NY Times Takes Aim at PR Industry Practices: And We Deserve It

By on Wednesday, December 11, 2013

New York Times Haggler columnist David Segal recently called out the entire public relations industry for its spammy email tactics. And it was a trouncing our industry deserved. For far too long, PR flacks have extracted thousands of email addresses for reporters from expensive databases that they subscribe to, and then blast-emailed out news releases, in an often futile hope that if they hit everyone, perhaps one will bite. Like Segal, many journalists I know complain about the volume of PR industry spam they receive on a daily basis. There is little rhyme or reason to what they are sent. The spam onslaught is so bad that it often makes it difficult for them to find the real information they need to do their jobs. Segal’s solution to the PR spam avalanche assaulting his in-box was to call the companies – like Vocus, Cision and others who collect reporter contact information and package it in databases that they sell to public relations professionals, companies, nonprofits, and anyone willing to pay the big bucks – and politely request that his contact information be removed from their systems. He found it pretty difficult to reach anyone but appears to have been successful. While his solution may work for the short- run, it won’t help for the long game and it won’t help the majority of reporters who don’t take the time to call those numbers. The reality is that what will solve the PR spam email problem is a big fat wake up call in the PR industry. Abuse of the lists generated by media databases is happening because people are either a. too lazy to decipher the lists and sort out who is best at each outlet (FYI – many of these databases have tools that can help you do that, and many of these databases also have errors so lists must be checked before they are used), or b. want to say to their clients that they pitched xyz number of reporters at top tier outlets because they hope that saying a big number was pitched, means the client won’t notice that only a couple of reporters liked the story idea. I also think that some of the tendency to abuse the lists – esp. the lists that include top tier journalists like Segal at the New York Times – is because clients have a very unrealistic expectation of what type of PR a story can generate. Every client wants to be on the front page of a major newspaper, or the lead story on the news, but few realize that the stories they want to tell rarely will get them in those places. This is where setting expectations with the client is a key part of our role as PR counselors. The days of telling clients their release went to xyz tens of thousands of reporters should be long past us. I sat on a conference call a couple of years ago with a potential partner for a client where someone bragged about being able to spam blast email to 300,000 journalists and asked how big my list was. As if this was a  duel to see who could spam the most reporters?! My advice to the client was to run like heck  before these guys scorch your good reputation. There are times when an announcement needs to travel far and wide (and news releases need to be distributed to the appropriate people who cover a particular topic), but good media relations is relationship-driven and built on authentic interactions with reporters, not just blast emails cast far and wide.  Our industry deserved the drumming it got from the NY Times, and we all should strive to do better.
Creative Commons licensed image. Getting email spammed by PR people is not appetizing, says  David Segal of the New York Times. Thanks to Creative Commons for this licensed image.

Ami Neiberger-Miller is a public relations strategist and writer. She is the founder of Steppingstone LLC, a virtual and independent public relations practice near Washington, D.C. that provides public relations counsel, social media advice, writing services, and creative design work for publications and websites (portfolio). Ami blogs frequently about media relations, social media, public relations and other issues. She also reviews books on her blog about public relations, nonprofit life, work-family balance and social media practice. Follow her on Twitter @AmazingPRMaven.

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