As a journalist, I spend a significant proportion of my working life on the telephone. I’d like to say that this time is productively spent confirming facts, drawing out interviewees and generally uncovering stories worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Unfortunately, reality is somewhat different.
Picture the scene. It’s one minute to five on a Friday afternoon and I have to ring the council to speak to someone about an item of breaking news. I flick through my contacts to find the relevant number and press dial. I’m already slightly anxious. This is not a good time to be ringing a press office. With the weekend just around the corner, they probably switched the phone to answer machine at least half an hour ago.
Sadly I don’t even get the joy of being invited to leave a message. I’m greeted instead with the dull disconnected tone. This council press officer is so desperate not to be contacted by the media, he’s changed his number.
Now I have to move onto the more dangerous territory of the switchboard.
Like most self respecting public bodies, the council really doesn’t want to have to deal with actual members of the public, so even tracking down a phone number is a mission in itself. By the time I’ve found a likely looking one, the minute hand on the clock has gone to the wrong side of 5pm.
I take a deep breath and dial.
A robot answers.
“Welcome to your local council. Your call may be recorded for training purposes. For pest control, press one. For queries about council tax, press two. To speak to an operator, please hold.”
I hold, for an unfeasibly long period of time.
The robot occasionally thanks me and assures me my call is extremely important to it.
In between this, I am serenaded with some synthetic Vivaldi. As a bit of a connoisseur of hold music, I have to admit I’m a little disappointed.
I’ve just started singing along with a particularly vigorous section of the Four Seasons when the music cuts out.
I try a tentative hello, happy to be caught warbling away if it means I get to speak to an actual human being.
No such luck. I get a different robot, impressively grumpy sounding for a computer programme.
This one doesn’t bother reassuring me about the importance of my call. Instead it demands I say the name of the department I wish to speak to.
“Press Office” I try to enunciate as clearly as possible.
“Was that pest control?” It asks.
Arguably not the most inaccurate interpretation of my request, at least from the council’s point of view.
“No,” I reply, looking anxiously at the clock. It’s now approaching the even more dangerous time of half past five. I suspect these two phone robots have been left in charge for the weekend.
“Name the department you wish to speak to.”
This time the robot tries to point me to Mortuary Services.
I try the more sophisticated sounding “Corporate Communications” in case the council has been re-branding their departments.
“Sorry I don’t understand. Connecting you to the switchboard,” threatens the robot.
“Just put me through to the bastard press office,” I shout, all patience gone as my deadline looms ever closer.
“Connecting you to Press Office,” the robot parrots as I inadvertently hit on the correct combination of words for the request to be fulfilled.
I’m treated to cover versions of Michael Bublé tracks this time.
By song number three, I’m ready to do a van Gough and chop my own ear off.
Eventually the call clicks through.
“Hello, it’s Keith.”
“Hi Keith my name is Emily and I’m calling from…” I start to say, but I’m interrupted and realise I’ve been caught out by yet another answer phone.
“…it’s Keith O’Connor. The office is closed until 9am on Monday. Please leave a message. If your call is urgent, please contact the switchboard.”
I hang up in defeat.
Two minutes later, I get a text.
“Thank you for contacting your local council. Please rate your experience on a scale of 1 to 10.”
I type in zero.