Who has responsibility for addressing PR spam?

Since I last wrote about PR spam a few weeks ago, I’ve been keeping an eye on some of the email that’s ended up in the spam folders in Outlook.

It’s a never-ending stream of spam, and it’s getting worse – it’s now running at an average of 10-15 emails a day.

Recognizing that ‘spam’ is a rather subjective word in this context – one man’s spam is another man’s treasure, etc – here again is my definition of PR spam:

  • 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).

From scanning through much of the recent stuff, I’ll add another one:

  • The email contains nothing but the text of a press release. That sin is compounded when the email subject line says (you guessed it) ‘press release’ or ‘latest announcement from XYZ Company.’ The nail’s in the coffin when the email also includes the press release as a Word attachment with lots of font and other document formatting.

A handful of such email does include a nice little sender’s opt-out paragraph as illustrated in this example:


“Apologies if this story is not of relevance to you”? Sorry PR folk, that doesn’t cut it. The responsibility is yours to research whether your story is of relevance to me, before you send out your mass emailing. (I really don’t mind receiving a mass emailing as long as it’s relevant.)

Otherwise it just ends up on the spam blacklist and gets written about in blog posts like this one. Note that I’m being nice by pixelating out identifying names, email addresses, etc, in the screenshot.

I’m now more convinced than ever that the key issue with PR spam is simply lack of care, common sense, even knowing what to do, by the email message creator as I wrote in my last post (PR spam is mostly the result of being careless).

I also think this is a symptom of a wider issues in the PR business, a similar one to that afflicting journalists with the rise of churnalism – the pressure to do more in less time and so cut corners in order to meet such targets.

Can’t do much about time pressures but there’s a lot to be done about the basics of care, common sense and knowing what to do.

Agencies and other organizations in which PR people work have the prime responsibility to ensure their employees know what to do. Managers and supervisors really ought to exercise individual responsibility in this regard for the people they work with.

And what an opportunity for the professional associations – PRSA, CIPR, IABC, etc – to take a firm leadership position and address an issue that clearly is one at the heart of people’s negative perceptions about PR, including many in the profession itself.

This isn’t about best practice or anything terribly complex: it’s about the basics!

At 6pm UK time today, Shel and I will be hosting an FIR Live on BlogTalk Radio discussion about PR spam and what to do about it. What I’ve expressed in this post is purely one point of view and I’m sure there will be plenty of depth in today’s discussion.

If you have an opinion, we’d welcome your participation.

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. Kevin Dugan

    Neville – I’m unable to call in, but have a lot of thoughts around this. Go figure.

    >>>Agencies and other organizations in which PR people work have the prime responsibility to ensure their employees know what to do. Managers and supervisors really ought to exercise individual responsibility in this regard for the people they work with.<<<

    This to me is the elephant in the room. Until we start telling clients that the current model is broken, this issue will just get worse. Tools like Cision and Vocus enable it. Formats like news releases enable it. But they cannot be blamed.

    It is up to us to take responsibility, show teams how to use the tools wisely and counsel our clients that less is more.

    I think part of it is to help SHOW the work when billing the client. I think it is also a desperation to get ink. If I send it to 100 or 1,000 instead of taking the time to contact 10 editors that would truly be interested (in a way they want to be contacted) my odds are better and I can move onto the next client.

    The model is simply broken. Change must come “from above.”

  2. neville

    That’s the key, Kevin isn’t it? Responsibility.

    I think you’re absolutely right in saying it’s not about the database, the press release, the email, whatever. Those are just tools.

    When you zero it down to the core issue, it’s about behaviours. So we ought to start with that as it’s really not too difficult to address. Just needs a willingness to do so.

    An interesting point re counselling clients. That’s part of the problem – clients’ expectations (or maybe it’s about perceptions of those expectations) where the pressure to show results is a factor in the corner-cutting that manifests itself as email spam.

    Thanks for your thoughts, to be added to the debate.

    Btw, Jason Falls has a great post today with specific suggestions for everyone involved in this big issue.


  3. Martin Edic

    In social media ‘pitch spam’ is increasing as unfamiliar PR practicioners come in and try to apply techniques that may work in more traditional media. The key to engagement in social media is that it is far more granular- you must follow the conversation for a while to understand what is going on, then carefully participate rather than pitch. Ironically, when I monitor sentiment in our tool and drill down, negative sentiment is often tied to a reaction to overly intrusive marketing- the attempt to promote has had the opposite effect!
    What it comes down to is that this is labor-intensive but, if done effectively, it can ignite a sudden upsurge of interest (and the other way around).
    Simply throwing the spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks doesn’t work anymore.

  4. Danny Sullivan

    Neville – I’m glad to see that you tempered your loathing of PR spam with the statement “I really don’t mind receiving a mass emailing as long as it’s relevant.”

    It’s obviously a tough ask for PR folk to craft a personal email about a news item for every media target on their list, but the important point is that every target should be relevant.

    A tip for PR folk when building out their media lists for a client is “segment, segment, segment”. While a major product launch announcement might have broad appeal across the majority of your lists, it’s unlikely that a vertically focused piece of news is relevant to everyone.

    By segmenting your list down to focussed groups of media with specific interests, you can ensure that you only target the media that will have an interest in your news du jour.

  5. neville

    Any one of them, Niall, not all four together.

    The worrying thing is that most of the stuff coming in that I regard as spam does do all 4 of these deadly sins!

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