Blame the publicist, not the media database.
New York Times consumer columnist David Segal, aka The Haggler, went off topic this week to slam publicists who clog his email with spam—press releases on topics that are irrelevant to him, his readers, and, most likely, The New York Times readership. In his column, Swatting at a Swarm of Public Relations Spam, Segal complains about publicists who subscribe to a very powerful and—when poorly used—dangerous media relations tool, an online media database.
The offenders he hunted down were using Vocus, but other media database providers–Cision, Agility and Media Pro–to name a few, are equal opportunity platforms for making a pest of yourself.
Segal isn’t the first journalist to rant about press release spam. In 2007, former Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson published, in The Long Tail blog, a long list of PR and publicists’ email addresses, whom he declared would be forever blocked from his email because they sent him press release spam or didn’t target their pitch to the right person on his staff.
“Lazy flacks send press releases to the Editor in Chief of Wired because they can’t be bothered to find out who on my staff, if anyone, might actually be interested in what they’re pitching. Fact: I am an actual person, not a team assigned to read press releases and distribute them to the right editors and writers.”
“Most news releases are not read or are ignored. Unsolicited, irrelevant and meaningless news releases—the overwhelming bulk of releases emailed to newsrooms—are the #1 complaint of journalists about the PR business. The problem has reached such proportions that most news organizations now actively work to block press releases in special spam filters to prevent the sheer volume of them from overwhelming the email in boxes of reporters and editors.”
How and why spam happens
As someone who has used both Cision and Agility media databases, I have a pretty good idea of how such spam happens.
Let’s say your public relations firm is engaged by the Lightsaber Training Academy on the planet Tatooini to “get us some press.” (A really bad way to begin an assignment, by the way, but that’s another topic.) The media database allows you to plug in filters for reporters, editors and bloggers based on specific criteria. You can target media in a designated market area (DMA), a geographic location, the topic the outlet covers, the topic the journalist or blogger covers, audience demographics and other relevant parameters. But often, if you are too specific, nothing comes up when you plug in your ideal search criteria. So, you systematically start broadening your filters.
Maybe your topic category was too narrow. After all, with newsrooms shrinking into oblivion, you rationalize, many reporters are now expected to cover several beats. So, in your topics filter, instead of typing, “Jedi” or “lightsaber” or “training,” you choose the more generic “news” category.
Or, perhaps there aren’t enough media outlets on Tatooini to give you a respectable distribution list. So instead, you choose a few of the main DMAs in the United States: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. This will bring up a potential distribution list of hundreds of contacts, almost all of whom will not be interested in your Lightsaber Training Academy on Tatooini, because: 1) none of their readers are aspiring Jedi and 2) they don’t live on Tatooini.
You know this, of course, but it would be too time consuming to examine each one of those contacts to determine whether the outlet and its audience are appropriate for your topic. If you’re being paid on a flat fee or project basis, time is literally money out the door. And, if you’re billing hourly, you’ll have a hard time explaining to your client or boss why you are billing for several hours of database research only to cull a tiny handful of journalists who will receive their precious release.
So, you conclude, the most efficient solution is to upload your press release, hit the SEND button and hope that at least some of those hundreds of outlets and journalists will be on target and snag you a “hit.”
Moreover, now you can report to your client or CEO that you distributed the release to hundreds–not a mere dozen or so–journalists. It sounds like a win-win. You save time, your client or boss is impressed by the volume of your output, and the hundreds of journalists and bloggers you just spammed can simply hit the delete key? So what’s the big deal?
“That’s like fishing with dynamite.”said Andrew Lazorchak when Segal spoke to the managing director of the company that hired the spamming publicist. As Segal points out, fishing with dynamite is actually more productive.
As a former journalist, I feel their pain.
Before being seduced by The Dark Side, I spent nearly 20 years in a newsroom, so I know, from painful experience, what a big deal press release spam can be. And I can say, with near certitude, that if you routinely send spammy press releases you, and the organization you represent, will have little or no credibility with the news media.
Journalists are just as time crunched as you are, perhaps more so. And most of them are predisposed to distrust public relations “flacks,” anyway, regarding them as little more than gnats buzzing in their ears. So, if, on top of their preconceived attitude, you heap obvious disrespect for their time, you court their wrath.
As a newsroom copyeditor, I had to take my turn at the dreaded duty of cleaning out the bin below the fax machine (remember those?). We had to winnow through the overflowing heap and distribute the few, relevant news releases to the appropriate editor or reporter. It wasn’t long before we learned how to screen the releases by the headline, and later, simply by looking at the PR firm or business’s logo. Releases from habitual spammers went straight into the recycling bin, unread. When I entered the public relations field, I swore I’d never forget or betray my journalism roots that focused on factual accuracy, good storytelling and relevancy.
Journalists use email to stay in touch with genuine news sources and communicate with colleagues. When their email gets too cluttered, its harder to find that crucial piece of information they need to plug a hole in a story before the copy deadline. This is more than irritating. It makes it harder to do their jobs.
Remember that PR does NOT stand for press release; it stands for public relations, which is about forging mutually beneficial relationships with people–including the media. So spend some time getting to know the most important media outlets and journalists that cover your client’s or organization’s sector. Read what they are writing about, follow them on Twitter and other social media outposts (but don’t spam them there either). Occasionally send them useful news tips, even when it has nothing to do with your client or organization. Finally, pick up the phone and talk to them (first making sure they’re not on deadline) to find out what topics they are most interested in and how and when they’d like you to pitch story ideas. Always be polite and respectful.
Keep in mind that journalists avoid covering the same story that ran in a competing media outlet, so consider offering your most important media outlet an exclusive, or at least an individualized story treatment.
Follow these media relations tips.
Once you refine your media distribution list to precisely the right journalists, keep these tips in mind when crafting your release:
- Lead with a story (about people — not things or corporate entities)
- Show (don’t tell) how and why this impacts the news media’s audience.
- Stick to the facts (Kill as many adjectives as possible. Fact-check your information.)
- Keep it short. (The reporter will call you if he or she wants more information.)
- Never call a reporter to ask: “Did you get my press release?”
Be your own media outlet.
Finally, in today’s media marketplace, there’s no reason to rely on the traditional news media and its gatekeepers to tell your story. Use your website, social media outposts and other venues to identify and communicate with your most important stakeholders. Forge a mutually beneficial relationship with people who are engaged with your organization, your cause or your brand. Inspire them to share your important, relevant information with their own networks. Who knows? Maybe a journalist will notice the online chatter and cover your story.
Media outlets can do more to solve the PR spam problem.
Instead of—as Segal suggests—declining to be listed in the media databases, which would be a disservice to both public relations professionals and journalists, media outlets can develop a better solution to deal with the volume of press releases. Set up a separate email address specifically for press releases on various topics, such as: Regional and Local News, Science and Technology, Business, Health, Travel, etc. Then have section editors sift through their press release email as time permits. I’m certain they’d cull interesting, relevant and useful information fairly often. Also, this would help PR professionals quickly identify the correct address based on the topic of their release. Seriously, it doesn’t have to be this hard.