First of all, let me say that I’m a believer. I love what technology can do for communications.

Web casting, eReleases, fax broadcasting, one-to-one marketing, voice polls, and other “new media” can help savvy school leaders forge stronger relationships with the folks that matter most.

In today’s “faster-is-better” world, technology can make or break your communications program. People expect instant response and 24-hour-a-day access. There’s no way I could reach the people I need to reach–or more importantly, hear what they have to say–without my web site, database, fax machine, and eMail.

But some of the old rules still apply. Here’s a case in point. The other day I received a fax broadcast (a great tool) advertising a half-day workshop featuring one of my PR heroes, Pat Jackson*.

This is great, I thought. Pat’s coming to town! In fact, he’s so good, I’m going to bring my entire marketing team to this program.

So like Pavlov’s dog responding to the triggering event (the fax), I immediately picked up the phone to register. And this is where it all fell apart.

First, only one phone number was listed on the fax and it was wrong. I ended up calling some poor schlock who’s trying to run a paging service for one of the area’s largest corporations.

I scanned the flier for an alternative number–and there wasn’t one. No names were given, no eMail addresses, no web sites, no fax numbers, nothing. The fax broadcast had violated a PR rule so old it pre-exists print: Make it easy for people to get in touch with you.

It also violated rule No. 2: “Never be the lone proofreader, Kimosabe,” as Dawn Murray, a colleague with the Lindbergh School District in St. Louis, likes to say. (For other gems, see the National School Public Relations Association’s publication, “The Wit and Wisdom of PR Success.”)

No problem, I thought–I know the firm that normally handles registrations for two of the three sponsoring groups. I’ll just call them.

Turns out they weren’t handling registration for this program, but they gave me the correct phone number for the group that was. Now, I was just a tad bit less enthusiastic at this point–but I really wanted to hear Pat, so I persevered.

I called the correct number and what did I get? That bane of all good public relations: voice mail. Not only did I get voice mail, but none of the three options gave me what I wanted: the chance to register.

I hung up, redialed, and forced myself to listen to option number two: a commercial that told me everything I didn’t need to know about the program. (I’m already sold, folks.)

“And now, finally, the beep,” said the message. Thank God, I thought, I can finally get this over with and do something more important, like write this column. My 45-second action had now consumed close to 10 minutes.

Four minutes later, my phone was still beeping. The message center was full. I still wasn’t registered, and I was no longer a happy camper.

The moral? Technology and new media techniques are only as good as the people who use them–so choose your partners wisely. Make sure they care as much about your customers as you do before you let them handle your PR front lines. Nothing replaces good customer service.

I also recommend that you run your organization through periodic customer service check-ups. Pretend you’re a parent, realtor, or new business leader, and call your school or district.

Who answers the phone? How are you treated? How many people do you get transferred to before your questions are answered? Is your voice mail system helping or hurting? Are your eMails answered promptly? Was your web site last updated in 1998? Does your mailing database include district patrons who have gone to their eternal rest? How many hoops do you make people jump through to register for school, high school courses, or continuing education programs?

Technology and the new media can create new opportunities or nightmares. But old-fashioned courtesy and the golden rule will never go out of style.

*Pat Jackson, APR, Editor, PR Reporter, and Senior Counsel, Jackson, Jackson and Wagner, 14 Front Street, Exeter, NH 03833.

Now, you have to understand that Pat Jackson is like Star War’s Yoda in PR circles. I really wanted to go to this thing. I called back to the folks who weren’t handling registration and begged for mercy. They couldn’t help me, but they did give me the phone numbers of higher-ups in the sponsoring organizations that I could complain to. I don’t have time for that right now, I thought–I’ll do that later. Amazingly, I still wanted to sign up.

I wracked my brain. Eureka! I remembered we just registered two people (at $300 each) for a two-day marketing program sponsored by this same apparently virtual organization, which will remain nameless out of professional courtesy.

We dug the brochure out of someone’s purse and–lo and behold!–found a fax number and contact information….for a design agency that was apparently handling the program for this marketing group.

Flumoxed, I called the agency. “I realize this isn’t your problem, but I’m desperate,” I said. “Do you know how I can get a hold of these folks? All I need is a fax number.” They didn’t know the answer, but they said they’d find out. They called me back with a toll-free phone number and an out-of-town fax.

I’d now invested close to two hours of my time, including seven phone calls and nine conversations about this program, and I still wasn’t registered. Not only was I feeling hostile–I was also rethinking my other $600 commitment to these folks. I thought, They’re going to teach my staff about direct marketing?

I was also thinking less of the program’s sponsors. Keep in mind that all three are St. Louis chapters of highly respected professional associations for PR and marketing people, and I’m a member of two of them.

National School Public Relations Association