A phone call to remember

I read an article recently about the reduction in business phone calls and the prediction that voicemail would soon be extinct.

I read an article recently about the reduction in business phone calls and the prediction that voicemail would soon be extinct.

It makes sense. With email, texting, and social networking, voicemail is remarkably inefficient. My kids don't get its purpose. "Dad," they say, "you don't need to leave a message. I can see you tried to reach me."

The funny thing is voicemail hasn't even been around so long. It's hard to imagine, but we used to live in a world where the phone would simply ring and ring until someone picked it up.

But that's the way it was and it created challenges for aspiring professionals like me.

In my first PR job as an AE, I was often given a list of journalists to call and pitch story ideas on behalf of my clients.

Unfortunately, I received minimal training for the task. I did not realize journalists had deadlines, that there were good and bad times to call, and that I should know something about the outlet and journalist to see if my pitch was relevant.

As such, I ended up learning the hard way. My best lesson came from Howard Rudnitsky, a senior editor at Forbes at the time. I cold-called him late one afternoon to pitch on behalf of my Japanese client Matsushita and its recent philanthropic activities in the US.

It was not a good sign when he picked up the phone with just one cranky word: "What?!"

I took a breath and launched into my pitch.

"Hello Mr. Rudnitsky. My name is Don Spetner and I represent Matsushita Electric. I'd like to talk to you about recent philanthropic efforts by Japanese companies in the US. Did you know that last year Matsushita donated..."

I'll never know what kind of stressful day Rudnitsky was having, but my call clearly pushed him over the edge. He cut me off and began to sputter. Then he began to scream:

"Whaddya, whaddya, whaddya bothering me for? I'm putting a story to bed here. Whaddya bothering me? Whaddya doing?" Click.

I was in shock for 30 seconds or so. No stranger had ever yelled at me like that. I was petrified, but then I began to giggle. Then I called some friends. In short order, "whaddya, whaddya, whaddya" became a common catchphrase around the office.

I also learned my lesson and began paying attention to deadlines, editorial guidelines, and beats. I opened every conversation with, "Is now a good time?"

Ultimately, someone invented voicemail, which allowed busy journalists to avoid the ringing phone at deadline. But it, too, had its downfalls.

During my time at Nissan, I had a wonderful administrative assistant named Margaret. She was a consummate professional and someone for whom I had enormous respect.

One day, I was driving back to the office after a dental appointment. I was in the process of leaving Margaret a voicemail when disaster struck.

"Margaret," I said to the recording as I drove down Wilshire Boulevard, "can you please move my meeting to... Mother f---er! You a--hole!"

Another driver had just cut me off and I screamed as I slammed on the brakes.

I then realized that everything I screamed had been recorded on Margaret's voicemail. This was early stage technology and there was no way to stop, replay, or re-record. I apologized and hung up, but by the time I reached the office, the entire floor had heard my diatribe.

I would like to say I learned my lesson and stopped cussing while driving, but I'm sure my wife would beg to differ.

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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