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Can PR Spam Be Stopped?

Any journalist or blogger will admit to receiving a lot of off-topic pitches and press releases. Some would classify this information as “PR spam” – others would just complain that PR pros are lazy and don’t take the time to learn what they write about, or approach a pitch unprepared. They’re right. I haven’t met a journalist yet that didn’t have a couple of war stories about how bad the problem of PR spam is. Some areas are better than others – for example, financial reporters seem to receive more relevant information than technology journalists, perhaps due to the tighter restrictions around public information.

On the other side of the table, most PR professionals you talk to will tell you that they do their best to only pitch relevant information to journalists and that push-back they receive is the result of catching a journalist on a bad day. Many will admit to sending off-topic information or spam pitches at some point in their career – many have learned from these mistakes, many have not. You’ll always have a couple of bad eggs that resort to pitching journalists cold – playing the numbers game, in hopes that somebody will respond and want to write about the “news” they are pitching.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about new solutions entering the market that will address the problem of PR spam head on. I’ll talk about some of those solutions in upcoming posts – and I recently wrote a post about MatchPoint’s new solution as one example of a new product trying to stop PR spam. Some bloggers have already taken this issue into their own hands, publishing lists of PR spammers – in an attempt to help other bloggers eliminate the problem with the email filter. You’d have to be living under a rock the past year or so to miss those examples, so no need to reference them all again in this post.

As a public relations professional, I’m encouraged to see some smart people working on this problem. We’re kicking around quite a few ideas at Journalistics along these lines. When it’s all said and done though, we can’t help but wonder if PR spam be stopped? Regardless of the intention of the solution brought to market, there will always be room for abuse. As we’ve seen with solutions like HARO (Help A Reporter Out), you can reduce the amount of off-topic pitches, but you can’t eliminate them all together. I’ve seen several firm reminders from Peter Shankman about the rules of engagement for HARO – and he’s more than hinted that some PR people have had their right to use the service revoked.

Why do people still pitch off-topic information to journalists and bloggers? I don’t know the answer, but I can guess at a couple of possible reasons:

  • Some PR people really are lazy – clients want results, there are only so many hours in a day, so take a pitch or release and send it to every journalist who covers that beat. This approach is only used because it must work some of the time. Just as spammers send enlargement offers because they know 1 in 10,000 people will respond, so too do some PR people target a list of 200 journalists in hopes that one will give them one more placement for the monthly status report.
  • Some PR people really don’t know better – inexperience – either from do-it-yourself-pr folks, or junior level staffers just getting started, just don’t realize they are spamming a journalist when they send information they don’t write about. You can’t just pitch Chris Anderson in hopes that he’ll blog about you – because he writes about tech stuff. Experienced PR pros know you can’t just “smile and dial” nowadays. They also know that a new entry-level hire probably doesn’t know this. If they put a junior staffer or intern on a pitch, they won’t be scared to call the editor-in-chief of Wired with a pitch (and they certainly won’t think twice about sending an email). While many firms do invest heavily in media relations training, others are happy to throw a body at the pitch to see what happens. It’s been like this for too long.
  • It’s too easy – many clients don’t know the difference between press release pickup and real publicity. It’s too easy to blast a press release out on a traditional or social release platform and quickly accumulate dozens of “placements” for a client. They show up in Google News Alerts instantly, and a lot of clients see this as buzz. Now there are some arguments for direct-to-consumer releases, but that’s a different topic for a different post. For the most part, distributing a release for the pickup is laziness if it is the only effort behind generating results. Some firms really do this. There are also far more tools to researching, targeting and mass-distributing information to journalists and bloggers than there are tools to help recipients process – or block, filter – that information.
  • Even when you do the legwork, there’s no guarantee – to properly research and target an outlet or journalist takes time. It can take weeks or months to truly understand the needs of a specific journalist or blogger, not to mention have the perfect timing and pitch when you connect for the first time. This is discouraging for most PR pros, who are overworked across too many clients – all of whom expect weekly results. Just pitch it and hope for the best.
  • Few have relationships – the easiest way to connect with journalists and bloggers is through an established relationship. Few have solid relationships, because you need ongoing interaction for this. Unless you work for a major brand – where your news is always in demand – it’s difficult to build those relationships. It takes a genuine commitment to being the best to follow through on building lasting relationships – few have the patience or time to do this. As a result, many opt for paper-thin or transparent attempts – complimenting a journalist on a story and immediately following up with a pitch for example. This is ineffective and does nothing but sour the relationship from the beginning. In some circles, this appears to be getting better. Journalists, bloggers and PR pros alike are discussing new and exciting ways to work together. These efforts are promising to say the least.

So while new solutions coming to market can help to curb bad behavior from the few PR pros who still do things the wrong way, there will always be enough that will continue to do things the way they always have. That is, until they get called out on it via a blog post of email addresses, a blacklist or Tweet. PR spam hurts everyone involved in the news-gathering process. It makes it harder for journalists and bloggers to do their jobs. And it makes it much more difficult for true, professional PR pros to pitch their stories and to build meaningful relationships with the media.

Can PR spam be stopped? If so, how? Why do some PR pros still spam journalists and bloggers? Do journalists and bloggers have adequate tools to help them evaluate and process the information they receive from PR pros, or are blacklists and spammer lists the best option? What do you think?

About Jeremy Porter

Jeremy Porter is co-founder and editor of Journalistics, a lively blog about public relations and journalism topics.