew is an excellent blogger and is active on Twitter, but said, “One reason phone interviews work for me is that most of my sources aren’t on social media.”

Jake Batsell, a former News reporter who teaches digital journalism at Southern Methodist University in Texas, said, “I still insist on phone or in-person interviews with my students, but I get the feeling sometimes that I am fighting a losing battle.” Asked if his students don’t recognize the phone’s value in controlling the interview and getting better quotes, Jake said, “The best students do see that; the mediocre ones prefer the ease of email.”

Efficient, But Limiting

“Email interviews aren’t really interviews,” offered Jason Trahan, investigative producer at WFAA-TV in Dallas. “They are efficient, but are limiting. The best interviews are those that include banter and asides which lead to more questions and ultimately better information imparted.”

‘I Want a Conversation’

“The idea that the phone interview is dead strikes me as preposterous,” said a reporter at The Wall Street Journal. “Reporters who rely on email or Twitter for interviews probably won’t last as reporters for very long. Just like a decade ago, email can be useful for setting up interviews and meetings. It’s often the first way I reach out to usual sources to find out when they’re free and when they’re able to talk by phone or in person.

“Twitter can sometimes be useful for gauging what someone thinks about an issue, or using a direct message to make a contact. Nothing can replace a phone conversation or face-to-face discussion. I find it highly implausible that most reporters could get the same kind of information or color by largely texting, tweeting or emailing with a source as they could by phone or in person.”

Michael Grabell of ProPublica was similarly emphatic. “No, the phone interview is not dead. Nor is the in-person interview.

“Unless I’m on a tight deadline or distance is a barrier, in-person is always my first option. If not, I always do phone. That said, I do think e-mail is a good way to break the ice to set up an interview — especially with a source who doesn’t know who I am or why I’d be calling out of the blue.

“As for Twitter, Facebook and other social media, I do think it’s a valuable way to reach a lot of people with specific experiences for your story (whom you can then call). You often get a lot more relevant responses than you would interviewing the man on the street. But you have to keep in mind, you’re getting a narrow cross-section of the population. Its value often depends on the story. If I’m dropping in on a new town, I’m still going to the local listening post – the diner or bar, etc., because of the serendipity factor.

“It was interesting for me to see that PR professionals also dislike e-mail interviews. I often experience the opposite with government and corporate press offices wanting e-mailed questions and then responding with a statement, which I didn’t ask for. This is a horrible approach. You lose the context of your answers. You don’t build rapport. And you prevent the reporter from seeing things through your eyes.

“Despite the sense that e-mail is more efficient, I find that e-mail interviews often take longer. The statement often doesn’t answer the question fully or raises follow-up questions. I’ve had rounds of this that have gone on for a week when it could have been resolved in an interview in one hour.

“I usually don’t want a statement. I want a conversation. I want to understand the issue from your perspective.”

An Experiment in Interviewing

Putting this post together involved an experiment that yielded some interesting findings. Do you recall that I reached out to a dozen journalists? Well, I made sure to contact three by phone and three through Twitter, Facebook or email.

Two of the three people I left phone messages with called me back the same day. They gave me the most colorful quotes. The fastest responses came with Twitter, and all three people to whom I sent direct messages responded on the same day. A few direct messages allowed for quick follow up, though there was that 140-character limit.

Just one of three of my Facebook friends responded, with a concise but brief answer. Two of the three people I emailed responded within a day. They may have given the most thoughtful responses, but in both cases there was an exchange to clarify my intent.

So can you tell which is which?

The responses under the first subhead (‘Everything’s Scripted’) came by phone, and those under the second subhead (‘A Losing Battle’) came via Twitter. WFAA’s Jason Trahan (under Efficient But Limiting) responded through Facebook. And the last replies (‘I Want a Conversation’) came by email.

I realize this post is lengthy, but if you have time, scroll back through the sections: phone, Twitter, Facebook, email. Treat them each as stories. If you had to read just one, which would it be?

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4 thoughts on “ADVICE: The Phone Interview Lives, and Why That’s a Good Thing

  1. allenmireles

     @scottbaradell I found myseld gravitating toward the phone conversation, as you knew I would. I heartily agree that the phone interview is fard from dead but can understad the perception that it might be so. I think your friend, Jessica Meyers, my be onto something with her reference to younger people feeling less comfortable speaking over the phone (texting rules for many). Folks: use social, text and email to reach out, to connect and then to invite for a longer and more in-depth phone, Skype or in person interview. There’s no replacing the subtle nuances communicated by voice and facial expressions. Well done!

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  2. Scott Baradell
    ScottBaradell

    Thanks Allen :)  I think the biggest issue in the transition from phone to email interviewing is less about generational differences and more about the pressure to crank out more and more content.  Many top blog outlets, from Mashable and TechCrunch on down, too often settle for riffing off a press release with little to no research simply because there is so much pressure to publish.  For too many online outlets, phone interviews are becoming a luxury that writers feel they can’t afford.  Fortunately, as Clay’s post shows, there are still a lot of journalists and outlets determined to keep the phoner alive.

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  3. jjennings

    Another problem with email, Twitter and FB “interviews”: When I see a typo in a source’s quote (frequently!), I assume that it was provided by email and the reporter just cut and pasted it.

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