Pitching a No-No: When Are After-Hours Calls Off Limits?

Posted by: in Public Relations Practice on September 15, 2011

On Twitter earlier this week, a worthwhile discussion broke out on when it was permissible to contact reporters, after-hours, on their cell phones. We’ve entered the age of constant contact, where emails can — and do — fly at all hours, where I can wake up to hundreds of unread tweets and where my cell phone has replaced my home phone. I am, just as most reporters are, theoretically reachable anywhere, anytime.

So as the barriers to boundary of work and family blur, the question of when outreach is off-limits is increasingly important. Just because we can connection doesn’t mean we should. Bloomberg’s Liz Lopatto’s voicemail is explicit: she only wants to be disturbed with “urgent” requests. But that, apparently, hasn’t kept her phone from buzzing long into the evening with requests that are not — by any definition — urgent.

So as a service, here are some guidelines for PR pros to consider before intruding, after-hours:

  • Consider the Topic: Lopatto suggested that “CEO changes, M&A, halted studies” are all truly urgent. Event invitations are not. Larry Husten from CardioBrief pointed out that last-minute changes to embargo times or the unexpected lifting of an embargo probably merits a call: missing something like that means being hours behind.
  • Consider the Publication: Brian Orelli, who writes for the Motley Fool, among others, noted that “urgency” varies from publication to publication. Those that don’t have after-hour copy staff, or those that have something less than a daily deadline can’t do anything overnight anyway, no matter how urgent the news may be.
  • Consider the Medium: Email is far less intrusive than a phone call, and it’s a rare professional that goes without checking email from dusk to dawn. Evening emails aren’t ideal (heck, any non-urgent email is probably best avoided after, say, 3 p.m.), but for something important — but not truly urgent — shooting off a quick message can be a lot better than dialing a cell phone.
  • Consider the Context: Lopatto admits to having slightly different standards when she’s traveling at a medical meeting, where journalists and PR pros alike clock 18-hour days.
  • Consider the Relationship: Cold calls are generally unwelcome during the day, and they’re even less welcome after sunset. But once relationships are formed, everyone has a better idea of the rules. I work with some journalists who are explicit: they want a head’s up by phone — damn the clock — if something is breaking in the morning. Some are equally explicit on the other side: short of their beat being turned upside down, it can wait until the sun rises. And still others don’t mind the call if they’ve been warned something might be up.

Of course, much of this is something less than black-and-white, and there is ample room to miscalculate urgency. I’m sure I’m not free of sin, there. But I suspect it’s not those judgment calls that raise hackles. Lopatto admitted that she got a cell-phone call recently about a release promoting an event. An event that was 2 weeks away. It’s not clear what would prompt someone to treat that as “urgent,” so let me end with an urgent message of my own: cut it out.

(Media: additional guidance welcome. Leave a comment below or tweet it with the hashtag #afterhoursPR.)

[UPDATE: Over at Google Plus, Kevin B. O’Reilly from American Medical News makes an excellent point that I overlooked: calling after-hours with an exclusive is likely to be far more welcome than a standard-issue pitch.]

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a managing director at W2O Group, where he oversees influencer relations. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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3 Responses

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  1. Before dialing a journalist with any type of pitch, stop and think about what you will say if the journalist asks, “Why did you bother me off-hours with that?” It may save a lot of squirming, stuttering and stammering later.

    P.S. In your first tip above, Larry Husten referred to “embargo times.” Are people STILL writing press releases and putting an embargo on them? Didn’t that go out with the Underwood typewriter?

  2. Joan —

    Excellent tip.

    As for embargoes, there continues to a tradition of embargoed news in coverage of medicine; most medical journals (and many conferences) offer up material under embargo. The theory is that the material is dense and hard to parse quickly and without outside perspective, and giving reporters time to digest the material before publication leads to more thoughtful, less hyped coverage.

    Whether the system works to actually achieve those ends is the subject of a wonderful blog by Ivan Oransky of Reuters Health: Embargo Watch.

    — Brian

  3. Thnaks for the clarificaiton, Brian. I didn’t know that about medical journals. I’ll share that with my ezine readers. I’ll also share the Embargo Watch blog.

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