Who’s to Blame When PR Practitioners Spam?

Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 3.14.25 PMDavid Segal usually keeps his magnifying glass trained on big consumer brands, frauds, rip-offs, deceptive practices and other complaints from his readers. But two weeks ago, he turned his attention to a very different beast: PR spam.

The Haggler, it seems, had reason to complain himself: he was getting way too many unsolicited and grossly off-target email pitches. As he put it:

The odds of the Haggler writing about any of these topics could safely be described as nil. Yet some company hired a public relations firm to send the Haggler, and presumably countless other reporters, the same information. This seemed like a waste of energy and money, so the Haggler decided to find out what was behind this antiquated attempt to win media attention — who was paying for it, and why?

The Haggler started by emailing the P.R. reps whose names were attached to these emails, posing a simple question: Where did you get the Haggler’s address? One answer came up time and again: Vocus, a publicly traded company based in Beltsville, Md. Among its products is access to a database of reporters’ email addresses.

So the Haggler set out to get removed from these lists, curated by companies like Vocus, Cision, MyMediaInfo, Meltwater and the popular PR wire services. One less media contact in our databases, but hundreds fewer bits of email spam in his inbox. His gain, but our loss. My loss, to be exact. When other irresponsible PR practitioners make my life more difficult, I take it personally. Or, am I wrong? Perhaps it is his loss, and maybe not as much of a loss for us as I thought?

Does It Work?

The PR world wasted no time in commenting on this. While most trashed the practice of “shotgun PR,” at least one observer noted that [emphasis mine]

as a result of [the agency’s] scattershot, “let’s see what sticks” media outreach tactics, Soireehome [the company called out in The Haggler’s article] and its product received a mention in the New York Times. I’d be curious to see what Google could tell us about upticks in searches for that drinking glass. Something tells me volume is probably up. I admit it: As someone who likes his martinis bone cold, I thought about googling it myself!

While Eric Starkman, the author of those words, quickly goes on to distance himself from the practice, he in turn points to the reason why spray and pray PR might be more effective now than ever before:

Journalism’s “standard operating procedures” have plummeted to such a low level that increasingly what Mr. Segal decries as PR spam finds its way into the blogosphere and ultimately into mainstream newspapers. Gawker in its “PR Dummies” column once decried a PR firm for sending out a staged photo of an actress purchasing some orange juice, but the image – and the Gawker column – actually garnered some pick up…. Granted, not all the mentions were positive, but there is a school of thought (which I don’t subscribe to) that all PR is ultimately good PR. In the client’s eyes, the “buzz” could very well have been a perceived win. (For what it’s worth, I hadn’t heard of that brand of orange juice until I read about it on Gawker, but now I know it has 50 percent less calories than that company’s other orange juice products!)

Opt Out or Blacklist?

So what to do about this quandary?

When I read this story, I hearkened back to the last major flare-up around PR spam: the one that led LifeHacker‘s Gina Trapani to create and curate the PR Spammers Wiki. And my immediate thought was maybe we should reinstate the PR spammer blacklist. After all, surely it has to be better than the alternative — losing valuable contact information from good editorial contacts. But then I remember how relieved I was that my company wasn’t on the list of PR spammers, and how many good companies were on that list, usually because of one or two bad eggs out of dozens or hundreds of PR people and thousands of pitches.

So, torn and indecisive as I was, I tweeted my frustration:

Both Meltwater and Cision got back to me quickly. Perhaps it will be no surprise that I’m a customer of both.

Cision connected me with Heidi Sullivan, who in fact spent a good deal of time speaking with John Cass and Jason Falls back in 2008 when the first flare-up happened. I spent some time getting her perspective on the issue as it reemerges in 2013.

Accidentally on Purpose?

“We do still run into situations where people who are abusing our database,” Heidi said. “If they use our distribution service, we have limits in place to prevent abuse. If they export our data, we have to rely on abuse reports from journalists. Once we get these, we ask people to stop. If they don’t, we shut them off.”

Heidi is convinced that in most cases, it’s a matter of poor training, rather than deliberate abuse. “Spray and pray PR doesn’t work, and we spend a lot of time helping our PR clients better focus their pitches,” she told me. “More often than not, these abuses come from young, poorly-trained, well-intentioned PR practitioners under pressure to get more hits. Correct that and you fix most of the problem areas.”

Training is a big part of Heidi’s job at Cision. She organizes three to four webinars per month focused on topics like pitching the media, content marketing and other areas. The Cision Blog is another resource that offers tips on doing great PR.

Cision has also tweaked the tools and services it offers to help address this. I mentioned earlier the distribution limits it put in place. The product now offers an influencer search to find what journalists are tweeting about, so you can get much more specific with your searches.

Who Needs Who?

Let’s take a moment to explore why Cision and other media databases exist. Like media query services such as HARO and Profnet, they don’t just help the PR professionals; they also help the reporters out. While a reasonable case could be made that David Segal is an exception to this, since his sources are almost exclusively emails from concerned consumers, he is in the minority. Most journalists need PR people as much as PR people need journalists. Today, perhaps more than ever.

As an illustration of this fact, I asked Heidi how many journalists took up The Haggler’s mantle and removed themselves from Cision’s databases. The answer? “We had fewer than five removal requests after the Haggler’s article. We spoke with each of them, and ultimately removed fewer than half of them from our database. In fact, we got way more emails from conscientious clients than reporters.”

Oh, and yes, David Segal was among the one or two media contacts that the PR world lost. But was it much of a loss?

Skeptics or Believers?

David Segal is a skeptic not only of PR, but social media as well — I can’t find a Twitter handle for him or his pseudonym. In both social media and email, he appears to be among a dwindling number of professional journalists able to exist without these channels of communication.

Heidi gave me a preview of some research conducted by Cision on trends in journalists’ use of social media. The number of journalists who classify themselves as social media skeptics dropped from 31% in 2012 to 9% in 2013 according to the company’s soon-to-be-released survey data.

socialjournalism

What Next?

Back in 2008, Jason and John put the onus of responsibility on the media database companies, urging them to develop an industry protocol for gathering and managing contact information, tracking the history of contact changes, fact checking and permission seeking with each contact, the creation of a media hotline for each database company, and the creation of a “community taskforce to stop bad pitches.”

Progress has been made toward those goals, but more progress must be made. My final thoughts go to the parties involved:

To David Segal, I say: “While I think removing yourself from the list was an overreaction, it’s one I entirely understand. But every once in a while, a journalist is thankful for a PR person ignoring the ‘not a media contact’ warning that I think would have been a better solution for all.”

To the surprised CEO who had no idea what his agency was doing with the $1500 a month they were being paid, I say: “Sorry, but you get what you pay for. Spend more money on PR, but demand accountability from your (no doubt new) agency as a consequence, as David rightly suggests.”

To the agency involved in this, I say: “Sorry you lost that client. Train your younger associates better. Find better ways to measure your efforts than the number of pitches sent. And avoid phrases like ’email blast’ around the office.”

And to my fellow PR professionals, I say: “The biggest lessons here may be about setting expectations and learning to say no to smaller budgets. The sweet spot for effective and profitable PR will be different for every agency, but make sure you know what that number is and try not to go under it. Smaller budgets lead to lower margins and unhappy (and surprised) clients.”

Social Business: Finally Here?

I very much enjoyed today’s “Awareness Exploring Social Media Business Summit,” but not for the reasons I thought I would.

The event was an excellent overview of how far we’ve come. According to Jeremiah Owyang, the opening speaker, 71% of businesses have had some form of social media program in place for more than a year (his slide deck from the program is below).

The event was also an excellent illustration of how far we have yet to go. When I saw the phrase “Social Media Business” I thought there would be more exploration of how social is moving beyond the marketing department. The Altimeter Group itself shared some interesting survey results on social’s expansion into other departments back in June (see below), but the focus of today’s program stayed very much in the marketing department.

Departments where Formalized Customer Facing Efforts Occur

That’s definitely not a bad thing — there is plenty of work left to do when it comes to realizing the full potential of social media marketing. And as a PR guy, I should be happy about where we are. But so much of my success as a PR pro is dependent on the quality and reputation of the company or product I’m promoting — and that can only be helped by involving more than just the marketing department.

Those of you interested in continuing the conversation outside the marketing department should tune in to Tuesday’s Social Product Innovation Summit and SPIKE Awards event, being sponsored by the Social Media Club and Fresh Ground client Kalypso, among others. The free virtual program starts at 11am and runs through 3pm — sign up at http://www.spikesummit.com/, even if you can only make part of the program!

Five Years of Social

What did we do before Facebook? Before Twitter? Before most of what we think of as social media and smart phones and all of today’s connected technologies existed?

Five years ago, much of what we think of today as social media was either in its early days or still stuck on a whiteboard somewhere.

Five years ago, we felt the same pain that we do today. We felt overwhelmed by new media (there were millions of blogs in 2006). Our filters sucked only slightly more than they do today.

Five years ago, I had the honor of being there, at least in a virtual sense, for the first meeting of the Social Media Club, or at least the meeting that started it all. Chris Heuer and Kristie Wells sat down with Todd Defren, Brian Solis, Sally Falkow, Tom Abate, Seth Mazow, Tom Foremski, Mark Nowlan, Jen McClure, Pat Meier-Johnson, Russell JohnsonShannon Clark, Lisa Chung, myself and (also virtually) Jason Baptiste to talk about the changes that social media was bringing.

In November of that same year, a group of about 100 of us teamed up with the Society for New Communications Research and hosted our first Boston meeting of the club. Jen was there, as well as Chris Heuer, and we were joined by a great group of Boston folks, including the following folks who really helped get the word out and share their thoughts: Adam Weiss, Adam Zand, Alison Raymond, Amanda Watlington, Barbara Rudolph, Brian Cavoli, Bryan Person, Chuck Hester, David Meerman Scott, Doug Haslam, Geoff Livingston, Mike Spataro, Paula Slotkin, Scott Monty, Susan Koutalakis, Tom Francoeur, Tony Sapienza and many others who you’ll recognize in the photos below.

In the five years that have transpired since then, so much has happened. There’s a great blog post on some of the milestones, and this great infographic from JESS3:

Social Media Club, The First Five Years

Here are some thoughts from Social Media Club Founder Chris Heuer on our 5th anniversary:

I’ll share my own thoughts on our 5th anniversary at our November 8th “Evolution of Social Business” event at IBM. I hope you’ll join me for that!

Hyper-Everything Video

Last Wednesday, the Social Media Club Boston met out in Framingham for the latest in a series of programs we’ve run touching on the intersection of journalism and social media. My business partner Chuck Tanowitz has been very passionate about the subject, so it was only natural to invite him to moderate the program. Here is the video of the program:

Social Media Club Boston June 2011 Journalism Panel: “Hyper Everything”

From the front line to the local coffee shop to the courthouse, journalism faces pressure not only to remain profitable, but to remain relevant. This panel of journalists gives an in-depth discussion of the pressures and possibilities facing the journalism profession today.

Our panelists included:

* Ed Medina (@surfermedina), Director of Multimedia Development, Boston Globe and Boston.com
* Kristin Burnham (@kmburnham), Staff Writer, CIO.com
* Tom Langford (@tom_langford), Reporter, NECN
* Adam Kaufman (@AdamMKaufman), New Media Contributor, NESN.com

The event was sponsored by IDG and Business Wire. Thank you to both for their continued support of the Social Media Club Boston!

What did you think?

ADDED JUNE 27:
After the event, IDG’s Colin Browning interviewed Chuck to dive a little deeper in a few areas. Here is a recording of that interview:

TechCrunch, Texting While Driving, Are Hatchbacks Back?: Fresh Ground Podcast #23

The Fresh Ground Podcast will return to its regularly scheduled Mondays (hopefully) next week, but in the meantime, please enjoy Todd’s guest appearance on another great podcast that has resumed after an even longer break than our summer one: PRobecast. Launched under Doug Haslam’s watch at Topaz Partners, Tech PR Gems grew to become a well respected podcast before suffering from “I have a day job” syndrome, as many podcasts do.

PRobecast episode #91 featured special guest Todd Van Hoosear along with Topazers Alison Raymond, Joanna DiTrapano, Tony Sapienza and Evan Siff talking about the recent purchase AOL made, content curation, texting while driving, hatchbacks, etc. Here are the issues we covered:

Has Social Network Content Creation Plateaued – Research from Forrester is saying that while social media use is on the rise, social media content creation has shown no measureable growth over the past year. Are you a creator or a curator?

When it’s the Case of TMI, Curation is Key – Paul Gillin recently had an article in B2B Magazine talking about the importance of not just creation, but curation. There is almost too much information out there – and to find the important things, you must find ways to sort through all the information coming in.

AOL’s New Purchase: TechCrunch – AOL bought TechCrunch for around 40 million dollars. What does this mean for the future of TechCrunch. Can they really be unbiased when owned by a public company?

Bye, Bye Texting While Driving – There has been a lot of discussion over the texting ban. 30 states and the District of Columbia have banned it. However, research has been finding that since the ban, crash rates rose as people where trying to go “under the radar” while still texting. Living in a society that is always connected, what do you think of these bans?

Can RIM’s PlayBook Run Up Against the iPad? – RIM recently announced a new tablet called the PlayBook. This seems to be the most similar competitor to the iPad. Do you think the PlayBook has a chance against the giant that is Apple?

Are Hatchbacks Cool? – Ford has reported that 60-percent buyers are opting for the new Ford Fiesta hatchback, stating that just over 8-percent of cars last year were hatchbacks. Is the hatchback a new trend?

Listen Now:

Vote for the Fresh Ground Blog!

We need your help. The Fresh Ground blog has been nominated as one of the Best Up-and-Coming blogs in the PR world and we need your help to win. Voting started today, Wednesday, and continues through Tuesday, June 22. If you’ve found this blog interesting and useful over the past couple of months, please link over to Communications Conversations and drop in a vote for us. We’d really appreciate the help.

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PR: Whose Minds are You Changing?

A few days ago I wrote about change, and how “social media, if done right, is first and foremost an exercise in change management.”

I was speaking about changing how businesses operate and communicate, but if you look at PR in a more specific sense, it’s about changing minds (and subsequently creating action).

Often, it’s not the minds of customers and prospects that good PR practitioners need to start with — in reality, a good PR practitioner concentrates on changing minds (and processes) inside the organization first. This can be a challenge, but is critical not only to ensure success, but in reality, given where PR is evolving, to make sure that PR practitioners remain relevant as the media landscape continues to shift.

Whose minds are YOU changing?

Manish Mehta on the Social Grid, Shiny Objects & Three Mile Island: Fresh Ground #16

Manish Mehta is Vice President, Global Online for Dell Online, where he heads up strategy, social media, community and search worldwide. As one of the founders of Dell.com, he has been a key player in Dell’s evolution. This is the second excerpt from Manish’s keynote at last month’s NewComm Forum, in which he draws parallels between the rise of social media and the rise of nuclear power. In this part, he describes the value of social grid and the risk of shiny object syndrome, and asks us what our Three Mile Island will be.

Listen Now:

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Our opening music is “D.I.Y.” by A Band Called Quinn from the album “Sun Moon Stars” and is available from Music Alley, the Podsafe Music Network.

Manish Mehta on the Nuclear Option: Fresh Ground #15

A little less that two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel on how big and small sized companies made the culture shift necessary to realize success in the world of the truly social company. The panelists were Andrew Sinkov of Evernote, and Manish Mehta, one of the original founders of Dell.com and VP of social media and community there.

Due to the #ashtag incident, the original keynoter, Neville Hobson, was unable to attend the event, and Manish was asked to step up and present, which he did. His story, in which he draws parallels between the rise of social media and the rise of nuclear power, was provocative and thoughtful, and we’re including an excerpt of it as this week’s Fresh Ground podcast. You can catch the full audio on the Fresh Ground blog.

The keynote will also be featured in an upcoming For Immediate Release Sessions & Speakers episode.

So here are some excerpts from the first part of Manish’s presentation on measuring social media and business value:

Listen Now:

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Our opening music is “D.I.Y.” by A Band Called Quinn from the album “Sun Moon Stars” and is available from Music Alley, the Podsafe Music Network.

Reagan Gray on the Advertising Shift: Fresh Ground #11

For over 20 years Reagan Gray has worked in the advertising industry, helping businesses of all types find and talk to the right target audiences. Prior to moving to Boston a few years ago, Reagan owned an ad agency in southern California that is still thriving. Now, she’s bringing her creative thinking and integrated viewpoint to the region.

Fresh Ground Principal Chuck Tanowitz had a chance to speak with Reagan about her current projects and perspective on the shift going on in the advertising industry today.

Some of the more interesting excerpts:

“Clients are seeing … social media as this great way to get into the marketplace, but they’re doing it … haphazardly and we think they’re really missing an opportunity to extend their brand….”

“[Social] media [is] advertising…. You can control [it], to a certain extent, and you can make it work for you … just as hard as your offline or paid media.”

“Your … creative people [need to ensure that your social media] brand matches and complements … the website.”

“The reason why SuperBowl ads are still expensive is because they work.”

“[Broadcast] ads have to work a little harder. Ads don’t just create top-of-mind awareness…. They’re becoming much more interactive….”

“You shouldn’t buy anything unless you’ve got a great creative direction.”

About the Fresh Ground Podcast: Each week, we feature 10 minutes of insights from people driving change in today’s competitive business and media landscape. We talk about the evolving worlds of media, public relations, marketing and business, with a special focus on creating more social organizations.

Listen Now:

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Our opening music is “D.I.Y.” by A Band Called Quinn from the album “Sun Moon Stars” and is available from Music Alley, the Podsafe Music Network.