Before you hit ‘send’: Should you call or text instead?

Sometimes email is the right way to connect with a colleague or client, but often it isn’t. Here’s a guide to when to use other outreach methods.

Ever exchange 12 emails with someone in an office next door, when a 10-second conversation would do? It happens all the time at our PR agency and plenty of other companies.

And here we thought we were the communications experts.

In award-winning novelist Joe O’Neill’s compelling new book, “The Dog,” the narrator has a tricky relationship with his employers, who are mysterious Middle Eastern billionaires. The relationship is so tenuous that the hero spends hours “mental-mailing,” or composing emails he rarely sends.

I can identify. PR people and other communications professionals do it, too. Since we juggle multiple constituencies, and our livelihood often depends on getting the attention of very busy people, we are well served to be selective about our outreach. It’s easy to hide behind email, but options for communication should be weighed carefully.

Every relationship benefits from a mix of communication channels, and the forms keep evolving.

Here are the best times and scenarios for the various channels at your disposal:

Social media outreach works best when you want to demonstrate that you’re familiar with someone’s work or persona through his or her published content. Commenting on a blog post or retweeting a savvy observation is a great way to further a relationship. Benign social media listening can also be effective if a media contact or client honcho is particularly elusive. If someone is active on Twitter, by all means, DM. If he or she is more of a LinkedIn type, try Inmail. Judicious contact will show persistence and can eventually transition to other, more direct forms of communication.

Texting is effective when you have an established relationship that transcends the “business as usual” workday. It’s best used for time-sensitive messaging or to skirt the “official” office communications network, offering a more personal touch. Though it can never be assumed private or secure, texting is recommended when you want to create the feel of “offline” conversation, and you have a certain comfort level in doing so.

Email is best when you don’t require an instant answer. Maybe you’re making a program recommendation that requires thought and deliberation, with a workable deadline. It’s also a top choice for regular and frequent project updates, or, naturally, when it’s the recipient’s preferred way to communicate.

That said, email is overused and often not sent thoughtfully. It’s notoriously iffy when conveying sarcasm or edgy humor, and it’s an imperfect tool for communicating constructive criticism. Most importantly, don’t email anything you wouldn’t want to see in the news. My draft folder is filled with unsent messages that I thought better of, and that’s a good thing.

The phone is shockingly useful when the email thread is becoming untenable, or ideally, before that happens. Make a call to discuss anything that’s uncomfortable, such as criticism of a team member, or sensitive salary negotiations. When I have a fabulous media opp for a top exec, I call them. Likewise, if there’s bad news, a call demonstrates concern and directness in dealing with the situation. PR people strive for regular calls with their day-to-day contacts to stay on top of projects and discuss changes in strategy or direction. These regular conversations are key to keeping and building relationships.

Schedule a face-to-face when the information is too complex to convey in a deck or memo, or when you’re building a relationship and striving to earn trust. There are actually key words to use to help master any meeting. MIT researchers found that certain words helped participants appear more persuasive, including “yeah,” “give,” “start,” and “discuss. ” So, yeah. Schedule face-to-face meetings with some regularity and plan time together that’s not directly work-related. That’s healthy communication for any working relationship.

Marijane Funess is the media relations director of Crenshaw Communications. A version of this story appeared on the Crenshaw Communications Blog.

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