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.”

Todd Van Hoosear

About Todd Van Hoosear

Todd’s love of technology started as a child, when his dad would bring home chips and switches from his work in the electronics industry that would feed his imagination for years. Combining a stint as an IT guy with his education in PR and communication, Todd has helped clients in the engineering, mobile, cloud, networking, consumer technology and consulting spaces bring new ideas – and new takes on old ideas – to the market.

Learn more about Todd

Comments

  1. Todd, you’ve painted a rosy picture of PR spammers which is not deserved. I’ve been getting increasing amount of PR from companies that don’t understand anything I write. It’s a waste of my time, their resources, and client’s money. How is this good?

    I just requested to be removed for these databases as I realized I was listed on them without my permission.

    The article David Segal wrote is not about social media btw. Also say what you want about him but he writes for the NYTimes, you don’t.

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