PR spam is mostly the result of being careless

Like many in the PR and journalism blogosphere, I get PR pitches by email every day.

Like many, too, I welcome pitches if they are relevant to my interests. If they are, the chances are good that I will talk about the product or service, either in my blogs or podcast, or I might Twitter about it.

Those emails are currently averaging eight. Every day. The vast majority, though, I regard as spam, pure and simple.

In fact, PR spam is a topic that is constantly on the tips of online tongues.

What’s my definition of ‘PR spam’? Any one or all of this:

  • The product or service being pitched by email is so obviously not one that I would have much interest in, a fact that would be very easily apparent if the pitcher had taken even a cursory glance at this blog or listened to my podcast.
  • The email includes an unsolicited Word document attachment. And it’s worth noting that not everyone uses Word. I do but the pitcher doesn’t know that.
  • The pitcher writes a pseudo-friendly greeting but it only looks like a bad database mail merge. My favourite: “Hi, Neville ,” (notice the space between my name and the final comma). A close second is the simple “Hi ,” with that same space (yes, I’ve had lots of emails like that).

Mostly, I regard such PR spam is just another consequence of being online and being accessible. You know, along with the email offers for knock-off replica watches, Viagra and other sexual performance enhancements, and winning the Euro lottery.

This is borne out by the majority of those emails being automatically caught by the McAfee spam and junk mail filters in Outlook.

Now and again, I might send one along to Kevin Dugan for the Bad Pitch Blog although lame PR pitches are no longer hot news items for that blog.

There are just too many of them.

All that said, I do get increasingly worried for the overall reputation of our profession as if I’m getting such crap every day, imagine what journalists working in the mainstream media must be getting.

If the stuff they get is anything like the stuff I get – and it surely is just as bad, if not worse – then no wonder too many members of the mainstream media see public relations lower down in the food chain than lawyers or estate agents.

One thing I haven’t done is go the Chris Anderson route by posting on this blog all the domain names of the PR spammers. Or create a wiki as Gina Trapani did with a similar goal – outing those PR people and agencies and causing maximum damage to their reputations.

The fact is, I think much of what passes for PR pitching by email is simply very poor and careless practice by PR people who still don’t know better.

They ought to, clearly, as this is PR 101 stuff to do with reaching out and making connections with people, whether they’re journos or bloggers.

Some basic principles apply that we all should know from our early days in the profession.

So I prefer to focus on helping PR people understand how to build relationships online where how you go about that – including by email –  is an integral part of the conversations we have, what I suppose we’re now calling ‘blogger relations’ and how to bring that new practice into traditional PR practice.

But when an email does come that is characterized by such abject carelessness – no, stupidity – in its approach, it just makes me angry.

This one, for instance:


No, I’m not going to deliberately identify the sender, purely use it as an example in order to say – Come on, you can bloody well do better than this!

You want attention? Well, at least take a bit of time and care and apply even a little bit of thought to tell a story, not just blast out a pathetic email like this one.

Which brings me back to another related point – those database-driven emails.

Many PR agencies use database services like Vocus and Cision to research bloggers and others and gather email addresses for mass emailing.

Whatever you think of that approach – and I think it’s a total waste of everyone’s time – if you do use it, at least take note of some of the simple guidance the information provider will include.

Vocus, for instance. I don’t subscribe to Vocus but a kindly reader of this blog sent me a copy of the information about me in Vocus’ database – information that’s available to agencies who subscribe.

The database listing includes this text:


Media inquiries should be directed to Mr. Hobson at, or via an online contact form found at

Before sending press releases, story ideas or other information to a blog/blogger, we recommend you read the site thoroughly in order to understand the blogger’s area of interest and point of view. Spamming or mass emailing of bloggers is NOT recommended. This can result in unpleasant/unintended coverage of the company or organization you represent.

Read that last paragraph – how clearer and simpler to understand can it be?

This isn’t about blogger or media relations, it’s about common sense and taking care.

Yet too few in the PR profession seem to be paying any attention.

On Wednesday June 11, Shel and I will be hosting a call-in discussion about PR spam with FIR Live on BlogTalk Radio, starting at 5pm GMT.

This is the idea of John Cass and Jason Falls, both of whom have posted detailed commentary on a very big problem in the PR business.

Let’s hope we can inject some thoughts for care back into the profession.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Adrian Moss


    I think there are two other ingredients to add.

    Client ‘numbersland’ mentality pushing agencies to build bigger lists. That is a hard one to push back on. It’s the old ‘quantity v quality’ discussion. As an ex-Marketing Director I have lost count of the number of times the CEO has argued for volume to feed the sales teams.

    Time and resource. ‘Handbuilding’ what in effect is an opt-in list of bloggers takes time and some level of experience and judgement. Sometimes agencies will give media list building to a newer, less experienced person.

    Having said all that. The solution is largely in the hands of the agencies. Don’t use implied opt-in rules but implement explicit opt-in. Read the bloggers posts and contact them to find out more about them, their interests and prefered methods of contact. It takes time but it is really good investment of time and may help you avoid being ‘listed’ by bloggers!

  2. John Cass

    Really good coverage of all the story about the issue of PR spamming. I especially liked the quote from the Vocus database, that clearly indicates as you suggest, a lot of PR spamming is as the result of carelessness.

    I just pondering, if we don’t publicly shame someone for sending a PR spam message, how can we educate the spammer on how to change their ways.

    Here are some ideas:

    1) Send an email back to the PR person with a link to your post, stating their email did not hit the mark, you consider it spam, and that they should consider carefully whether the information they wish to send is of interest to you next time.

    2) Talk with the vendors about what setting up some sort of PR customer alert system. Where journalists and bloggers can alert PR people that a recent email was considered spam.

  3. Stuart Bruce

    Good post. I think there are multiple issues here:

    1) The PR databases DO deserve a large degree of the blame. They mainly designed in such a way as to build lists that are too big and a search on a specific keywords always throws up dozens of journalists, bloggers, publications that will simply NEVER cover that keyword.
    2) The only way to solve the poor coding of the databases is to check every single one manually, but often that isn’t practical as you are on a deadline and you can’t get sufficient information in time. If it isn’t online, available in newsagent, or the ad dept won’t send you a copy then you are pretty much stuck. The media have to accept some of the responsibility if they do use PR information (nearly all do) and then won’t share the appropriate information to enable you to talk to them correctly.
    3) Lots of PR firms simply don’t train their staff properly and make improper demands on account execs/managers. We do in-house training and send people on courses, but that won’t always prevent mistakes, which is why intent and process are sometimes as important as what is actually done.
    4) Blogger relations is similar to, but not the same as media relations, yet two of my team attended PR industry seminar led by a “social media and digital expert” who said it was just the same as media relations and send bloggers press releases.
    5) Like Neville I get about five to 10 pitches a day – 80% are terrible, 18% are OK but of little interest, 2% I actualy take notice of. The 80% and 2% are my favourites because I can share them with the team to show what you should and shouldn’t do!
    6) PR firms need to stand up to clients who want them to do bad work. That’s why I run a consultancy, not an agency. It’s my job as boss to protect the team from unreasonable client demands and make sure we offer expert counsel instead.
    7) Some people need to chill out and remember life is for living, not moaning! Receiving a crass, badly written pitch that is partially targeted is not the same as spam which is totally random.

  4. Jed Hallam

    Great post, the more people talk about this the more chance we have of actually changing it.

    I’ve blogged about this and the main issue that I take with this (I’m a PRO and not a journalist, just so you know) is the blatant disregard for the second part of public/media/blogger relations. Relations. How are PROs planning on beginning relationships and friendships by scattergunning press releases? Where is the guidance?

    Todd Defren spoke about this extensively and wrote a Seven Promise guide, which was brilliant but each point really should be common sense to all PROs.

    Sorry to rant, but while I’m on it: ‘This can result in unpleasant/unintended coverage of the company or organization you represent.’ is pretty poor too. PROs should already know that online means your neck is on-the-line if you bugger up!

  5. neville

    Great comments, thanks. Couple of points.

    Adrian, your additional points are good ones. I agree: there is that pressure on PR staff to do more, more quickly. A bit like the similar pressure on reporters and editors, perhaps, which leads to the rise in churnalism.

    Yet I don’t buy that as any kind of excuse. I’m not suggesting you’re trying to excuse it, btw; you said it yourself: the solution (to carelessness, as per the thrust of my post commentary) is with the PR agencies themselves, in practices, behaviours, training, etc.

    John, good question:

    I just pondering, if we don’t publicly shame someone for sending a PR spam message, how can we educate the spammer on how to change their ways.

    I like both of your suggested answers. But I believe the real answer lies with the agencies.

    Stuart, I zero in on your point #3. That’s the key.

    As for your #7, I beg to differ. To me, I view a crass pitch in the same way as the announcement I’ve won 10 million in a lottery. It’s spam.

    Jed, your point on relations: agree.

    So in my mind, what everyone is saying here simply confirms what I believe – this is greatly about the agencies and others who do the spamming to change their behaviours.

    We will have one heck of a discussion on June 11!

  6. aimee

    You post is spot on. It just goes to show that old-fashioned methods (the numbers game) don’t work with blogs. But changing your mindset from trying to reach every possible person to trying to reach the 500 most influential people within a specific area is a slow evolution. We aren’t there yet, but we are learning.

  7. Susan Getgood

    Great post, great comments. The two most important things PR agencies absolutely must keep in mind is that blogger relations is not media relations, and that doesn’t mean they can be *sloppier* when reaching out to bloggers.

    The other is the training issue. I’m writing & speaking on blogger relations a lot lately. At my request, friends send me the bad pitches they get. Some of the junk I’ve seen lately is just poor training and bad technology. For example, a pitch sent to mom bloggers earlier this month addressed to “Dear Name Not Available.” I don’t recommend using email blast software to reach out to bloggers but for goodness sake, if you are, make sure it works properly.

    And I’ve got one on deck that is just beyond belief.

  8. Martin Edic

    As a blogger, a marketer selling to PR people and a social media specialist I’d add something additional to this thread (which I’ve blogged about): In social media, once you’ve done your discovery (which is what we do- pitch warning!) don’t pitch, participate. It’s a conversational medium rather than a fixed news medium.
    Unfortunately this is a very labor-intensive thing to do right but that’s why they call it work, right?

  9. neville

    Common sense about PR spam {seesmic_video:{“url_thumbnail”:{“value”:””}”title”:{“value”:”Common sense about PR spam “}”videoUri”:{“value”:”″}}}

  10. monica

    good post.
    “But when an email does come that is characterized by such abject carelessness – no, stupidity – in its approach, it just makes me angry.”—-yes,I always receive lots of email such this every day.I am very angry,but delete.

  11. Oliver Gassner

    links for 2008-06-07…

    PR spam is mostly the result of being careless :
    stuff to avoid when PR-pitching bloggers
    (tags: weblogs+pr+publicrelations

    Umberto Eco’s piece on Mac and DOS, Catholic and Protestant
    The fact is that…

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