After Y2K, Media Should Look for Stories of Heroes

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The story always starts out the same. It doesn't matter if it's a national story done by "20/20" or "Dateline," your local news or your local newspaper, the opening always goes something like this: "Just as you sit down to dinner, or watch your favorite television show, or put your children to bed, there it is, the telephone ringing …"


By now, you know the story. The context of the story or the general tone of it doesn't matter. This opening always gives the receiver the opinion that what will follow is another negative portrayal of the telemarketing industry as an invasive nuisance in today's busy world. The story has been told from coast to coast.


The teleservices industry has spent an enormous amount of time and energy during the past several years in an effort to counteract this preconceived media bias. Now, the job of mainstream media is to sell newspapers, obtain ratings, whatever. But it seems to me that the special privileges guaranteed the media by the First Amendment also carry some responsibility to offer the other side of the story, even if it may not do anything for circulation or ratings.


We spend hours at conferences and conventions touting the benefits of the telemarketing industry. The industry creates a lot of jobs, especially for individuals who for physical, familial or other reasons may not be able to hold a strict 9 to 5 office job, yet those individuals possess all the other skills necessary to contribute to the great American Dream. In addition to the development of sales skills, those jobs now usually come with training in a myriad of other essential business skills, including computer training and communications. Despite unprecedented unemployment in this country, the job growth in the telemarketing industry still outpaces the national job growth average.


The industry does provide access to goods and services that people may not otherwise be able to obtain, despite what the industry's detractors may think. Telemarketing offers entrepreneurs a highly successful, low cost system for introducing new products and services to the marketplace. With the competition for space in traditional brick-and-mortar retail establishments at an all-time high, these innovative goods and services providers have been forced to seek alternative methods for putting their goods in the public stream of commerce, and telemarketing offers just what they need.


Finally, there is a story that, if covered at all, is usually relegated to the human-interest section of the newspaper. It's the story of telemarketers as heroes. Over the past several years there have been several stories of telemarketers who have gone beyond the requirements of their job description and performed a valuable public service. What brought this to mind was a recent story (that got six lines in my local paper).


The story described the efforts of a Pennsylvania telemarketing representative. Just after Christmas, this particular representative had placed a call to a Texas woman. While talking to the rep, the woman had a bad fall. The telemarketing representative not only got the local 911 dispatcher in Texas on the line and gave directions to the woman's home; the rep also stayed on the line with the woman for nearly a quarter of an hour until help arrived. As the 911 dispatcher who took the call noted that if not for the assistance of the telemarketer "… this lady could have been lying on the floor until morning."


It is important to note that the 911 dispatch center that took the call was a professional call center responsible for answering emergency calls in the county. The county had actually outsourced its call center needs. That is a situation that is not unique. Hundreds of jurisdictions all over the country have turned to the telemarketing industry to provide essential government services.


This action is not typical of the day-in, day-out activities of most telemarketing representatives, but neither is it the first time such a story has occurred. Over the years I have heard a number of stories similar to this. Stories about telemarketers, who, after hearing a consumer in distress from a physical ailment (or, in one instance, when an intruder had broken into the consumer's residence), have responded with a call to a local emergency service and ultimately were responsible for a happy ending.


While I don't expect these to become common, mainstream media stories, it would be nice to see a little more coverage given to these stories. Individuals who step up and save lives are afforded hero status in our society. Telemarketers deserve the same. Since we no longer have page after page of Y2K stories cluttering our newspapers, there should be room for a true hero story.


Tyler Prochnow is an attorney at Lathrop & Gage, Kansas City, MO, and counsel to the American Teleservices Association. His e-mail address is prochnct@lathropgage.com.
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