Who Do You Blame for PR Spam? Vocus?

In his recent “Hocus Vocus” post on The Flack, Peter Himler suggested that companies like Vocus contribute to the PR spam. He only singled Vocus out because The New York Times Saul Hansell called the company out as a “prime purveyor of pr spam” on a Media Relations Summit panel Peter moderated. In the post, Peter says, “Pure and simple: the automation of media outreach leads to PR spam.” I agree to a certain extent that technology can be an enabler of PR spam. This would include all the major newswires and media database providers (including Bulldog Reporter, who hosted the Media Relations Summit).

I think this also includes companies like MatchPoint, a Vocus competitor co-developed by Himler, which he discloses in his post. According to Himler, MatchPoint enables PR professionals to find editorially appropriate journalists or bloggers for their story queries. I’m not picking on MatchPoint. I actually like its approach, anti-PR spam positioning, and I think it’s a big step in the right direction for media relations tools. At the same time, it is another attempt to automate media relations processes. Lazy PR people will abuse the system and simply target anyone suggested as a good contact.

MatchPoint is still young and its results aren’t quite there yet in many categories (for example, if you want to find contacts that write about “media relations”, reporters covering “media storage” would appear high on the list). Keyword matching does not solve the problem of PR spam. I’m sure there are dozens of searches that produce great results and I’m excited to see how MatchPoint evolves as a solution. But, it’s still another tool to help PR pros target media, versus a true solution to the PR spam problem (reduce or eliminate off-topic pitches all together). Any of these services should only be used as a starting point. Artificial intelligence should not replace real intelligence.

I don’t think you can blame service providers for the PR spam problem, just as you shouldn’t blame a hammer for crooked nails. The blame rests with the carpenter. The problem isn’t how easy these companies make it to search for and find journalist (or blogger) contact information, or how frequently this information is incorrect, but rather the laziness that results from trusting these tools over good old-fashioned legwork. If you trust the list and you don’t verify that the contacts you’re pitching actually write about your topic before you click “send”, you’re a spammer. Plain and simple.

Sending off-topic pitches to journalists without doing your legwork is PR spam and it’s the sender who is responsible, not the technology or medium. If this were the case, we should also blame phone companies, ISPs, FedEx, Yellow Page publishers, and every conference organizer that shares a pre-registered media list with a PR person. All of them contribute to PR spam, but they are not the root cause.

I get the point though. I have started to receive pitches on this blog that have nothing to do with what I’m writing about. I completely understand where Peter is coming from and I give him credit for drawing more attention to this issue. While I may have my own issues with the accuracy of data found in mainstream media databases (and the prices of these services), or how some vendors try to solve the problem, I can’t blame these organizations for the PR spam problem. If these solutions didn’t exist, PR spammers would find another way to get your information and send you stuff.

So who do you blame? Do companies like Vocus make it too easy to target reporters?

(Image Credit: buggolo)

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. Every PR tools vendor faces a key choice when designing their application: include a mass-mail tool or not? It’s the presence of this feature in PR tools that leads to the spam.

    If you are a PR pro and your PR tool does NOT offer a mass mailer, then you’re forced to choose: send messages to individuals (which takes time and forces you to choose only the most appropriate ones, ideally with whom you have a relationship) or export your list to a third-party tool like ConstantContact.

    I think that most PR professionals realize that if they’re shopping for mass mailer tools, they’ve crossed over to the dark side, and they’re doing it all wrong willfully. At least they can’t tell themselves, “hey, I’m just using the tool the way it was intended to be used!”

    But let’s assume a PR pro goes ahead and dumps their media list from their media database and imports it into ConstantContact or CreateSend. To do so, they’d have to make a bunch of representations about the legitimacy (i.e. opt-inyness) of their email list. Assuming they are willing to fudge that and move forward, then when they send messages, they’ll be forced to include an opt-out link at the bottom of the message (in compliance with CAN-SPAM). At least then journalists could opt-out, and more clearly identify it as a mass-mailed message.

    Upshot- the tools influence behavior… if it’s easy to make a media list and blast everyone on it, then more people, even good-intentioned people will assume it’s ok.

    Two suggestions:

    1) If tools vendors include a mass mailer feature, then they should require users place an opt-out link in the footer of their messages, the same way every mass mailing vendor does.

    2) If tools vendors don’t comply with CAN-SPAM, then news organizations should block email from their mail exchange (MX) servers. Since all the mail comes from Vocus or Cision (it’s possible to discover this in the headers), you can block all communications from those companies at the firewall. No more PR spam.

  2. Great post! Throughout my career I’ve always relied on a database to help me find contact information for reporters, but ask me how to use my current vendor’s press release blast tool and I am totally stumped. In fact, when they were trying to renew our contract they used that feature to try to sell me on another year and I told them that isn’t how we do PR and I would never use it.

    Databases like Vocus and Cision can be great tools to help you find the reporters you have already researched. It frustrates me when pros dismiss them – clearly coming from not understanding how to use them properly. But databases should only supplement efforts, not serve as the primary tool.

  3. Jeremy,

    We are in agreement that the automation of media relations contributes to the problem of PR spam. Intelligent human involvement in the process is the only true way to ensure that reporters receive timely and editorially appropriate story pitches.

    It should be noted, however, that the way PR people “target” journalists has not changed in the decades — until MatchPoint. One searched a paper or electronic media database for the journalist’s title or listed beat, and came up with an often inexact list of reporters. MatchPoint instead matches a story pitch, keywords or press release to a journalist’s cumulative body of work. The search results produce a ranking of the most relevant reporters from a proprietary database of 4.5 million articles and 200,000+ by-lines.

    What’s more: companies like Vocus allow the user to send multiple emails to reporters with a single keystroke. MatchPoint only allows its users to engage one journalist at a time so as to ensure a tailored approach and avoid the plague of mass-disseminated misguided PR queries (eg, spam).

    Anyway, thank you for your thoughtful post. I hope this clarifies.

    Peter Himler

  4. Another great post, Jeremy. We use available PR tools to help us determine (at a high level) which media may be a relevant fit for a particular client. But we wouldn’t dream of pitching them before we’ve read their stuff, have a clear understanding of what their beat/area of focus is, approach they like to take, and what elements they like to include in a story (e.g. customer references, industry research, etc.).

    As much as possible, we work to tailor our pitches according to a journalist’s particular interests, recent writings, recent interactions with us, etc. You can’t do that by using a tool to blast out a press release (or the BCC feature in email).

    As a PR consultant, it’s also my job to ensure clients understand the way in which we reach out to media. A little education on our part goes a long way in ensuring they understand why sending out a press release is not a 5 minute job.


  5. I really enjoyed your post. One of the most important lessons I have learned in my career is to research the contact before pitching. Sure I use services like Vocus to help create a list, but I also realize that those services aren’t always accurate. PLUS, I want to have background info on the people I’m about to call so I can have an intelligent conversation with them. Research is important and personalization is king. If you don’t know who you’re talking to, then wait to make the call.

  6. Great topic Jeremy. As the previous discussions indicate, there are a number of factors that lead to PR Spam. Certainly, it’s clear this is Vocus’s model: make it easy for PR people to email large groups of journalists (who have not opted in to receive those emails) and hope you get coverage that way. In contrast, savvy publicists can and should focus on creating a great pitch to a small, select group of media targets that would find that pitch most relevant to their readers. At iPressroom, we believe that the paradigm has shifted fundamentally and that the focus for PR should be to tell your story online, in a full-featured newsroom – that goes beyond text – and is connected to your organization’s (or client’s) website and includes capabilities to make that content visible in search and relevant social media sites – so that journalists researching stories will find you. You’re much more likely to get coverage that way than spamming 100s of journalists with already overloaded email in-boxes. PR pros are the media now and clearly in a position to create content directly for consumer consumption. So, seek out tools that allow you to publish your content right from the corporate website, and create content that others will want to share and discuss. If you’re targeting media directly; target a smaller group of journalists first, prepare a comprehensive set of press materials (beyond text), make them available online in your organization’s online newsroom and send a short text email with a compelling headline to the journalist with a clear explanation of why your news might be of interest to their readers (do not send them your press release), then include links to the full complement of press materials that will help the journalist (pre-selected high-resolution images for download, audio and video content, facts and figures, history and background, related research, product info. and specifications). Ensure all of this content is easily displayed in one place in your online newsroom and that all related materials are displayed alongside any press release. Then, if you consistently provide high quality resources online – journalists who find you in search and receive your targeted pitches may choose to subscribe directly to your newsroom updates (via email, RSS or Twitter feed even). In summary, quality content in a variety of digital formats displayed on your site (or your client’s site) in an intuitive and easy to consume and subscribe fashion will drive far more results in the long run than spamming journalists using a database.

  7. (Full disclosure: My company, Wooden Horse Publishing, publishes a unique media directory for magazines.) It seems there is enough blame to go around to everyone, but I wish clients would try to hold PR professionals more accountable. As in: How many pitches were sent and how many resulted in placements? I agree that PR is difficult to measure but maybe we have been too successful telling our clients?

    Meg Weaver

  8. Great post Jeremy. I don’t think Vocus or other media databases are solely to blame for PR spam, it’s due to not doing proper research on the media that you are contacting and for what purpose. It’s important to fine tune your media lists from the foundation that is created from the databases – never just blindly blast out your news/pitch to the original lists created. For myself, I had used the auto-distribution features a couple times in the past to those that I worked with on a regular basis, but dropped using them many years ago. As far as relationship building, personalized contact goes a long way and obviously media are able to detect blanket pitches.

    kindest regards,


  9. Not long ago I attended a seminar called “Writing for Robots.” It was about search optimized release writing. The journalists on the panel told us PR practitioners that they in fact don’t read emails. So here we have service providers telling us that we need to write our releases to be read by robots that provide RSS feeds to journalists who track specific topics, while other providers sell us robots that can do mass mailings to reporters who get their information from RSS feeds.

    Call me old fashioned, but haven’t we forgotten what the “R” in “PR” stands for? It’s not Robots. It’s Relations, as in HUMAN RELATIONS. If public relations practitioners and (most) journalists acknowledge a symbiotic relationship, why are we allowing robots to rule how we relate to one another? Let the service providers simplify our research, and let them finesse their algorithms, but ultimately PR pros must use sound judgment before pushing the “send” button to a press person. On the other hand, journalists should not solely rely on robots for ideas. There are diligent human beings like myself who take the time to thoroughly do their homework and craft a highly targeted individualized pitch we believe to be timely and newsworthy. Not interested? Fine, but common courtesy dictates a response, even if it’s a canned “thanks, I’ll pass.”

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