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Making Sense of Robocall Abuse

Aug 26, 2013

Credit ftc.gov

We talk a lot about new media... and usually we're talking about things like blogs, "Facebook", "Twitter", "Tumblr" and the like.

But what about robocalls -- automated phone calls -- especially from government agencies like boards of elections and school districts.

You might remember in 2012, an hour after polls opened on election day -- Tuesday, Nov. 6,  the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office mistakenly placed hundreds — possibly thousands — of automatic calls to voters instructing them that they had until 7 p.m. Wednesday to vote.

But that was wrong. Polls closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday. It was a mistakenly sent robocall.

Then, just recently, a predawn phone call from the Pinellas County School District woke up parents to tell them school was starting the next morning. Problem is the call was supposed to go out Sunday night.  The one-minute welcome back message from the school superintendent was not welcome on the last morning to sleep in before the start of a new academic year.

Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute's "Sense-Making Project" says these robocalls can be considered part of new media -- and ought to be used accordingly.

"The is emblematic of the transformation in media that we are all a part of," said McBride. "We can all make media now -- you, me and, especially, organizations. Public schools in particular have become actual publishers in traditional ways with newsletters and in non-traditional ways like making websites and pushing information out via phones. All of these mishaps demonstrate how we have to get smarter about how and when we deliver information if we want to be effective."

McBride, a parent of students in the Pinellas school district, did a little research and concluded that too many robocalls go out to everybody instead to just those they might affect.

"I went back and looked over all of the calls I got in the ten days leading up to the school year," McBride explained. "I got ten calls in those 10 days and I did a little mini analysis. Of all those calls there were about 19 pieces of information and only one piece of information was actually relevant to me."

That can admittedly be annoying. But what's the real problem with that approach?

"These days when kids go into a new school or a new situation, parents are super-attentive because they want all the information they can get," said McBride. "Once they start getting call after call that doesn't actually pertain to their child, they lose that enthusiasm and they start not paying attention to those calls."

McBride says organizations like school systems -- and all of us who have started to become purveyors of information through websites and social media -- have to start thinking about target audiences.

"You have to start thinking about the audience that is receiving the information and what their needs are," McBride said.