PR’s Dirty Little Secret

As the web has made communicating with reporters and editors extremely easy, breaking through and getting a journalist’s attention using the email methods everyone else uses has become increasingly difficult. These days, anyone can find the email addresses of reporters in seconds, either through services that sell subscriptions to their databases of thousands of journalists or simply by using a search engine.

While getting through to the press is no longer a problem for public relations people at companies and agencies, now PR people have something far worse to deal with: Journalists increasingly view PR people as nothing more than spam artists. To paraphrase the Wikipedia entry, spam is sending email that is both unsolicited by the recipient and sent in substantively identical form to many recipients. Unfortunately, way too many PR people are spamming journalists with unsolicited and unrelenting commercial messages in the form of news releases and untargeted broadcast pitches.

You probably get email like this: “I am Mrs. Ivanka Petroslovka and my late husband was oil minister of the Ukrane and I want to send you $24,000,000 (US dollar twenty four million only).” Or “Click Here For Viagra!” This stuff fills up inboxes because it is free to send millions of emails, and if just one person responds, the spammer is successful. Unfortunately, much of the “information” journalists get from PR people has little more value than scam and pharmaceutical spam. It is PR spam. It takes the form of a broadcast email message, with the uninspired and uninformative subject line: “Press Release About Our New Product!” which is sent to a huge number of journalists with the hope that some poor sucker on deadline will respond. In the case of PR spam, if one reporter out of a thousand writes something, the PR person was “successful” even if 999 reporters were annoyed and put the company onto a mental blacklist.

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail, recently lamented that he gets 300 emails a day—and he’s had enough. He’s blocked PR people who spam him and has even published a list of the email addresses of violators on a post titled Sorry PR People: You’re blocked. On the list, hundreds of blocked email addresses are representatives of some of the largest PR agencies in the world such as Edelman, Weber Shandwick, Waggener Edstrom, and Fleishman Hillard. Anderson says, “So fair warning: I only want two kinds of email: those from people I know, and those from people who have taken the time to find out what I’m interested in and composed a note meant to appeal to that (I love those emails; indeed, that’s why my email address is public).”

I feel Anderson’s pain. I get several hundred unsolicited press releases and PR pitches every week. More than 99% of them are not targeted to me. I am on various PR lists because of this column, my blog, and as a result of my bestselling book The New Rules of Marketing & PR, so I’m getting spammed along with hundreds of other poor journalists.

OK, that’s the depressing news. The good news is that there are approaches that effectively deliver your (or your clients’) messages to reporters. The most important thing to recognize is that journalists aren’t passively waiting for something interesting to appear in their email inboxes. Instead, journalists use search engines to research stories. If companies and agencies spent as much time creating great web content as they do sending out spam, they would be much more successful. Reporters are always looking for interesting companies, products, and ideas to write about. If you have great content on your website and online media room, reporters will find you via search engines. And don’t forget that a mention in a widely read blog reaches reporters and editors, because smart journalists read these blogs for story ideas and to understand early market trends.

Try to think about ways to reach journalists that don’t take the form of one-way spam. Pay attention to what individual reporters write about by reading their stories (or even their blogs) and write specific and targeted pitches crafted especially for them. Better still, start a real relationship with reporters by commenting on their blogs, emailing a response to something they’ve covered, or sending them information that is not just a blatant pitch for your company. Become part of journalists’ network of resources rather than simply a shill for one company’s message.