CAN-SPAM and PR Pitches

I’ve thought a lot about the topic of PR and spam in recent months. Coming from a PR and marketing background, I’ve managed PR and email marketing campaigns. I understand the rules of CAN-SPAM compliance as they apply to email marketing, but not so much when it comes to the unsolicited PR pitch.

On the surface, it’s easy to assume that if a journalist or blogger hasn’t opted-in to receive information from a PR firm, it must be a violation of CAN-SPAM. If you read the CAN-SPAM guidelines on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website, you could easily see how PR messages could be considered spam by some media professionals. For example:

  • You must include an opt-out – a lot of agencies provide – and PR database vendors – provide mechanisms to be removed from a distribution list. There are many that provide no opt-out, and those that do, may not have adequate systems in place to ensure others in the organization don’t send to the email on the next campaign.
  • You can’t use misleading information in the subject line – a simple reference to “the world’s first” or “the leading company” could be interpreted as misleading, along with any other tactic that attempts to convince the journalist to open your email. But that’s nit-picking, and not really what the law is designed for, right?
  • If a recipient opts-out, their request must be processed within 10 days, and the sender must have a system in place to manage opt-outs for at least 30 days. Technically, if a journalist says “take me off your list,” you can’t send them information again for at least 30 days, regardless of the subject matter.

Do PR agencies violate CAN-SPAM? The short answer is “not really.” Journalists and bloggers do not have to opt-in to receive information from PR, but they do have the right to opt-out. The real issue with the PR spam problem is that many journalists and bloggers do not opt-out, but rather work to solve the problem on their own, creating email filtering rules or their own homegrown list of PR spammers.

If they did formally opt-out, and the agency continued to send them information, it would technically be in violation. A journalist could file a complaint with the FTC, but there is no guarantee that this would be enforced, given the fact that most agencies are not serious offenders. And most of the journalists we’ve talked to said they simply don’t have the time or desire to take such drastic measures, even though they are frequently frustrated with the amount of “PR spam” they receive.

Regardless of whether a journalist opts-out, or takes things to the extreme and files a complaint, agencies are within their right to send unsolicited emails to journalists and bloggers. However, those who have not opted-in may be more inclined to report your agency’s email as spam, potentially affecting your ability to send email with a high deliverability rate.

If an ISP (Internet Service Provider) regularly receives complaints that your email is spam (when they click the “report spam” button in some email clients), you may be added to the ISPs blacklist, and all email you send to users of that ISP will be labeled as spam.

Read on for “Best Practices for Staying Off Spam Lists”.

Best Practices for Staying Off Spam Lists

  • Make sure your pitches include an opt-out – consider using email marketing software to manage your press lists. This software will most likely comply with CAN-SPAM and guide you through the process of formatting your email communications to avoid the most common problems. Of course, this solution is best for mass distribution, which isn’t always the best PR tactic.
  • For individual communication, make sure you have a clear, descriptive subject line on your email that describes exactly what the content of your email is about. Make sure your name and organization are clear on your email, and include your physical address somewhere in the communication. It’s also a good idea to provide an opt-out contact in your signature or email footer, providing them with a mechanism to get off your list. If you provide such a mechanism, make sure you have systems in place to ensure you don’t email to that address again within 30 days of the date you receive the opt-out request.
  • Build your own opt-in lists for the industries you serve. If you work with healthcare or technology clients, offer journalists the ability to opt-in to your press distribution lists for that industry. This ensures journalists have given you permission to send them information. Again, most mainstream email marketing software can help you manage this process with minimal effort.
  • When in doubt, don’t send. If you know a particular journalist or blogger tends to have an anti-PR sentiment, don’t send to them without their permission. As a general rule of thumb, you should only send relevant information to the journalist or blogger you are targeting. While this may seem common sense, it’s not always common practice.
  • Don’t assume that email addresses in your PR database are opt-in. While some vendors do provide opt-in features for journalists and bloggers, you should assume that all email addresses are for contacts that have not given you their permission to contact them.

What do you think, are PR pitches and unsolicited press releases “spam”? Do you think some PR pros use sensational (possibly misleading) subject lines to get you to open their emails? Do most of the contacts you work with provide an opt-out clause? Should PR firms be subject to the same laws as email marketers?

About Jeremy Porter 214 Articles
Jeremy Porter has been passionate about the intersection of public relations and journalism since studying both Public Relations and Journalism at Utica College of Syracuse University in the late 90s. Porter launched Journalistics in 2009 to share his ideas and insights around both professions and how trends and developments in modern day marketing, communications, and technology impact those working in these fields. Porter also values the traditions and history of both professions and regularly shares his perspective in these areas - and related topics geared toward the next generation of journalism and public relations professionals.


  1. It’s great to see someone address this issue so thoughtfully and comprehensively. I think the only point that is missing, is that CAN-SPAM regulates commercial email. Simply stated, an email that is an advertisement. Now many PR Pitches are about selling a product, but the reason for sending to a journalist isn’t for them to buy it, but to hopefully investigate the the subject of the release and share that information with readers. Many releases are also purely informational. It could be argued that a Press Release is far more transacational in nature, especially if the agency or company has a relationship with the media outlet- they could be an advertiser or subscriber or have had a journalist write a story on them or a competitor. I am not a lawyer, but based on my experience at LashBack, I doubt the lawyers at the FTC would ever prosecute a company sending a press release to reporter, even a poorly written, irrelevant one sent 5 times in a row by mistake and followed up by an intern calling to ask “if you got our release?”- a reporters nightmare!

    You are most accurate in post that permission is best, but a high degree of relevancy can replace permission- especially if it means a scoop.

  2. This is a great post… I have been noticing that Twitter and other microblogging services are generally a lot(infinitely?) more cost effective than press releases… both for SEO and general awareness. It’s so much more personal, and it eliminates a lot of the fluff that goes along with long and sometimes bland press releases. Thanks for the read!

  3. @Tressa Robbins

    Tressa Robbins :
    Jeremy, great post – as always I find myself nodding my head in agreement as I read! If one does his homework and sends a valid (relevant) pitch then it is not SPAM and most journalists are going to be open to the receiving that information. Bottom line, I think it all boils down to going through the paces of doing it “right.”
    You can follow me on Twitter on @tressalynne

  4. Thanks for sharing this information! This is definitely useful. I’ve been guilty of not doing a few of these things in the past. But I have learned from my mistakes…. and very quickly, when people email you with angry response. Had I seen the list earlier, I would have avoided a few problems. Thanks again!

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