Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When publicists spam other publicists

Publicists have to be social media mavens, but they are finding out, along with the rest of the world, that "old school" bad PR habits get them hung out to dry on Twitter and blogs. They can't get away with it anymore.

Just a week ago, PaidContent.org founder Rafat Ali declared war on "Vocus PR and its scummy PR practices," even suggesting people look up "Vocus spam" on Google -- he wasn't kidding about the results.

Brandweek editor Todd Wasserman tweeted: "FYI to pr folk: If I get a call asking if I received so and so, I always say yes just to rush the person off the phone."

I know first-hand why journalists feel this way because I get my occasional spam from PR firms. I'm only a mild case compared to the avalanche other lucky PR bloggers find in their in-boxes.

Not only are ignorant publicists baiting professional journalists to roast them publicly for their sins, but they are begging to get it from their own kind too.

This is my definition of spam: impersonal e-mail blasts that contain completely irrelevant information.

Yet, as you'll see, there are publicists who think this practice is perfectly acceptable.

PR spam originated from two technological advances: the ability to form groups in e-mail software, and companies like Cision and Vocus which can easily compile media e-mail addresses and export them in Excel format. Even a third grader can cut and paste an Excel list column into Outlook and let it rip by pressing Send.

However, bloggers and reporters have made it no secret over and over again that they can't stand PR spam-filled e-mail boxes. What makes publicists think other publicists don't feel the same way?

I have a simple method of handling PR spam. It's probably far more time consuming than anybody else would do, but I feel I have to make an educational point and it's far less messy than hiring "Johnny Knuckles" from Bayonne.

1) I reply to the sender politely: "Why did you send this release to me?"

Almost all of the time, they reply with a rousing explanation about the press release's importance.

2) I then ask them if they've ever read my blog.

Most of the time, that results in silence.

3) If I am feeling a little more ambitious, I'll actually look up the firm and drop a line to whoever is in charge, asking them if they knew their staff was sending out spam, that this is why reporters despise many publicists, and shouldn't they be enforcing proper media relations instead of shotgun missives? I ask them if it's OK if I blog about it.

Almost unanimously, they shoot back apologies, agree with me, and beg to not be mentioned in my blog. One even called me.

I figured it would be a noble ideal if I let a supervisor know that this is a surefire way to be ostracized, there may be a little less PR spamming in the world. Touching, but true.

Last week, I had a typical PR spam from a JAG Entertainment account executive, who sent out an e-mail blast addressed to "Hey!" and plugged her boss' new Chicken Soup for the Soul book with an attached press release. When I asked why she sent me the press release, she took a different, more direct route: she said she found me on a list of PR bloggers on Cision. Of course, when I asked if she'd ever read my blog, no reply was forthcoming.

When I e-mailed her boss Jo-Ann Geffen about receiving the spam and why this hurts our image in the eyes of the press, she shot back: I hardly consider this spam. [Name of account executive] is extremely capable and there are hundreds of thousands of blogs. It is unlikely that ANYONE could read all of them. Perhaps you should notify Cision to take you off their lists.

Unfortunately, it's not Cision's fault that I am on their list. I do believe it is the fault of lazy supervisors and executives who find sending out e-mail blasts easy but teaching and enforcing the basics of media relations hard.

Do you pitch TV and radio shows blindly without knowing a thing about them? That's a PR 101 concept that still stands today -- watch the show so you know what it's about before you pitch them. Same thing with blogs and every other form of media.

My fellow PR bloggers have their own thoughts about handling our own profession's saboteurs:

The Flack's Peter Himler: I usually ignore them, but if the pitch is so annoying I'd write them
back and ask "why would I ever report this? Do you read my blog? Next time do your homework. In rare cases, I'd post or tweet about it. I might include the offending publicist's client or place of work.

PR Squared's Todd Defren: I ignore 'em. They make me sad. I used to reply but the volume of nonsensical inquiries became too much to do anything but ignore.

PR 2.0's Brian Solis: I'm deluged with horrible pitches by PR professionals who contribute to the stereotype. I delete them, I suppose until I finally get pushed over the edge. However,
please do note, that I proactively write about how to do PR better as a positive means of teaching these individuals how to do their job better...I don't see them reading the posts however.


George Mc Quade said...

Not sure if you got the definition down right, but we all get Spam, but it is not from a PR Pro who does not have a prior relationship or has sent email pitches in the past and editors have used in their stories.

Stuff like Viagra, Bio crap medicene,
how to grow a bigger, well you know,
and how to get rich or higher in a search engine stuff I consider Spam. Some of us, without dating myself remember eating the awful Spam (meat) sandwhiches.
But the true definition is:
a canned meat made largely from pork
send unwanted or junk e-mail
unwanted e-mail (usually of a commercial nature sent out in bulk)

Welcome to new age. There are Spam filters that take care of junk email, just there is a garbage can for stories we do not want to read in the paper when we are done reading.

Not to pick on Vocus, but there are ton of them that do what Vocus does, whether its Regan Communications out of Chicago, or
Cision or Vocus. Media, it is a different story.

Thanks for your story of reminding us to hit the Spam button, again.

Gill Kingston-Warren said...

May I intervene on behalf of the PRs?
My team uses Vocus and we have had huge issues with the system because it is ridiculously out of date in terms of search criteria and accuracy. However, on closer inspection of software systems there are few alternatives that offer global packages.

Please be aware that as the media landscape changes and redundancies in traditional media are rife, all software packages rely on their clients to update their records and if they don't then the software 'researchers' place the 'next best contact' in that search criteria...often the editor and the last person at that title you wish to bother. Blacklisting is becoming a significant problem for clients of these software companies because there is no diligence on behalf of the software company to protect the reputation of the client.

PR agencies and in house PR's do not want to spam you. This is not our intention and it is as much a waste of our time as it is yours.

One element that is fueling the spam is that many newspapers have banned postal press releases and newspaper post rooms are just pulping press packs and press releases that come in. The only alternative is to fill a box of product and place your collateral inside. This is costly and even more wasteful than sending a letter.

One thing I have noted in our social media age is that people today feel more confident pressing 'send' than picking up the phone. I have detected rampant phone phobia in my career and the lack of wit or determination to a) read the journalist's work or b)get off their backsides and make the effort to go and meet these people has created a 'send' culture. I force my team to buy every single UK national newspaper and relevant magazine because ignorance costs me commercially. Every Monday in team meetings I test them on their current knowledge and identify their gaps. You would be amazed at how many people with 'PR' in their job title rarely pick up what I would consider essential reading for their role.

I loathe the idea my team spam and by using Vocus I can at least pull their search lists out and demonstrate how poorly they are managing their housekeeping. As Vocus strains under the changes in media this is the one tool I can deploy to make sure spamming is ket to a minimum.

Vocus, Cision and Gorkana all offer what I consider a portal and not a means to and end. If my team consider a job completed by pressing 'send' then they often find themselves in a very uncomfortable meeting with me.

The software companies need to clean up their act but the team leaders in PR need to take responsible steps to engage professionally with their journalist colleagues.


Gill Kingston-Warren
Head of Public Relations