Monday, June 16

Taking Responsibility: Public Relations Spam 2

I have developed a great relationship with Kevin Goodman over the last year, mostly because he tends to ask the right questions. Not many people do that. And for Goodman, the issue of public relations spam is no exception.

Goodman suggests that if public relations spam exists, then why would journalists accept major newswire services, which basically “blast” releases all over the place? And, given this, why wouldn’t a public relations firm simply buy their databases and build their own lists?

Easy. PR Newswire doesn’t really blast anything. It’s a passive service, where journalists can go for story leads and get a quick snapshot of insights into specific industries. Contrary, the single release, especially if it is off target, doesn’t provide a service.

The difference between the two can be likened to visiting a company Web site or being pelted by junk e-mails every day.

So while these services create the illusion that there are thousands of journalists looking for releases, the reality is that none of them are looking for releases at all. They are looking for stories — preferably good ones that haven’t appeared everywhere else.

While a few releases do result in good stories, the vast majority only contain information that a company or public relations professional considers news and not necessarily what a journalist or various publics might consider news. Again, the difference is as vast as junk mail. The companies who send it never consider their own mailers junk; they consider it a valuable service in delivering offers that consumers would have to be stupid to refuse.

Maybe there is too much “I” think in public relations and not enough “publics” think, which is what journalists tend to have.

In other words, some (not all) public relations professionals focus so much on column inches and inclusion counts that they forget the needs of their various publics. Once one understands which publics might be interested in any particular news story (assuming it is news), then finding the right publications (and the right journalists working for those publications) becomes much more effective, especially if you can narrow it down to a handful.

Revisiting Chris Anderson at Wired and others who ban releases from select companies and public relations firms.

I’ve said this before, but in reality, Anderson didn’t set a precedent. Editors and journalists have been ignoring and banning releases for years. His post just happened to be noticed because he published the e-mails of those firms he considered spam. I would not have done that, but I don’t fault him for his decision.

Goodman goes a step further in questioning if Anderson’s post that outed alleged public relations spammers last October could be libelous.

Addressing the question in depth would require another post, but a truncated view is simply not in the least. Factual accuracy is the ultimate defense against libel. And, the First Amendment protects any opinions. It’s more than fair for Anderson to critique releases.

And sure while anyone who has served as an editor knows they will receive a certain amount of spam, they are under obligation to gleefully accept it, offer pointers, or run it. It’s not their job.

I think it’s great that some editors do take the time to do it, and those who make such investments are providing gifts, not necessarily setting a standard.

In sum, the real shift in public relations begins with responsibility and not necessarily responsibility for the industry. Just because your client wants you to send non-news, doesn’t mean you have to. Just because someone says they have a list doesn’t mean it’s worth the paper it’s printed on. Just because you have a list, doesn’t mean you have to send everything to everyone. And just because someone says something about an industry, doesn't mean you have to own it.

There are plenty of bad ads out there. Most ad agencies aren't bothered by them beyond their front door.



Anonymous said...

Thanks Rich,

I do consider your friendship to be mentoring so I especially appreciate the kind words.

Just for the record I certainly understand Chris Anderson’s anger in receiving spam. I don’t make any attempt to justify it. However even spam is legal so long as certain regulations are met – , valid content, valid email, and opt out option. Chris indicates malicious intent by saying “If their address gets harvested by spammers by being published here, so be it” and it's certainly meant to be humiliating. The issue that I think deserves to be looked at and could have implications is ‘privacy rights’ as they apply to private individuals or companies and as they apply to public personalities and media outlets. That’s a complex subject -

All said and as you yourself indicate the real problem are the ton of press releases being sent that have absolutely no merit.

As for PR Newswire, they’re certainly top there game. They’re still happy to sell you a media database that boast near half a million contacts through there subsidiary MediaAtlas, complete with distribution software. I’m sure if this information is used properly then it has high value – but narrowing half a million contacts to a specific beat still makes for a big list and mistakes are bound to happen.

Back to Chris Anderson – two wrongs don’t make it right. I would be curious what some of those press releases read like and how those companies came to add Chris Andersons email to their list. I would be embarrassed to be on that list and isn’t that what it’s about?

Rich on 6/17/08, 1:24 PM said...

Hey Kevin,

Our friendship will never change; I am sure of it.

In regard to Anderson, I guess I've come to the conclusion that the end all answer in working with journalists is that I cannot control, expect, etc. anything they do. All I can do is change my behavior, and that is what I advise public relations professionals. So what? I say. What can I do about it. In Anderson's case it's simple. He outlined what he likes and does not like so I listen and adjust.

Certainly, it would be embarrassing for most to be on that list. So the goal is never to make such a list. Anderson did not put everyone up ... just those who repeatedly sent stuff that did not apply to him (at least, that is my understanding). But regardless, we all make mistakes sometimes. I've learned the hard way from time to time too. It's part of life.

At the end of the day, I do not think anyone working with journalists can ever hope to consider themselves exempt from coverage as private people. I had this discussion recently with someone who spoke to a reporter to provide "back grounder" information. He was quoted, and upset by that fact.

The problem with that thinking is that any communication with a reporter is really fair game ... even those "off the record" moments, which ultimately is left up to the reporter to agree to or not, break or not. So I always suggest, just don't do it.

You're right that it has become complex subject, but not because it deserve to be. I think we're seeing more perception projection on journalists than ever before.

And yes, we agree that there is too much non news being sent to journalists so those who send it might reconsider what they are doing. I have no doubt you weigh what you send and to whom.

Anonymous said...


On this matter I think there is something else worth mentioning.

We see in both PR text and Marketing Text the encouragement of campaigns putting out regular releases. I think the philosophy is that if you’re not doing anything newsworthy then you’re not holding a strong market advantage.

I actually prescribe to this train of thought. I am however changing my ‘ideal’ strategy. I’ll look for something to say but the majority of those releases don’t merit being sent – they make good on the website or else a PR website. If someone is interested they can find it. For those very important and actual news events I’ll use our database and fax-email distribution – but I’m going to attempt to narrow my list down to the point that I review each individual entry. And something’s deserve consideration but not necessarily with every one so – So I am shifting to a multi – tier and more conscientious approach. I value the information in the databases but I think it is best utilized towards building relationships as you advocated.

Rich on 6/17/08, 4:49 PM said...


There is something to be said for regular releases, but not all releases need to be sent everywhere. With so many communication vehicles, there are many ways to demonstrate movement in the market without sending out every release.

Some releases, especially softer news, might be perfect for a blog or even Web site press room or perhaps sent to a limited number of publications with a specific interest. All of these communication tactics can later be used by journalists as back grounders for that screams it needs to be covered.

So basically, from what you just said, you are well on your way to developing a great communication strategy using varied tactics that all lead your company in the same direction. And sometimes, these other approaches can surprise you and lead to coverage you never expected.

Several of my posts here, for example, have been sourced by major media outlets. None of those posts sourced would have made a worthwhile news release, imo. However, it's all part of public relations (with the publics not so narrowly defined as media) or, more accurately, in integrated communication with outcomes in mind.

To me, that makes a lot more sense than worrying about how many column inches I picked up last month. I mapped out what we do for my class last Spring. Maybe I'll post it sometime.

Overall, what we do works long term because we do have tier system based on news value. The simplest version is thinking of a sliding scale ... non-news to hard news ... and then considering distribution based on that. Some stories are good for a blog, some for a blog and Web site, some for blog and Web site and newswire (budget pending), some for all of those plus limited release to 50 hand picked journalists or so, etc. etc. At the end, I have more than 25+ communication options for my clients as opposed to one.



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