2018-03-08 / Voices

Unreturned Phone Calls – On And Off The Reservation


When I entered the business world 30 years ago as a corporate security director, one of the first rules I learned was “return phone calls.” I didn’t really have to learn it, since it was pretty much a common sense/courtesy mindset.

And the actual rule was “return all calls within 24 hours,” which I followed almost religiously – as did those I associated with – inhouse or out.

Catholic school training? The Marine Corps? My “follow the rules” Irish/ German genes?

None of the above, really.

It was simply a common courtesy and, of even more importance, it was what “doing good business” was all about: treat your co-workers, your clients, your possible clients and the general public with respect.

True, not everyone likes to talk on the phone and there are certainly those times when we all know that “this” is going to be a really annoying experience. But it went with the territory, so you just sucked in whatever emotions were playing around inside you and did it.

When I relocated to South Dakota and began writing full-time for The New Lakota Country Times I found that this accepted business courtesy didn’t always exist. Nor was this new (for me) phenomenon isolated to just one area or group of people. I experienced it when dealing with those off the reservation as well as when dealing with those on the reservation.

I suppose one might theorize that non-Natives in an area known for its racist attitudes just couldn’t be bothered dealing with someone calling from a Native publication, regardless of the reason and even if it was a white guy who was calling them (though they wouldn’t necessarily have known that).

That’s painting social behavior with a broad brush, but I’m sure some bristles hit the mark.

As for why many on the reservation didn’t return calls – and this might also apply off the reservation, I was calling from a newspaper, I was now lumped in with any other “pesky” reporter who might have called in the past (a category I hadn’t been part of before) and “Why talk to him? THEY always get it wrong anyway!”

And since my early days here saw me covering many controversial issues, not receiving return calls from tribal officials was frequently a matter of “if we ignore him long enough, maybe he’ll go away.”

I didn’t. I haven’t. I still cover a variety of controversial issues and I still encounter people, in all categories on and off the reservation, who don’t return phone calls.

But since the vast majority of my work concerns Indian Country, I’ll focus my observations there and begin by noting that in the 18 years I’ve been here I’ve yet to receive a return call from a tribal president, other than former Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Gregg Bourland. Gregg always found time to talk with me. It’s called business acumen: knowing what’s in the best interests of your business and acting appropriately – and running a tribe is running a business.

Yet, this problem isn’t isolated to tribal administrators who might want to avoid “the press” - even for the most innocuous of topics. A well-known successful and much respected Lakota businesswoman who spends a good deal of her time trying to teach others how to run successful businesses admitted to me several years ago: “Yes, we do have a major problem with returning calls.”

Perhaps most perplexing are those situations I encounter where someone sends me an e-mail, leaves me a phone message or asks me in person to cover a particular issue, topic or event – and then doesn’t respond to my calls.

Just as you please. There’s never a shortage of stories on my back burners, or any other writer’s – since I’m far from the only media member to experience this.

Of course, my most recent “unreturned call” experience did surprise me, considering the significance of the issue – a lawsuit against the Canadian company exploring for gold in the Black Hills and the possibilities of where I could place the story: this publication and its 300,000 Facebook followers, National Native News and the 200 stations it airs on nationwide and National Public Radio’s 25 million listeners.

Sending out a press release is a good start for bringing attention to an issue, as was done in this situation. But anyone who doesn’t understand how important one-to-one contact with the media is and how that translates into drawing attention from the masses to your cause needs a class in “Communication 101.”

Next story…

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at

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