PR spam on an industrial scale

Spamalot

When done well, PR pitching can be almost an art form.

If your pitch meets the criteria of the recipient of your outreach, its likely your message will be well received and may even produce the action you are aiming for.

The opposite is also true when a pitch is as thoughtless in its creation as it is mindless in its execution. You know the kind of thing I mean, email pitches in particular.

What if such pitching were to be automated, where the targets of your pitch weren’t individually assessed to see if each were the “right” target for your message (and for your client or employer)?

Instead, what if you created a hit list of thousands of email addresses and hit them up with automated email pitches on the basis that if you hit a large enough quantity, a small but sufficient enough number will respond to make your effort worthwhile.

Sound familiar?

That’s what PR Hacker is doing in the US, according to a report in The Holmes Report quoting PR Hacker founder Ben Kaplan describing the business approach from his previous experiences in book promotion that he’s bringing to his PR firm:

[…] His model relies on A/B testing and 1% conversions from massive media blasts to generate lots [of] media coverage quickly for clients – without the status reports, weekly update calls and other administrative overhead of traditional agencies.

Here’s how that works. The PR Hacker team blasts pitches to a database of 7,000 tech media and expects a 1% conversion to land its client, at least, 70 hits. Kaplan also keeps databases on money/business media and relationship/romance media that each have upwards of 5,000 contacts – so a multi-vertical pitch, by his estimates, should yield close to 200 hits assuming the minimum 1% conversion. To keep the pitches from seeming too much like spam, he personalizes various fields within each pitch.

“We A/B test our pitches on the lower tier guys first,” he explains. “Then we go to the top-tier with what’s been tested…And a great story will trump all. So rather than focusing too much on personalizing, we focus on getting the story right.”

Looks to me like an approach to spam on an industrial scale. At least, a “by the numbers” game.

Is this what this element of public relations practice will become? A percentage return on a massive database-blast investment? It doesn’t look like it will fit well with professional standards of behaviour defined by the PR establishment, not in the UK at least.

Yet Kaplan’s approach is clearly outside such standards – perhaps the clue is in the name of his firm – and goodness knows some poor PR behaviour may benefit from a shake-up that Kaplan could well be responsible for.

In any case, get your email spam filters up-to-date.

[Picture at top by Coast to Coast Tickets who have lots of tickets for Monty Python Spamalot performances across the US this year. I thought the Spamalot metaphor works well for this post.]

A refresher on how to write a press release

110214immediate296It seemed a good idea – spend an early hour on a Bank Holiday Monday to get up-to-date with the email inbox. Catch up on those emails that I’d marked to give attention to when I had time.

After going through the marker list for the past week, I’m left with a sense of real exasperation. Yes, I got through my marked emails, but it included over a dozen email press releases that are to do with products, services and industries that broadly would fit my interests, yet are so appallingly structured, written and targeted that I sometimes despair of the PR business.

People, have you forgotten how to write a press release? How to communicate actual news not mundane fluff dressed up as news? How to determine who should get your press release, not just do a mail merge from a Cision or Vocus contact database and splurge out your email like so much spam? How to be sure you trust the recipient when you email him/her an embargoed press release? And checked that the recipient of your email missive is even in the country of your domestic announcement?

Please, spend a bit of time learning how to take your newsworthy information and use it to tell a story. This video might help:

(If you don’t see the video embedded here, watch it on YouTube.)

Note the simple methodology in the video, the 5 Ws (to which I’ve added a sixth):

  1. Who is this about?
  2. What is the actual news?
  3. When does this happen?
  4. Where does this take place?
  5. Why is this news?
  6. Why is this relevant to the person you’re sending it to?

You might want to consider question 6 as your question 1.

The video, published in 2009 but still relevant, also includes an H: How is this happening?

You can easily answer those questions. If some aren’t entirely relevant (eg, you’re not announcing an event), well, adapt them to your specific news announcement.

Of course, there is a great deal more to consider when writing a press release and determining where it fits into your tactical communication that supports your strategy. But this is a good starting point.

Take a look at An Inconvenient PR Truth – you’ll find some more common sense there. And, check Tom Fishburne’s 2011 post (from which the cartoon above comes) on press releases and earned media.

Please, make me really look forward to getting your press release emails. I want you on my white list, not the black list.

Thanks.

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How to report Twitter hashtag spammers

hashtagspamOne of the most useful features of Twitter for events like conferences and tweet chats is the hashtag. A hashtag – a keyword preceded by the ‘#’ symbol – enables conference-goers, the event organizer and anyone else interested in the event to see all tweets that include the hashtag.

It enables anyone to listen to the conversation and easily participate.

As Twitter explains it:

  • People use the hashtag symbol # before relevant keywords (no spaces) in their Tweet to categorize those Tweets and help them show more easily in Twitter Search.
  • Clicking on a hashtagged word in any message shows you all other Tweets in that category.
  • Hashtags can occur anywhere in the Tweet – at the beginning, middle, or end.
  • Hashtagged words that become very popular are often Trending Topics.

The popularity of this useful device has captured imaginations everywhere. It’s getting harder to find events that don’t have a hashtag.

Unfortunately, that popularity has also attracted the attention of spammers, bots and other unsavoury elements of the social web to the extent that hashtag hijacking is becoming increasingly common. It shows itself by tweets with content and links that include your hashtag but have no relation at all to that hashtag.

Here’s an example from the hashtag associated with the Public Relations Institute of Ireland’s annual conference in Dublin yesterday, where I was a speaker; the hashtag is #priiconf12. Only two of the tweets in this screenshot from earlier today are genuine, ie, are directly related to the event and the hashtag:

hashtagspamexample

The spam tweets in this screenshot are typical – they’re often suggestive and profane, usually with avatar pics of attractive-looking women, and with short-code links that you click at your peril.

While you can just ignore them, the effect of them in your hashtag stream ruins the hashtag experience for everyone else.

Until such time as there is a clear, effective and universal method of cleaning out such unwelcome content from your hashtag, there are things you can do to help Twitter address the problem.

For instance, in your own account on the Twitter website, you should block and report the spammer to Twitter. You don’t have to ‘own’ the hashtag to do this.

Here’s how:

reportspammer

  1. Click on the spammer’s name and you’ll get the popup you see above.
  2. Click on the dropdown link next to the ‘Follow’ button and you’ll see a menu.
  3. Highlight and click the ‘Report…’ choice.

That interaction gets the ball rolling for Twitter to take the steps they need to do starting with reviewing the tweeter’s account and blocking it from your view while they investigate.

If you use a third-party Twitter app rather than the Twitter website – TweetDeck, MetroTwit or others such as on mobile devices – most also include a means for you to report spammers.

I’ve heard quite a few anecdotal examples of Twitter’s swiftness in addressing hashtag spammers (and others who violate Twitter’s rules), so they do take it seriously and take action when they’re made aware of problems by legitimate Twitter users.

If you feel that a hashtag spam issue is really serious – eg, during an event where it’s pretty clear that your hashtag is being overwhelmingly hijacked – then you can address the matter directly with Twitter by filing  a support-request ticket. Again, I hear anecdotal reports of Twitter’s swiftness in  addressing such requests.

Hashtag spam is a genuine problem, one that is increasing. While it does seem like a game of Whack-a-mole at times, grit your teeth and persevere! Report all instances to Twitter to help them do their job.

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Twitter hashtags: spam magnets

whackamole

One of the most useful engagement tools for a conference is a Twitter hashtag. This little device, where a word is connected to the hash symbol (#) – known as a pound sign in the US – is a useful tool for event organizers as it enables anyone to connect to your event and see all the online commentary that mentions the hashtag.

Anyone, whether at an event or not, can also be part of the overall conversation by including the hashtag in their own tweets. If a hashtagged topic gets popular, it can become a Twitter trending topic, attracting more attention. Hashtags form the basis for tweet chats. And they’re search engine friendly as hashtagged words will appear in search results in Twitter, Google, etc. Consider, too, that the participants in many events are, arguably, influential people in their particular fields, so attracting the attention and interest of many others.

All of that is probably part of why hashtags have captured the active attention of spammers and other shady characters. That certainly was the case at the FT Digital Media Conference 2012 that took place in London on March 7-8 and which I went to (an excellent event, btw; a post about it to come).

It became clear quite quickly on the first day of the conference that the hashtag #ftmedia12 was being used by people who had nothing to do with the event nor were their tweets remotely connected with the subject of the conference. At one point in the morning of that first day, I estimate that at least ten percent of all tweets I saw using the hashtag were spam.

Procter & Gamble had the spam magnet effect, too, on their hashtag at a marketing event organized by Federated Media Publishing in the US last week, Advertising Age reports:

[…] By two hours into the event, the #SignalPG hashtag had become a trending topic on Twitter. That lured enough spammers that Federated took down the live Twitter search feed until Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, a speaker at the event, helped get the spam canned.

How do you know such tweets are spam? Well, here’s an example from the FT conference posted late yesterday (and note other topical hijacked hashtags):

twitterspam

The image above links to the original tweet although I would expect the account to have been closed by Twitter by now. And, by the way, this is one of the tamest spam tweets: many using the FT event hashtag were pornographic, either in use of words or in the images used for avatars, or both.

And that is another part of the issue – such Twitter accounts pop up all the time, get blocked by users or closed by Twitter, yet others reappear as quickly. It really is like a constant game of Whack-a-Mole.

What to do about it? How do you eradicate this pestilence on the Twitter landscape? Can you even control it? All questions that occupied a number of people’s time and thoughts during coffee breaks at the FT conference, with ideas ranging from accept the landscape as is (surely not!) to requiring anyone using a hashtag to have a certain minimum number of followers on the premise that most spammers seem to have none or only a handful of them, while they follow hundreds (but how would you make that happen?)

These are thorny issues and, indeed, are part of the current engagement landscape. Until an automated process emerges that reduces the problem (I don’t think it will ever go away entirely – look at email spam), or a good balance is struck between enabling people to connect and engage with hashtags while keeping the spammers at bay, you need to be vigilant as an event organizer and as a conversation participant:

  1. Block spam accounts as soon as you see them. Your account on the Twitter website has a method to let you do that; many third-party apps also let you block spammers and report them to Twitter.
  2. Organizers, make sure you constantly monitor the Twitter stream. If your hashtag becomes a trending topic, pay especially close attention.
  3. If you plan to publish a transcript of hashtag conversations, spend the time reviewing and editing before you publish.

Just three ideas. Any more?

Extending the debate about PR spam

commschatEarlier this week, I hosted a CommsChat discussion via Twitter around the topic of “What should you do to stop PR spam?”, a topic I’ve written about quite a bit over the past few years and helped focus debate. The discussion took place on TweetChat, a service that lets you engage in real-time online conversation around a hashtag, in this case #commschat.

Started by Adam Vincenzini and Emily Cagle, two UK-based PR pros, CommsChat looks at all aspects of communication: PR, traditional and social media, journalism, blogging, marketing and more. The weekly one-hour chats tend to attract scores of participants from both sides of the Atlantic, and this one was no different.

As the host of the November 8 discussion, I wanted to see what participants would say to these specific points:

  • What is PR spam and do we agree that it’s a huge problem in the profession?
  • What do you do with your acquired data from Cision or Vocus?
  • In September, the CIPR published a charter on media spamming that, among other things, aims to help raise ethical standards in UK business practices regarding email use; and the PRSA runs professional development seminars in the US focused on best practices in media relations. How useful or effective are such initiatives by our professional associations?
  • What does best practice look like and how do you guide your colleagues?

Over the course of the hour, some lively discussion ensued. It was hard to keep up with much of it and impossible to do that for every tweet – you really do need to pay close attention to what’s happening – so it’s excellent that Adam and Emily enabled a full transcript of the complete discussion to be available to view and download from Scribd (and it’s embedded in this post, below).

Did the discussion come to any clear conclusions, weighty or otherwise? No, not really, but it did provide an opportunity and an outlet for every participant to voice their opinions and so contribute to the continuing debate.

Reflecting on the discussion afterwards, I think the group as a whole acknowledged that each of us in the PR profession has a clear responsibility for our own behaviour and how we conduct ourselves. That includes how we reach out to others via email. There’s clearly a need for education and awareness-raising on best practice, what’s acceptable and what’s not, and ethical behaviours – areas our professional associations are taking a strong lead on. If the discussion served the purpose of getting more people to think about these topics, then it was worthwhile.

CommsChat Transcript 81110

The subject of PR spam is a complex topic, one that won’t be resolved soon. Last Monday’s Twitter discussion brought fresh attention to the topic – which continues in the next TweetChat on Monday November 15 when Adam Parker, CEO of RealWire and the driving force behind the An Inconvenient PR Truth campaign earlier this year, will host discussion on part two of this subject, this time focussing on spam in a social media context.

The discussion continues at 8pm GMT on Monday. Add your voice and make a difference.

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Grasping the nettle of PR spam

Spam: a scourge of contemporary life. I’m talking about the digital variety rather than the savoury meat product originating in a mists-of-time, analogue age.

Just about the worst kind of spam I see is that which purports to be relevant and representative of good media relations or blogger relations or personal outreach or whatever. In other words, the kind of stuff I get from PRs that bombards my Outlook inbox every day.

Take a look at this screenshot of an email I received the other day that was trapped by Outlook’s junk mail filter and which I resurrected just for this post. I’m impressed with that aspect of Outlook: it’s effective and if it regards something as junk, I don’t argue.

spam-travelteq

I’ve never heard from the sender before (well, Outlook’s junk filter may have); the sender clearly has no idea about me (‘Dear editor’ is a clue), and packing the email to the gills with images and HTML files is a guarantee that sooner or later you and your domain will be on an anti-virus watch list.

Yet the worst thing about this crass and unimaginative missive is the sheer thoughtlessness of it. It’s all about the sender and her client, nothing about the receiver or making some kind of connection. It’s not even about running your text through a spell checker. And it’s clearly lacking any common sense.

And that’s probably the root of the problem. This is simply a mass mail-out that someone in the PR agency concerned thought was a good way to get the word out about their client: grab a mailing list, merge your text (minimal in this case), load up the stuff you want to thrust at your recipients and click ‘send.’

And check out this one:

spam-knowtification

Classic PR spam.

I’ve been banging on about PR spam for years and how it’s about individual and collective responsibility to stamp on such an insidious practice. It’s one of the reasons why the PR profession is so looked down upon by many journalists and others.

So could an initiative announced by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in the UK this week be a tipping point for common sense to kick in regarding how PRs reach out to people via email and other digital means?

The CIPR says that the Media Spamming Charter (PDF) provides guidance to CIPR members and the wider PR profession on standards of conduct when working with the media and bloggers.

The CIPR, the PRCA, the IRS and NUJ are united in their efforts to enhance professional standards. These best practice guidelines are designed as a point of reference for practitioners who work with journalists and bloggers. This document is a statement of best practice.”

It stems partly from the “An Inconvenient PR Truth” awareness-raising campaign earlier this year.

An Inconvenient PR Truth is a passionate plea to the PR Industry to take action to tackle the issue of pollution caused by the sending of press releases to journalists, editors, bloggers and publishers for whom they are irrelevant. This issue if left to continue, could cause irreparable damage to the influence that the PR industry seeks to achieve.

While some people think that outreach behaviours surely are guided by common sense – and I have no disagreement at all with that view – it’s clear that the influence of a professional body like the CIPR (as well as the others behind the charter: the Public Relations Consultants Association, the Investor Relations Society and the National Union of Journalists) can and should make a big difference.

Now I wonder how it’ll all work in practice. And how the client will be brought on board. And seeing a body like the Public Relations Society of America embrace the concept. After all, most PR spam originates in the USA (see screenshots above).

Still, I’m optimistic: anything by the professional associations – surely the guardians of best practice – that shines a bright light on a very bad PR practice has to be a good thing.

Let’s now return to normal programming.

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