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February 28, 2011
Answering Machines Are a PR Menace
We suppose it's possible to conceive of an answering machine being used effectively for good public relations. Too often, though, the approach to answering machines – like almost any machine – is simply "set it and forget it." We're indebted to Ed Gebhart, a columnist for the Delaware County Daily Times outside Philadelphia, for describing in anguishing detail how that plays out at the local oil company, Sunoco. 

Companies were so much better about relating to people before answering machines – or maybe, simply, before cost-cutting – is the message Gebhart leaves with us. He raises in teeth-clenching detail how answering machine technology can cripple and organization's relational reach (presuming it even cares) if it's not used humanely.

Gebhart used to work at Sunoco, and enjoyed the experience greatly. But for a downsizing, he'd still be there. But let a pensioner or, presumably, anyone else, try to reach Sunoco these days by phone. We've all had this sort of experience, I suspect, with answering machines. 

Gebhart called the Sunoco Retirees Service Center, which is manned by Aetna, and apparently provided a human connection, but they told told him to call Sunoco's Human Resources Department in Philadelphia. "I wish they had told me to call the Oval Office instead," Gebhart writes, "I know I would have gotten through faster."

He got an answering machine at Sunoco with five choices. "I pushed the appropriate number and guess what? The machine told me to call the Retirees Service Center. Back to square one."

So Gebhart decided to call the switchboard operator at Sunoco's headquarters and ask to be connected with Human Resources.  "Guess what I got. The same machine voice offering the same five choices." (You knew this was coming.)

He called Aetna again, but was told by the lady there that "she was expressly forbidden" to connect him with anyone live in Human Resources.

So Gebhart called Sunoco's computer again and this time, "pushed the button you are supposed to push when a retiree passes away. Surely a human being would answer such a sorrowful call..." The rest of Gebhart's experience is just too painful to recount here.

And we've all been there, anyway, with answering machines. Far in the future, the decline in American capitalism is likely to be dated from the introduction of the first answering machine. It's simply incredible how many organizations have surrendered their human sensibilities to them. 

But make no mistake, doing so – setting 'em and forgetting 'em – is the antithesis of good public relations. We're indebted to Ed Gebhart who, two days (and presumably counting) after his encounter with Sunoco's answering machine, still hadn't heard back from the company he once enjoyed working for.  

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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