(Not So) Basic Journalism Skills: Phone Etiquette

by - June 10, 2013

Being a journalist is a lot more than knowing how to use a camera and tell a story -- especially in the public's eye.

There's a lot that goes into this job that they just don't teach you in J-School. But never fear, you have me - a real life, flesh-and-blood journalist who can help point you in the right direction.

Probably the biggest thing your professors forgot to warn you about is how often the phone is going to ring. Callers will expect you to be their phone book, Google expert, legal counsel, therapist, technological trouble shooter ... and the list goes on and on.

It's inevitable you'll have to answer the phone one day, no matter where you pursue your career. And unless things have changed a lot since I graduated, there is no class, lesson or workshop on how to deal with viewers/readers who call in for any and everything.

When I first moved to dayside, I was unprepared for the phones. I was not ready for my day to revolve around the brrrring of the newsroom phone or the 10 to 20 minutes I would lose per call. It still kind of blows my mind at the amount of people whose first thought any time they need anything is to call their local news station.

Someone broke into your house? Forget the police; call the news!
A scammer called you? Call the news!
It's raining at your house? Call the news!

With time you'll learn the patterns of your audience. Some callers you'll come to recognize within seconds of answering; this will probably lead to a cringe and/or silent sigh of why me?

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all way of handling callers, but there are some things you can do to make the experience a little more pleasant.

First of all, no matter how hard it is, stay professional. As much as you want to slam the phone down, don't. Under no circumstances should you curse or raise your voice. You remaining calm will do far more to unnerve rude callers than yelling back at them. Generally, they don't know how to act when you don't react in the same manner they're using. If you don't think you can keep your cool, transfer them to your boss.

When you get one of those callers whose only real purpose for contacting your newsroom is to chew the fat, the most effective tactic to get them off the phone is to tell the truth. If it's 30 minutes to showtime and you don't have time to talk, tell them. Most people who call newsrooms do so because they think we're obligated to talk to them. It doesn't cross their minds that we actually work and have deadlines.Who'd've thunk it, right?

The biggest piece of advice I can give you is acceptance. Accept that the phone will ring a dozen or more times a day. Come to terms with the fact that you will answer at least one stupid question a day, look up at least two phone numbers and have to transfer at least one call a week to your boss. Once you accept this part of the job, answering the phone will be easier.

And one last piece of advice - on days when it seems like there is no pause between phone calls and you're at your wits' end when it comes to your viewers or readers, remind yourself that there are nice, intelligent members of your audience out there. They just have the good sense not to call you.

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  1. i hereby certify that i have NEVER CALLED A NEWSROOM! who does that?!?!??! there are so many loonies out there!

    i work in an art gallery. we have idiots that call here all the time -- those that found art in their aunt's garage and they want to know what it is worth, desperate artists that want representation and beg for some kind of help, etc. these aren't the worst calls. the worst calls are the TELEMARKETERS that call every single day. it drives me insane. do not call lists DO NOT WORK. and if you are rude to a telemarketer, odds are they flag your phone number and make it a point to torture you with more calls. sigh!

    1. Luckily we don't get many telemarketers outside of the Google plus people. We've updated our listing several times and yet they continue to call!

  2. At my internship, one of my responsibilities is to know how to answer phone calls correctly and in a professional since. I had one guy call me to ask why a certain reporter did a story on a particular citizen. He went on to explain that he saved the citizen's life 2 year ago and that we should do a story on him. I wanted to say "You got to be kidding me!" However, I informed him that I would tell the reporter about his thoughts. The next caller wanted to speak to a particular anchor and give her a story idea and didn't want to share it with anyone else in the newsroom. Well, when I told her that she wasn't available, she was very upset and stated "Well, I guess I will give the story idea to another station." And she hung up on me. If she would have stayed on the phone a little longer, she would have learned that we already featured a small VOSOT about that event on an earlier newscast. Sometimes it is better to laugh than to lose your mind over it!