There was a time when it was routine for a journalist to gather up the private phone numbers of VIPs – and call them directly for a comment or interview whenever they became especially newsworthy.
VIPs? Well, not necessarily genuinely “very important persons”. But let’s use the VIP label for the range of people who catch the attention of the media. Sports stars for instance. Others from the entertainment worlds. Business. Politics. Whatever.
No doubt that old style of news-gathering was intrusive now and again. Maybe fairly often. But it was nothing compared with what goes on in the media landscape nowadays.
Here are a few recent examples I’ve come across just from sport:
- “I was in the hospital following the birth of my first child. We put a photo online to say that mum and baby were doing well and 10mins later my phone rang. It was a TV station stating that they could have a camera at the hospital in a few mins to get the first interview. So instead of soaking in a beautiful moment, I was firing-up on the phone asking how they’d got my number and why the hell they thought calling me was OK.”
- “I’m getting set to change my number for a fourth time since playing for my country. I’ve felt sick in my stomach after agreeing to do interviews, not because of the conversations – I’m more than happy to chat – but because I have no idea where my number might end up.”
- “I like doing media and consider myself very open, but that gets abused. I’ll be at dinner and the phone will ring and it’ll be ‘Hey, are you sweet to go live on radio?’ I hate current arrangements.”
Athletes in many codes are now asking their teams not to give out their numbers.
Some athletes are changing their phone number each season. Even ex-athletes have said they’ll get half-a-dozen calls a week when their team or sport is in the spotlight.
All sorts of reasons. The crazily accelerated media news cycle is one factor. News journos are caught up in a 24-hour drag race to get their stories out ahead of the pack. Once the top priority was to get things right. Now it’s to be first. So the temptation is to cut corners.
The quality of the journalism is being affected, too, because a number of media organisations have cut staff numbers – and have often shed the most expensive (and most experienced and professional) of their journos.
And there’s another element.
It’s the widespread expectation that people, armed with their smartphones and surrounded by other technology, should always be connected.
Randi Zuckerberg, who worked with her brother, Mark, in the early days of Facebook, has been one of those preaching that this generation is in dire need of a “digital detox”. But, in the meantime, there’s an assumption that we should always be “on”.
That leads to an issue for the communications managers of any organisation that includes individuals of interest to the media. The comms staff will be caught in a bind if, for example, they’re looking after a sports team which benefits from the media exposure that helps fill a stadium, and keeps a smile on the face of the sponsors – because the VIPs don’t deserve to lose their privacy or be subjected to media hassling.
Why is that a risk?
Well, look at some of the questions for a comms manager handing over a VIP’s number for a radio interview. If you share the number, who can then access it?
Just the journo you gave it to?
Or the production team of that show?
Or anyone with access to the talent database of that radio station? Or of the network that controls that station? Or of the new multi-media conglomerate that takes over the network? Or anyone from the international group that links with the conglomerate?
And what happens when an employee moves on to a rival network? Does the employee leave all contact info behind? Or figure that it could be a reputation-enhancing asset in their new work-place?
From the scores of discussions I’ve had, here are a few words from journos themselves:
- “To help co-ordination between the various new elements of our organisation, each morning we get sent a list of who everybody is interviewing that day. That includes the mobile number of every interview subject. I take numbers down that might be handy for later. Everyone does.”
- "We have a group email list of 400 journalists. If a journo wishes to track someone down, they just email that group asking for contact details. Those are often fired back quickly as 'Reply all'."
- “Excuse me, I can’t find [this athlete’s] number on our database. Can you send it over please?”
- “Of course you break confidences when you’re given personal numbers. You don’t wish to, but you get placed in circumstances where you have to.”
The collision of smartphones, media disruption and number sharing is something athletes are increasingly aware of. Clubs are also appreciating that having the media operating on the same channel that athletes use for connecting with friends and family is sometimes far from ideal. And in addition to these privacy and welfare questions come competition integrity ones – especially around gambling. The head of integrity at one major sport described current number-sharing practices as a “disaster waiting to happen.”
I’ve had a special interest in this comms management space for a number of years.
I worked with the New Zealand rugby league team (with athletes including Sonny Bill Williams, Kieran Foran and Shaun Johnson) and then with netball’s Northern Mystics (who featured the likes of Maria Tutaia and Cat Tuivaiti). It was easy to see the downside of the situation from the athletes’ perspective.
That’s led to the creation of Blinder.
Blinder allows VIPs to receive scheduled calls on their personal mobiles, but without sharing their number with the caller. It gives comms managers a web-based dashboard through which they can provide access to the VIPs the media are after – but, at the same time, makes sure that the VIPs aren’t hassled, don’t need to give away their personal numbers, and yet still agree to a manageable number of interviews.
At Blinder, we began working with a beta group of representatives from many of the biggest sports in Australasia in early April. The group shared a common belief that things in this space could be handled better. Everyone appreciated the hugely important role the media plays in society, from holding people and organisations to account, to helping connect us all. But there’s an imbalance in current arrangements.
If you’re considering taking a look at how your team might handle comms arrangements differently, maybe ask them if they’d prefer they were made available by handing out their personal number or without doing so?
They have that option now.
Caley Wilson is a former media manager of the New Zealand rugby league team and the Northern Mystics netball side. He is a co-founder of Blinder.