Here’s Why PR Spam Won’t Stop Anytime Soon

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Journalists and bloggers share their disdain for PR spam regularly. Many PR pros write blog posts telling their colleagues why they should stop spamming reporters and offering tips. And, I might say, rightly so. But that’s not what this post is about. I want to talk about the reasons that PR spam is still going on strong, despite these constant pleas for it to stop.

I commented on a recent blog post on the subject from Beth Harte. (She’s brilliant, by the way. I highly recommend subscribing to her blog.) Yes, spamming reporters isn’t good. So why do so many PR folks still do it?

As I shared in the comment on Beth’s post, I believe the root of this industry black eye is three-fold. And until the first two change, PR spam isn’t going anywhere.

“Those” Clients – Many clients understand the value of building relationships with reporters. Many don’t. Many do, but don’t care because they have to justify the worth of their department to bosses who only want to see big impression numbers. So they put massive pressure on their agencies to “smile and dial” or e-blast. They want to see “call reports” and they’d better be long and chock full of details.

The bigger the client’s budget, the more leverage they have with their agency since most aren’t in a position to lose a big client. These clients don’t care about the long-term rewards of relationship building because they might not have a job at the end of the year if they haven’t produced impressive numbers.

“Those” Agency Account Leads – In many cases, the client lead on the agency-side isn’t standing up and saying “no” to the client. They’re worried the client will go elsewhere and no one wants to be responsible for losing a client. The truth is that telling your president that the client left because you wouldn’t blast client “news” to the far reaches won’t be met with “atta boys” most of the time. It’s unfortunate, but true. So, unless they see a true “ethical” dilemma, most aren’t willing to say “no.”

Another reason they don’t say “no” is because they aren’t the ones pitching reporters. They don’t have to hear the frustration on the other end of the phone or receive the reply emails. They call in their junior-level team members and hand out the commands. And, frankly, these agency folks don’t want to hear about taking time to research reporters and bloggers to target the pitch from the young guns. There’s no time for that. After all, the client wants a call report on your 400-person media list by Friday.

“Those” Young Pros – In these “stop spamming reporters” discussions, I see a lot of senior-level folks blaming junior-level account people as being the culprits of this. Pointing the finger at them is ridiculous. The only reason young pros get busted for it is because they’re the ones making the calls and clicking send on the emails.

Most of them aren’t willing to tell their supervisors “no.” They’ve only been working for a few months or years and they’re told “this is how we do it.” They’re scared of losing their jobs, so they do it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a junior-level pro share frustrations about a pitch their boss is making them do to a crazy number of media contacts because the client wants it.

I don’t agree with spamming reporters, of course. My point is that it won’t stop anytime soon because of these reasons, regardless of how many blog posts are written or how many seminars PRSA offers.

Why do you think so many PR pros still spam reporters? What do you think it will take to move the industry beyond it?

*Image by Peter Kaminski.

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20 responses to “Here’s Why PR Spam Won’t Stop Anytime Soon

  1. Well put, David. So much of the discourse on “better PR” is too ethereal. Glad to see you drill down into the practical realities of the business.

    I’ll throw out two more: “Those” who just don’t belong in PR. Our industry still has folks who think of reporters as blunt objects. They earnestly believe that if you pester a journalist enough, you’ll get a story.

    “Those” who are non-agency PRs. Millions of small companies and non-profits rely on in-house PR folks. This isn’t to say non-agency PRs are bad — most are top notch. But they’re often asked to perform PR miracles with very limited resources (staff, media lists, budgets, etc.).

  2. @Scott – Great points, especially regarding in-house folks who are expected to perform miracles with limited resources AND limited time. Those two realities can lead to shortcuts like e-blasting “news.”

  3. David, I’ll say it again…you bring so much clarity to what the issues really are, thank you. Having been one of “those clients” for almost 14 years, I can say you are right. Just like a lot of corporate marketers aren’t really marketers at all (heck, anyone can do marketing or be a marketer, right?!) the same thing happens with PR people internally. You get people who are put in charge of the PR agency, but they don’t know the first thing about PR and the importance of building relationships with the media. It’s all about the calls, placements, impressions, etc. What they don’t realize is that there are only so many editors, publications and newspapers in this country and eventually they will all start passing on the news. And then, the agency gets fired anyway…because, it’s got to be their fault, right?

  4. What an interesting post. I have not had the pleasure of working in an agency so the insight you presented is fascinating to me. I have, however, been that in-house PR person and understand the pressure from the higher-ups to just “get us in the paper.”

    Fortunately, I’ve worked for fine organizations who have valued relationships since they’ve understood the need to develop the community to help develop fundraising efforts and trust.

    I can’t fault PRSA for continuing to offer seminars on the sunbject, not do I think people in the echo chamber need to cease writing on the matter. Each time these things occur is another opportunity for a PR person to get it right.

    (Oh and I completely agree with you on checking out Beth Harte’s writings. Well worth the RSS feed subscription.) – @vedo

  5. This post offers excellent insights into the pressures PR people are under! I believe the keys to the problem, where there is one, are “Those” Agency Account Leads.

    As both you and Beth (and other leaders) have stated before, it’s a PR professional’s job to advise (and persuade) clients on what will be effective. They’re being short-sighted to think that call reports will be more important than clip reports in the long run.

    I’d like to add that it’s my opinion the spammers are *not* in the majority. They just create so much noise that – to those receiving their boatloads of crapola – it seems like those doing it right must be in the minority. (stated this in a somewhat related post yesterday: http://soloprpro.com/modern-pr-new-incentives-to-behave-professionally/ ). But certainly, it’s an issue that affects our entire profession. Thanks for shining a light on it!

  6. Bingo, spot on. If I may add one other component: the billable hour. Reducing the media list down to a handful of relevant, highly targeted, reporters with whom they have relationships eliminates the need to create, verify, vet, email, and call all of the reporters on the 400-person list. That means less revenue, because it will likely take less time.

    I would argue though, that if it’s done correctly, that wouldn’t have to be the case, but that goes to your point of having the more senior folks do the work. Beth makes a great follow up point in the comments regarding the news fatigue that this creates.

    This is so spot on, thanks for posting. As accurate as it is, it shouldn’t be a valid excuse for spamming. PR is hired as counsel, and if one is simply bending to suit the client or internal demands, one isn’t acting as valid counsel. Bill Sledzik has said this before, good PR pros need to know when to make a stand on these issues.

  7. David, your second point is especially powerful. Saying “no” to a client is often the best thing you can do for that relationship.

    Ultimately they’ve hired you because you are (or are supposed to be) a PR professional. If you tell them no and back it up with reasoning you’re reaffirming your value.

    Clients don’t want yes men and women, if they do they are bad clients. I think everyone in PR needs to learn to say NO! (nicely) a bit more often.

  8. As a young PR person who does say “no”, I have to mention something: we’ve tried asking journalists that we have good relationships with what they want: do you want an RSS feed of our news? News on Twitter? Emails? What format? How often? Any specific topics? No fluff/human interest? Always include PR contacts? Always include photos with permission to republish? Summaries or full text? Media section on our website? No submissions at all?

    …And have gotten no useful feedback. PR folks sometimes assume that journalists were early adopters of RSS and Twitter since they’re so obviously applicable and useful and because a few journalists here and there use them effectively. Based on experience and the fact that newspapers constantly make ridiculous decisions about how to use the web, I think it’s kind of a “the emperor has no clothes” situation.

    And the 4th reason why PR Spam won’t stop: those journalists with seniority (since all the layoffs seem to be based solely on seniority) who don’t use RSS and Twitter and barely use email…they take that PR Spam, and they print those stories. Spam only happens as long as its effective.

  9. Black lists and filters are your friend

    IF *@desperatePRguy.com = TRUE THEN delete

    Takes all of 30 seconds to submit any email address to any of the high level black lists. Start will Google’s, it’s almost imposible to get off that one.

  10. I love to hear we PR folks push back! I’ve done it my entire career (and not always with the desired result). As an solo consultant, I’m often introduced to prospective that clients looking for the “cheap and easy” way to get the word out. If I tell them why that doesn’t work, and they don’t agree or get it, I’m not their gal. Not easy to say “no” a paycheck, but well worth it in the long run.

  11. Ah, but if media relations were really about relationships – as senior folks at agencies always claim, nodding wisely and trying to look sage, you wouldn’t actually put your most junior people on the task, would you? (Or ‘use children to do calldowns’ as one journalist described it.)

    The truth is, there are very few PR practitioners who really enjoy media relations and there are probably even fewer who are really good at it. There are also very few agencies that set up media relations departments, instead protecting their turf and building their empires by hiring more assistant consultants to do the work the seniors don’t want to do.

    Frankly, I don’t think media relations is any more frustrating than internal communications, where you have to have a newsletter AND an intranet because some employees like to read on the bus and others want it there on their computer screens.

    I’ve heard it all from reporters: we don’t like attachments, we don’t like phone calls, we don’t like faxes, we don’t like email, we do like (all the above things the other ones didn’t like). Just update your media list, add a column headed, ‘prefers to be contacted by’ and let the folks who enjoy doing media relations and are good at it get on with it. And reward them accordingly, as the experts they rapidly become.

  12. Great blog, as usual. You bring fresh insight and valid points that other PR pros are afraid to ask.

    What happens, though, to the young PR pros that say “No, this isn’t a good idea to pitch” and aren’t listened to? Is it something that you keep pushing, or does this come off as defiant to a senior PR pro? I ran into this problem a lot at one of my old gigs, and I eventually quit because it wasn’t worth not being able to at least discuss differing opinions.

    For a communications field, we seem to sometimes have a terrible breakdown in communicating with each other.

  13. Nice post –

    I’ve literally been working on a similar one – oh well, back to the drawing board.

    There is one more reason-it works (or more accurately it works enough to hook you, like Vegas).

    Everyone who blasts or smiles and dials has gotten a hit at some trade or bureau they never would have gotten normally b/c it happened to be a slow news day or a freelancer flaked and the Ed. needed something to fill the space.

    As long as the hits keep coming what’s a few bits of hate e-mail or rude hang-ups? If you ban the email account they’ll get another, it’s no biggie.

  14. David, to point #1 — what about all of the former agency pros that land jobs as client-side communications team members? I know many of them… including myself! My agency days are not too far behind me, and in my in-house role, I’m not looking for smile and dial agency support. I want smart, targeted, strategic pitching and outreach that generates opportunities and results.

    Why then, does it seem like many firms resort to the lowest common denominator – i.e. untargeted blast emails and call downs? Honestly, I’m not sure, and I really wish we could get to the bottom of it.

    It’s a chicken/egg scenario – show me quality results, and quantity becomes less important. Results lagging? The agency response is generally to show more quantity – like long lists of call down reports. I don’t think this meets either party’s needs, and certainly doesn’t help improve the media’s view of PR people or the companies they’re pitching.

    You’re right – the spamming might not end anytime soon, but I actually believe agency reps could make great headway to lead to a change. Let’s all make an effort to focus on quality — and see if that doesn’t make for happy clients, account leads, and junior staffers.

  15. Nature of the business no?

    Clients who pay for something specific, even if their request is strategically poor, expect what they ask for.

    Ultimately the agency must position itself as solutions based and not execution alone. In other words, “Tell me your problem, and I will tell you the best way to get it fixed.”

    That’s a top down decisions that a lot of PR firms are struggling with every day!

  16. It’s good to be king! (Or Queen, as the case may be!) I happen to be one of those (senior) pr people who love media relations and am lucky to be back working solo. While I’ve done work in many other areas (community relations, special events, advertising, etc.), media relations has always been my specialty.

    That said, most of my career was spent in small to mid-size agencies where the client ruled. And as discussed, you never want to be the one to lose an account because of honest counsel. Sad but true and I’m guessing it remains so today. Especially today, in this economy.

    Hence the beauty of working on your own. I find my clients accept my counsel with a much higher regard. If I tell them I think the universe of appropriate media is only five trade publications, but let’s establish strong relationships with those five, they’re receptive and eager to follow my advice.

    I second Jen W’s post above — if a prospective client doesn’t get it and/or can’t be persuaded then I’m probably not the right pr/media relations person for them.

    So, until the economy rights itself and parties on both sides (agencies/clients) are under less pressure to justify their existences, I expect things will continue as is. For now, those of us lucky enough to be solos will have to continue working to educate clients about the value of relationships as opposed to the reporting of worthless numbers of calls, e-mails sent. Best/Geri R

  17. @beth – great point. I’ve had clients where they would cycle in sales people through the marketing/PR department. It was a massive education project for our agency each time and as they started to get the hang of it a year or so in, they’d cycle someone else through. Needless to say, I don’t think that’s an ideal situation.

    @Jen Z – good point about billable hours. It does take a lot of time on the front end to build a media list if you do indeed research it, vet it, etc. But if the agency is doing a good job of vetting, then there should be less spam.

    @dave – interesting that you bring that up. That definitely adds to the challenge. The problem is that no one method of distribution will appease all journalists’ preferences.

    @ruth – can I say “amen!” to that? That’s always perplexed me. I have a friend who was told to pitch The Wall Street Journal on her first day at her first job out of school at an agency. She had never made a pitch call before. She stumbled through it, annoyed the reporter, who hung up, and felt like a tool. I still can’t believe her boss made her do that 2 hours into her first day.

    @lauren – you can only push back so much. I’d recommend always pushing back once or twice, and if your boss doesn’t budge then you should eventually go to his/her boss. Share your concerns about damaging the agency’s reputation with key media due to non-worthy pitches dictated by the client and see how they react. I wouldn’t throw your supervisor under the bus at that stage. Hopefully the boss will go to the supervisor and say “hey we need to push back more with the client.” If that doesn’t happen, start looking for a new job because the truth is that your reputation with those reporters is being damaged as badly or worse than the agency’s.

    @PR Cog – That is absolutely true. Hey, if it didn’t work on some level, people would be forced to do something different, right?

    @christine – Here’s to clients who are former agency pros and “get it.”

    @Jen W. and Geri R. – good for you guys for standing up and telling clients “no.” That’s what we need more of these days. I wonder if it’s harder to do that (financially) since you’re solo or easier to do that because you’re the boss. Does the good outweigh not getting the paycheck? (I’m guessing it does.)

  18. I think between yourself and the comments here, you’ve pretty much nailed the problem in one (or three, I guess!).

    The main fault lies with the agency. Yes, clients can be a pain and oh we can’t afford to lose them… But are you really helping anyone by avoiding the issue and just saying “Yes”?

    To agency owners that don’t have the balls to stand up to their clients and tell them what they’re asking isn’t practical, I’m sorry but it’s your fault the industry gets such bad stick.

    You were hired for a reason – your expertise. Tell your client (nicely but firmly) that you wouldn’t tell them how to run their business – that’s not your expertise.

    What IS your expertise is how to get them the attention they’re looking for, and paying you for. If you can’t do your job the way you know it will work, then the client will suffer.

    And a final note. If you keep saying “Yes” to clients and then get complained about, you’re going to get a reputation as an agency not to work with. After all, what client wants to be associated with an agency with a bad reputation…?

  19. I’m hoping that the next generation of PR professionals will help with this problem. For one, they are supposedly supposed to be one of the best generations at standing up to their elders because they are used to getting it all. So hopefully they’ll be able to push back and change this way of thinking. Also, this generation is more used to building relationships through social networks, thus they understand the value of one-on-one communication. Hopefully these two factors will help change thought processes in our industry (Note, I say this as a 25 year old not quite in the generation I am speaking about).

  20. Good points, David. As a young PR pro, I can relate to the pressure applied on us regarding this topic and others. We often get the blame for mistakes when in reality we were simply following instructions (don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining).

    Still, many young professionals are hesitant to question leadership. But, in reality I have found that most effective leaders and managers appreciate input and suggestions from less-seasoned pros. I’m not saying it is okay to openly defy one’s supervisor, but challenging a position can be a great move for a career … as long as it is done professionally, etc.

    While I don’t have much experience with SPAM in PR, I appreciate the discussion and understand the controversey attached to it. Currently, I am writing a blog post on another controversial issue in PR right now … paid media placement. To be more accurate the post will discuss paid blogger coverage.

    Do you have any input, advice, knowledge, experiences, etc. on that subject?

    Anyway, thanks for the post … keep up the good work!

    Regards,
    JMGrass

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