Dear Media: Don’t Call Me. And Don’t Leave Me Voice Mails.

Bill Nowling, the spokesperson for Detroit’s emergency manager, sent reporters a memo recently instructing them to stop leaving him voice mails. has the full text; an excerpt appears below:

To better assist you and your organization with media questions and interview requests, I am instituting a new “contact procedure” that I think will streamline the process and get you the information you need in a timely fashion…

1. Going forward, all media requests (for information, for interviews, for directions) will be handled via e-mail at:

2. If you have a media question, please send an email to: Please be as detailed as possible as to the issue about which you are calling or the specific questions you have. Also include a specific deadline for responding back.

3. Please don’t leave a voice mail message. Believe it or not, VM just adds delay in responding, especially when most messages simply say “call me back.” It is not unusual for me to have 25 or more VMs waiting to be heard at any given time.

Bill Nowling

You might expect me to blast Mr. Nowling. The truth is, I’m empathetic.

Like him, I find telephone voice mails to be the least efficient way to reach me. I respond to emails and tweets much more quickly, and occasionally forget to check my voice mail when I’m out of town. Plus, he’s right – a simple “can you give me a call” voice mail message can be more efficiently delivered via email, text, or tweet.

The biggest problem with his new policy may not be the policy itself, but the manner in which he communicated it. As an example, here’s a comment Nowling left on the website Deadline Detroit:

“I hate VM. It’s impersonal, inefficient and it fills up two or three times a day…I want to talk to reporters, but I don’t want to waste their time or mine by not being prepared; if I can cut one just one extra return call for each call that comes by being prepared to answer the question when I call back, then I will be able to handle more media calls in a day.”

In his full one-paragraph comment on that website, he used the words “my,” “mine” or “I” a whopping 17 times, showing just how self-centered his message was.

Hand holding a retro telephone isolated on white

Imagine if he had framed his message as a request rather than a formal procedure instead:

“In order to serve your audience, you deserve the fastest-possible response time from me. Because I’m not always in the office, I’m afraid that voice mails don’t always get played as quickly as they should (plus, the voice mail box fills up quickly, preventing some of you from leaving messages). Therefore, in an effort to serve you better, please email your requests to me. In return, I promise to be responsive to your emails in a timely manner. And if you opt to leave a voice mail message, I’ll do my best to listen to it quickly—but please know that’s not always possible and it’s proven to be a much less efficient way to reach me.”

That framing makes it less about him (“I hate VM”) and more about serving the media and the public (“You deserve the fastest-possible response time from me.”)

Of course, that only works if he follows through. One anonymous commenter identifying himself as a reporter on PR Newser writes:

“This would be perfectly reasonable IF Nowling responded to e-mails, which he rarely does. At one point he wanted to communicate by text message, which is insane. And let’s be clear: this isn’t some corporate flack we are talking about. He is essentially the press secretary for the city of Detroit, which is seeking bankruptcy protection under federal law. He is a public servant, and should be responding to the public–and the media–accordingly. In other words, he has no right to be arrogant.”

I have reservations about Mr. Nowling’s policy and am not sure it builds the positive press relations that anyone in a public position should desire. Perhaps he could have made clear that he doesn’t mind people trying to reach him by phone—reporters have the right to contact him using their preferred method, too—but that if he doesn’t pick up, email might be the next-fastest option.

What do you think? Does a public servant have a right to instill a “no voice mail” policy? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.