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Attention Deficit in an Information-Rich World

Adding steps to expedite and improve communications with media can have the opposite effect

by Peter Mitham
phone call email information
The growing number of ways to get in touch can make communicating more complicated rather than simpler.
San Rafael, Calif.—One of the most fascinating statistics I’ve heard in the past year (one so fantastic, one wonders how it could possibly be measured) was the claim by Rick Bakas of San Francisco, Calif.-based Bakas Media that more content is generated every 48 hours today than was created from the dawn of time until 2003.

One assumes the assertion’s true (again, how could we measure such a thing?), and the volume of communications we deal with on a daily basis doesn’t make us doubt it.

Between phone calls, email, text messages, the lure of social media (from LinkedIn and Facebook to Twitter and the latest darling, Pinterest), and, if you have time, the local paper, broadcast and online media—perhaps even this website and its accompanying magazine—the tide of data is ever-growing.

And let’s not forget the real-time interactions with fellow staff members, neighbors and family.

A few years ago I spoke with a research scientist at Washington State University who admitted that, yes, he had received my email, but he hadn’t managed to get to it yet. In fact, he had a couple of hard-drives filled with emails he needed to address: years’ worth of them. While the situation might have been dismissed as a case of bad management, it’s increasingly how many of us feel.

“Attention is the new currency,” Bakas told the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium in late February.

While firm statistics measuring our degree of distractedness and information overload are hard to come by, a Google search will yield many studies (ironically), including one reported in Psychology Today earlier this year indicating that students who check Facebook even once in a 15-minute study period perform worse in classes. A column in Time magazine this fall labeled the phenomenon Digital Device Distraction Syndrome.

Working with media
Indeed, the struggle to juggle information is one of the key trends I’ve seen as a reporter in the past five years. While people are theoretically more accessible than ever through mobile devices, the rising tide of information has actually placed more demands on them. Pity the poor reporter on deadline who has to cut through the noise to secure comment.

Of course, some wise people hire consultants to devise or manage communications strategies. It sounds like a smart idea: If there’s a surfeit of work, hire extra hands help to bear the load. But this can backfire, too, either introducing an extra step that delays genuine communication or managing the process so tightly that communication is prevented altogether.

One of the first examples that made me pay closer attention to what was going on happened in August 2011, when I placed a call with a well-known multinational wine company regarding a brand recently launched in the Ontario market.

Calling my usual contact, who was always prompt in answering queries, I was informed that media queries were now being handled by an outside public relations firm. My query was passed through two people to a third person, who, five days after the initial request, promised a response on the sixth day. I had been on deadline, but no matter: another story had come up for which the information would be of use.

Alas, the second deadline also passed. On informing the new public relations rep of this fact, a cheerful response was received: “Glad it all worked out.” But then the punch line, all the more stunning for the fact the firm was hired to handle incoming media requests for an international vintner: “We'll definitely have a process for requests like this very soon.”

Sometimes the process in question is delegated to a single person in-house in the interest of streamlining corporate communications, preventing communications altogether.

And now we wait
Shortly after the previous incident, I placed a call to another major vintner regarding a new initiative undertaken to improve the environmental impact of its operations. The initiative coincided with the vintner’s 50th anniversary and should have been an easy hit for good press. An email was sent; nine days later a follow-up call was made; on the 10th day the call was returned saying email was the best way to make contact. Another email elicited a tightly scripted one-line response from the company providing so little information regarding the initiative as to deprive you, dear reader, of the information you expect writers such as myself to dig up.

And lest this last example seem like a one-off experience; the same vintner has yet to answer a query sent this past May. A follow-up query in June received a response four days later that indicated the request was forwarded to an appropriate division within the company, and that a response would be forthcoming. I’m still waiting.

With a new year approaching, we all need to think about how to manage the demands on our time and attention. I drop the ball myself from time to time and am keenly aware of the need for improvement. If there’s a disincentive to seek comment from sources who don’t return calls in a timely manner, reporters lose trust when we can’t connect with sources and, in turn, readers.

Whether it’s dedicating part of our day to handling emails and text messages (the most effective people I know still do this themselves), or having someone else schedule our responses (my second most-favorite sources ensure that an assistant acknowledges requests and lets me know when to expect a response), staying in touch is more important than ever. While the quality of information changing hands matters, acknowledging someone’s request is just as important—even if it means admitting that you can’t help them.

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