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Hot on the heels of Kevin Braddock, who posted (and then rescinded) a long list of PRs who had sent him annoying emails, I’ve been noticing a rise in the number of rubbish emails – badly targeted, irrelevant, trivial, stupid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


  1. Charles said: “Should I spam every PR company with requests for interviews with everyone I want to talk to”

    Yes. Go for it. Especially if you don’t envisage needing their services in the future. What’s the worst thing that could happen – they send you more pointless emails? Fight back I tell thee.

  2. I tend to ring them* up to complain. Sure, it wastes a few minutes of my time – but it usually stops them from sending me pointless mails. You get bonus points if you can get through to someone senior by using a “I’m really interested in X” approach. They’re usually *very* keen to make sure that you don’t waste their time in future.

    *For me it’s not PRs, but people selling reports, organising dodgy conferences or trying to sell me insanely expensive equipment.

  3. What about a strategy of marking irrelevant PR emails as spam? If enough journalists do it, the PRs might start to be a bit more judicious.

  4. I see the same in my inbox,

    Topics of interest are data, food and sports (water/extreme).

    I’ve just moments ago been sent a PR release that has no text in the body, a PPT attached about a Hotel. In the past I’ve had kids toys, musical bits; and now and again a good piece I’m interested in,

    It’s worthy to note that a few PR people are always 100% right; the others are always 0% correct in their targeting.

  5. Sends: “Dear PR…”

    Inbox fills with:”Hi Charles, Thanks for your email, we cannot help set a meeting with Larry, but how about lunch with with the UK sales manager of Wessex Widgets who are about to launch a new website with an innovative interactive product selector…”

  6. This reached a new low for me today – a PR sent me a LinkedIn request, and bunged a spammy pitch in it.

    “I thought you might be interested in blogging a video about [something I can’t do anything with]…” Because hey, why bother even introducing yourself first?

  7. One good thing that has come out of the Braddock name ‘n shame thing is confirmation that poorly targeted, send to many emails just don’t work and instead irritate journalists. I hope that PRs will be able to use it as a case study to illustrate to clients exactly why long term relationship building and a proper understanding of what individual titles and journalists actually want is fundamental to success; something that takes time, and therefore patience, to achieve.
    Couple of points I did want to make though are; firstly, PRs do get tonnes of emails from journalists of all shapes and sizes via media resource tools like Response Source and Gorkana. I am aware that the difference is that we opt-in and even pay to receive these emails – however we do have to sift through a large number of them on a daily basis and do so as part of the job. And if you have ever run a PR generated story then it could be said that you too have ‘opted-in’ to the ‘sift-through’ process. Secondly not *all* PRs send you stuff. I know a mention in one of your pieces is sought after but…! So your proposal of spamming all PR agencies with requests for interviews doesn’t balance.

  8. Charles, I remember a post of yours from about 5 years ago on a similar theme. Seems PR people never get it right. Sorry on behalf of the them, seriously. But I fear the spammy PR is not just coming from the increasing number of spammy PR people, but from a new breed of agency that is playing a numbers game, and not so interested or experienced in dealing person to person and protecting the brand.

    I know what you’re feeling too because, as I have blogged about technology for a long time I also get these press releases too. A lot of them every day. The ones I see at lease are so spammy I can’t believe it. And almost none of them come from what I would call good PR firms.

    Then there’s the abstract direct messages through Twitter asking you to click on a link or comment on a client’s post as it’s interesting. Social media hasn’t done much for helping deal with the spam.

    There will always be bad PR, but there is so much more of it now. I hope you’ll agree that some PR is useful, it can help some media, bloggers and consumers get interesting info from companies that have good things to promote.

  9. Charles

    Wednesday 6 January 2010 at 9:59 pm

    @Terence – too much effort; if I were to grumble about every mistargeted email, I’d never get any work done. And it’s a systemic fault, really.

    @Tom Wills – yes, I have thought of that, but doubt enough journalists use Google Mail for it to work.

    @Neil – the frustrating thing is that the ones who are wrong are far more plentiful than the good ones. Well, it seems that way..

    @Allan – yes, you’re absolutely right: that’s how it would pan out. It was sort of the reaction of the PR person in the post when I pointed out how pointless their email was.

    @Tommy – I think you’re half right. If you’re in PR and you’re getting stuff from ResponseSource etc, ok… but that’s the equivalent of a journalist reading through loads of web pages and pieces and, er, press releases looking for the bits that will be a story. You’re looking for what you want: something to get coverage for a client. However…

    “And if you have ever run a PR generated story then it could be said that you too have ‘opted-in’ to the ’sift-through’ process.”

    Ah, no. How is it that running even one story that’s “PR-generated” (Apple launches new iPod? Google launches phone?) qualifies one to get emails about subjects one never, ever writes about? That’s far too broad.

    However your point that “not all PRs send you stuff” is absolutely correct. In the same way, there are companies which take care of the environment and do sustainable things. But the externalities are minimised there. We’re talking about situations which maximise the “harm” (very much in quote marks).

  10. Charles

    Wednesday 6 January 2010 at 10:01 pm

    @DrewB (whose comment came in while I was writing the above) – oh, agree there are good PR people and good PR companies. I treasure them. I try to nurture them. It is Sturgeon’s Law in action: I just want to find the way to filter out or reeducate the 90% who are doing it crap.

  11. Blimey, I didn’t realise quite *how* untargeted PR can be…heavy plant and IT contractors sounds horrendous!

    But, on the flipside, do you have any suggestions as to how you’d like to be approached when appropriate? Is *useful* PR an important part of being a journalist, or do you never care?

  12. I don’t dispute the reality of what you are saying (far from it), but it’s interesting that in my [too many] years working in PR I’ve read more of these blogs by journalists than I can recall, had X to the N conversations with colleagues about the problem and yet…and yet…here we still are.

    The reasons for this were discussed fairly wide-rangingly on Mr Braddock’s blog posting, so no need to reiterate here, but it’s interesting to note a potential coming shift… Given that PR 101 now states that ‘Bloggers are different! You need to be more targeted! Read their blog before pitching! Get to know their style and interests! etc etc ad infinitum, ad nauseam’, and given that we’re increasingly seeing a blurring of the lines between what constitues a blog, a forum, a news outlet, etc etc etc, perhaps we’ll see those principles extended to ‘proper’ journalists as well. Then we can all stop having this argument, and fly of to beachside idylls on the back of our flying pigs.

  13. Agree with you Charles (and Drew too). It has become much, much worse of late. It took me two whole days over the holiday period to clear this stuff out my inbox. I resorted to clicking on whole blocks of unread messages sent by the same PR firms, and hitting delete.

  14. I find this whole issue exasperating. When I was an entry level PRO, I told my boss that I wouldn’t send emails out to all and sundry. It didn’t exactly thrill them, they asked me to do it again, and I said no. I felt so strongly about this that I was prepared to risk getting the sack from a job I’d spent a year attempting to get. Sounds crazy right? PR’s are reliant on a good story/feature/pitch, but when these are sometimes questionable, a strong relationship between the PR and the journalist can help at least get it a view, a polite “no thanks”, or even some useful feedback on why its no good.

    I think PRO’s need to take a degree of responsibility when deciding which journalists to contact. Not for fear of being named and shamed, but for their own self respect and dignity. Who wants to be on the ignore list of several leading journalists or be given a hard time on the phone when pitching. Pick your battles carefully, be wise to what the media are writing about.

    I’ve written several posts on blogs recently about the issue of spamming journalists and the reasons can be many. The fact of the matter is someone, somewhere down the line is being lazy or ignorant, or even both. Be it the lazy AE sending out a release to all journalists, the lazy/ignorant AM unaware of the most relevant media contacts having now got a more senior role, or the lazy/ignorant AD, unaware and uninterested in media relations, writing plans with unachievable targets for their junior staff to hit.

    One tip I’ve given staff that I’ve worked with is this. Before pitching a story, do a Google News search on the topic in hand. Now Google News shows bylines of articles, its ridiculously easy to see who has written about X, Y, or Z in the last 24 hours, 2 days, week, month etc. Similarly, go to the publication’s website. Most have bylines that are searchable or even clickable, providing a concise history of articles written by said journalist (this obviously doesn’t work for the Beeb hehe). Seriously, though, come on guys it’s not rocket science.

  15. Phew, there’s hope yet. Now, back to getting rid of the PR spambots.

  16. I suspect this won’t change until there’s some facility for journalists to reply to ever email that is irrelevant. A simple system might involve flagging each email that is irrelevant then selecting all and replying with one message at the end of the day. 5 minute task each day and could become just one of those bits of housekeeping we all suffer.

    Even if this technique is impractical, there must be something along similar lines of logic and its the industry’s only hope. Unfortunately, repeat offenders would still likely need blocking.

    Until this happens, nothing will change because the offenders don’t read your blog Charles. They don’t read any of this stuff because they simply don’t care.

    Most industries have their cowboys but in the case of PR, there just seem to be fewer feedback mechanisms and less to lose from sending spam that costs nothing and has no consequence when inaccurately targeted.

  17. I agree with @cluretrainee. Kill Them indeed. Why not tell the world you’d prefer approaches/information via other means? i.e. Kill Email (or certain email addresses)l. You’re the boss here, the channel isn’t. Create a spam account and ask people to leave you a voicemail. That increases the cost of contact and will filter out at least some of the crap. Those good at their job ought to work by other means anyways, no? Failing that, just KILL THEM.

  18. For me it’s recruitment consultants that have an old copy of my CV and think I’ll be interested in every job outside the M25. I got a LinkedIn request from one the other day – never even spoken to her!

    Then there are the ones that call me via the company switchboard and say “Mark, I’ve been told you are someone who is very good at what you do…” – to which my response should be “Oh really? What is that?” (if they haven’t got my personal contact details then they almost certainly haven’t done any homework on me).

  19. This isn’t the first time you’ve covered the topic Charles. It’s always interesting being in the profession to see this debate and I’d like to think it inspires practitioners to concentrate on developing links and providing content for journalists, rather than sending blanket emails to try and ‘force the issue’ on behalf of a client. I will say that one of the names on that list is a colleague of mine and she is bright, educated and works 8am-10 pm every day. The problem lies not with her but with the use of ‘media lists’ in general, which clients often demand use of and time-poor account execs often don’t know any better.

    I’d like to see the CIPR strengthen training in this matter and maybe even consider a code of conduct. They could even discuss it with the NUT…

  20. To those who mention Response Source. Journos who use RS and similar target their requests as much as possible (the tick-boxes are limited to some very generic subject areas). And using RS does not mean we want the deluge of irrelevant crap that inevitably lands in our inboxes in response. No matter how targeted the request, we get nonsense. (Sometimes offering things we’ve expressly said we can’t use. “X can talk about Y, like you mention in your request,” one said to me. I had mentioned Y. I’d said I absolutely couldn’t include anything to do with it.)

    I wrote a piece on this here actually:

    Personally, I use RS as a last resort, especially if I need something at short notice. It should be a last resort for PRs, too, as should blanket-bombing journos by email. My heart goes out to the PRs faced between losing their jobs or pissing off journalists, though, as it’s not fair that you should be forced to do something you know is dumb. But when you’re freelance, as I am, a mass mail is useless. I can’t sell yesterday’s news or a story everyone and their aunt has got already.

  21. Just a quick addition to my previous comment; I don’t equate Response Source and the filtering process PRs conduct with that, to the 100s of emails Charles and other journos receive. I was just saying PRs do get loads to sift through too – but I know the volume pales by comparison so probably not a great point! There was more devil’s advocacy re: my point about ‘opting-in for the filter process’ by having at some time picked up a PR story – I was trying to say that it’s probably worth going through a few emails to pick out a PR gem (ie not an ‘Apple launches…’ but something creative) But I completely agree that it doesn’t justify shedloads of entirely off the mark pitches – we’re not vampires that once you’ve invited over the threshold etc etc
    Anyway! It’s an emotive issue because a lot of this discussion, and the way some journalists seem to think and speak about us as a group, makes PRs feel like the unwelcome smell in the room so perhaps I was a bit defensive. Previous suggestions about a code of practice and a means of proactively addressing the point would perhaps ensure that the pongy whiff is not just covered up, like Brand X, but completely removed, like what Oust does.

  22. The trouble is via all the email addresses I have set up I keep getting hundreds of emails offering services, as mentioned never of any direct interest to me or written in a way that can be taken as truly personal. I just batch delete them. Unfortunately i’m sure I miss one or two valid emails which is a shame but I can’t be bothered to even get to the end of the first line. The layout usually gives it away and bang off it goes to delete.

  23. My favourite ones start Dear Journalist. Or call me Ann, or Anna.

    One person kept emailing me about art galleries so I asked her to take me off as I didn’t write about fine art. She got in a huff and told me she’d paid a lot of money to whichever directory/service/whatever to email journos who write about art. Except I don’t. I’d ticked the “arts and entertainment” category because I write about music and film. When I gently suggested looking at people’s websites before mail-bombing them, she said she didn’t have time to look at journalists’ websites.

    Still, worked for James Max.

  24. I work in digital PR and I think this is a great post. Unfortunately, there is a real pressure, especially with social marketing, to prove to the client that there is real ROI in social media engagement, and thus you have social marketers constructing huge media lists with several versions of press releases spamming fellow professionals like yourself.
    Although this applies to a significant number of the professionals within my industry, there are a select few including myself, that still understand it is ‘earned media’, and quite frankly more often then not in this world, we get out what we put in. If I send out generic emails and press releases, this warrants the wrath of pissed off journalists as I am showing a microcosm of respect and a sheer disregard of their profession. However, taking the time to address journalists with information that provides value to them as a professional and an individual is something that digital PR and social marketers need to learn. It’s called ‘earned media for a reason’ and building a rapport is still the key, and this does not include merely ‘following’ the contact on Twitter. Globalization is not an excuse.

  25. I sympathise with reporters, I’ve been on both sides. Last year I was appointed to set up the PR side of a design agency. In the interview I made a point of saying I think contacts and developing relationships with reporters are more important than a volume of press cuttings. Quality over quantity. The clients, and initially the boss, were more than happy. Double page spread instead of a nib, actually reaching the right market. But the boss soon began to tire of it and wanted “real results”. My target, despite protesting, was set at 20 cuttings each client a month. When you’re one person running up to 8 accounts, the temptation to just say “bugger it” and mass mailout is huge. In the end I went back to journalism and writing, doing PR as and when as you feel like it.
    But if you’re just starting out and you have a boss in a PR agency saying the same thing over and over again of course you’re going to do it. PR agencies aren’t renowned for building up an individual’s confidence. They leave college armed with the science and the methodology but little practical experience and then work for bosses who mis-sell what they can offer a client just to get the money and the pressure goes on the young account exec who has no support.
    Education is going to be the thing that sorts this problem. Pushing the CIPR for regional workshops, mailouts and putting pressure on companies like Cision who are just spambots (and are rubbish as a press cuttings service as well)

1 Pingback

  1. Pingback: uberVU - social comments