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Charles on… anything that comes along

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Filed under: — Charles @ 4:29 pm

How PR fail works. Or fails to work.

Hot on the heels of Kevin Braddock, who posted (and then rescinded) a long list of PRs who had sent him annoying emails, I’ve been noticing a rise in the number of rubbish emails - badly targeted, irrelevant, trivial, stupid - that have been landing in my inbox.

The cause, as we all know, is companies that gather lists of journalists, assign vague labels (”technology”) and then pimp those lists to all sorts of PR companies. Meaning that the puzzled (to begin with) journalists get bombarded with emails about all sorts of “technology” topics, from heavy plant machinery to web apps for diets to which company has won a contract to do the voice and computer networking for Company X. (The latest to annoy me again in this way is Cision, which keeps pimping my email in this way. I really dislike them. I’ve search my very large email repository for emails sent via Cision, and NOT A SINGLE ONE has been useful or relevant. That’s quite a non-achievement.)

This is always done with no regard or interest or even checking as to whether the journalist is interested, or has ever written about this topic. That’s because, of course, it costs the PR nothing to send the email; the annoyed journalists’ wasted time simply doesn’t show up on the balance sheet. (One can make similar points about environmental degradation and the economy, but that might be conflating the trivial and the important.) An economist would tell you that the journalist and the environment both fall into that plain category of “externalities”, aka “I don’t mind, and you don’t matter”.

So here’s how I explained it to a PR person in an email. I’d asked them to stop sending me their irrelevant rubbish. The PR person wrote back with what he thought was a stout defence.

PR person: I sent this release to you on the basis that your readers might be interested in how a company like XXXorganises its [computer] network, despite this type of story not being your main focus.

In other words, what the PR person was saying was this: “Despite the fact that you’ve never written about the topic, haven’t written anything else that looks like that subject, and haven’t written anything about any of the other scores of emails that we’ve sent you. It was just nice and easy and since you didn’t come round to our offices and actually kick us, you must have been really enjoying receiving them.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Should I spam every PR company with requests for interviews with everyone I want to talk to - film stars, rock musicians, top technologists - even if those PR companies don’t handle those sorts of clients or subjects? Should I send out an email every week to every PR person and company in my contacts book saying “Look, I’d really like an interview with Steve Jobs, Jonny Ive, Sergey Brin and Larry Page - can you sort that out?”

No, because it would be a complete waste of time for virtually everyone. But it would be trivially easy - I could set up a computer script that would do it without my interaction. Or I could just put a few different names in each week.

Imagine what it would be like to be in PR: as a recipient, you’d ignore it at first, but if every journalist did it, you might find it wearying. And then you might begin by asking the journalist to stop.

It should be so simple: know the journalist (by reading what they write about), then determine the email that they might be interested in receiving. But the externality problem in PRs and journalists is huge. I’ve written about it before. I just wish that some of the people who send out these pointless emails would stop, but of course it’s the worst ones who ignore it, and it’s the worst practitioners who pimp ever-expanding lists of email addresses. Sturgeon’s Law is alive and well.

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