Gini Dietrich

PR Spam: The Haggler Takes the PR Industry to Task

By: Gini Dietrich | December 3, 2013 | 

PR Spam- The Haggler Takes the PR Industry to TaskBy Gini Dietrich

It’s always fun when a media outlet – such as the New York Times – takes a swat at the PR industry.

That’s exactly what they did a couple of weeks ago when David Segal, the writer of The Haggler column, wrote “Swatting at a Swarm of Public Relations Spam.”

The good news is he took a bigger swipe at the media list compilation companies than at PR professionals. The bad news is PR spam exists and, no matter how often it’s talked about, it continues to be a problem.

A Little Background

Segal began to see an increase in emails he was receiving at his NY Times address after the publication tweaked its spam filters.

Just like anyone who writes anything worth pitching (a column, a blog, editorial), his inbox was full of emails about an iceless, self-chilling glass,”Christmas Cookie Treat Boxes, or a document previewer called Igloo, or a liquor called Pura Vida Tequila, which “will be in the house this season at Qualcomm Stadium.”

And, just like anyone who writes anything worth pitching, he received emails not suitable for a man who writes a column about the plights in customer service. Things such as mortgage scams and moving company nightmares.

Not about liquor or cookies or document previewers.

(Qualcomm Stadium, by-the-way, is in San Diego. Far, far away from New York City.)

So he began to email the PR pros back, wondering where they got his email address.

They all responded with an answer to his question, and it was always Vocus, Cision, PRNewswire, or the like.

The story goes on to detail how hard it was for his name to be removed from the databases and he provides an easy way for those wanting out in the future.

He also provides his email address at the bottom of the article so, if you have a legitimate complaint for The Haggler, it’s fairly easy to find him. All you have to do is pull up a recent column and voila!

It’s Not the Tool

But it’s not really the fault of Vocus or Cision or any of the media database companies.

It’s the fault of the people using the tool.

How many of you have used a media list database?

How many of you have pulled that first list and sighed because it had hundreds of names on it?

How many of you didn’t do any work beyond that and just sent your news release to the entire list?

If you were raising your hands and any of you put your hands down at this point, I’d call you a liar.

At some point in your career, I guarantee every one of us has stopped at pulling the list and just sent the release.

Even I have done that … before I knew it was bad. Before the CAN-SPAM Act was put into place in 2003. Before people started talking about how bad it was.

We’ve all done it.

But today? Today it’s ridiculous that anyone do it. We all know it’s bad practice and it is PR spam, which is against the law.

PR Spam Denied

Just like it is against the law to add anyone to an email list without their permission, it is against the law to send unsolicited email to journalists.

And yet…

I’d venture to guess I get upwards of 10 emails every day from PR pros who don’t have an unsubscribe button and are not sent only to me. I’d also venture to guess the number is at least four times that for Jason Konopinski, whose name is on this very blog as the person to pitch.

Yesterday, in fact, I received a media alert – it wasn’t personalized, it wasn’t targeted, there wasn’t an unsubscribe button – it was just the who, what, where, when, why in an email about the birthplace of Walt Disney being moved.

No, it’s not hard to hit delete and, sure, it’s easy enough to ignore. But when your inbox is full of this crap every day? It gets pretty frustrating.

(I also really love the ones that read, “You haven’t responded so I’m resending to hit the top of your inbox.” Those ones make me go mental.)

Now elevate that for someone who writes for the New York Times.

So What Do We Do?

Matt Wilson asked that question when he wrote about this topic in PR Daily.

Anyone who reads Spin Sucks regularly already knows the answer: Do your homework.

It’s not easy. In fact, it’s hard work and it takes a long time. When we’re paid for results based on our time, that’s asking a lot. I know it is.

But it always results in stories.

If you’re pitching a story about a new liquor being served in a football stadium, limit your pitch to food and beverage publications, football blogs, and local media.

If you’re pitching a story about Walt Disney’s birthplace, a good start is Chicago media, but then dig deep into that list to delete people from it. A blogger who writes about PR and marketing – even though she’s in Chicago – probably isn’t going to come to your event.

Your goal should always be to make your list as small as possible before you begin pitching.

If you approach it with that goal in mind, your pitching will be targeted, personal, and effective.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Gini, I was shaking my head when I read this column. It would seem in today’s PR industry, it’s been said and proven enough times that the “spray-and-pray” technique just doesn’t work anymore. I can’t count how many blog posts and professional publication articles I’ve read that beg us PR pros to stop this. It keeps happening, though, and it just keeps widening the gap between us and media members. I, too, have been guilty of this technique in another life, but I never got the results I did when I narrowed and specified my pitch to the reporters who covered the beat and would be interested. As Kate Finley’s post last week pointed out, you just don’t get the value with this technique as you do with “good, old-fashioned, roll up your sleeves and dig in PR.”

  • Without going into specifics, I’ve gotten “pitches” for simple mentions/links, fashion brands, virtually every tech gadget under the sun, and Coach purses. I’m not kidding about that last one.

  • I am happy to take the Coach purses and submit a guest post on how they made me more confident when I attended events and/or pitched business. 🙂

  • TaraGeissinger You know, if they’d have pitched cowboy boots and harvest-themed bandanas, I would have paid attention. 🙂 ginidietrich

  • Unfortunately, it’s just so darn EASY to use these lists and programs to email everyone under the sun. I love that you wrote this because it gives me something that I can share with clients to help explain why a smaller, targeted media list is actually stronger in the long run. Strategy and relationships people! There is no “easy” button.

  • I appreciate your thoughts that a media list is but a tool and not a strategy. The tool works if used appropriately but like any tool it is the craftsman’s art that will make the difference in the results. You have written about this often in posts. It is imperative for the buyer to fully understand the what, how and why of any media house or agency in terms of their services. It baffles me how we continue to get lost in making relations relative.

  • RAReed

    I’m still amazed we’re discussing such an elemental approach to audience targeting. It’s Rifle vs. shot gun; the farther you are away from the target, the rifle always wins.

  • I’ve always found it ironic that one of the biggest sources of PR spam in my inbox comes from a noted PR industry publication. I get dozens of their emails, pitching all kinds of products and events that have absolutely nothing to do with the kind of “PR” I practice. Hell, I don’t even call myself a PR person. And when you go to unsubscribe you’re presented with a dozen different lists you’re on. You can’t customize and say, “I want these two, but not those other 11.” 
    So yeah, we need some leadership from the organizations that are our public face.

  • Why, why, why are people so lazy. It achieves NOTHING. Except perhaps a bad reputation. Ugh.

  • I will die happy if I never get another infographic pitch for my blog.

  • All shortcuts fail. In fact the one similar shortcut called a success is Direct Mail with a 97% failure rate (the industry claims a 3% response average which could…..very well could be the best response rate for any type of marketing, advertising or PR.) Everything takes work.
    This relates to my recent thoughts on Klout and influence. How much effort it would take per individual to truly have insights on their life. Scanning your last 24 hrs of tweets (all 37 of them!) I could tell you are in PR, talk business, say hello to women tweeters, and either love Bears football (UC-Berkley? Chicago? etc) or maybe that is your fierce tweet of success when something goes right?
    That is it. How do I know if you are influential in anything just using a Klout score based on that? Just like how can I trust a massive mailing list. Clients should know the publications (on and offline) that they want exposure in. End of story. Start with those.

  • JayDolan I will be happy if the world never ever ever ever ever creates another infographic. So far the score is 7286 ones with horrendously false data, no sources, and crazy proclamations for effect to 3 that were accurate up and down.

  • RobBiesenbach whew I was waiting for you to say I was your biggest source of spam. I don’t have to throttle back my pitches. Saweet!


    As you can imagine, this story was top-of-mind here (at PR Newswire). Below is a blog penned off of the NYT piece. Bottom-line is our data folks take great effort to get very specific instruction from the journalists on what / how to pitch them. We don’t appreciate PR folks using us a spam spam spam spam baked beans spam spam spam and spam database either.

  • RAReed  I think too many amateurs have tools that didn’t exist before. I am one myself. I had done media relations and blogger outreach using social and email but I am a sales & marketing dude. I had some good success to.
    But I hated even sending out an email with more than one name on it which I did sometimes. Now I send individual ones even if the pitch is the same. The main reason is if I know the person well enough I can include personal communications.

  • annelizhannan kind of like nuclear technology. Some folks build power plants and others plan to destroy cities. Don’t be a city destroyer!

  • jasonkonopinski I saw you fly fishing with that coach purse holding your flies.

  • Howie Goldfarb That was our secret, Howie.

  • MonicaMillerRodgers And the PRSA events that are held at least once a year with a panel of journalists. They ALWAYS say, “Know what I write about. Know who my audience is. Tailor the pitch to me.” Always.

  • TaraGeissinger jasonkonopinski Don’t ignore the Coach purse emails!

  • ginidietrich  TaraGeissinger They’re in a special folder just for you.

  • TaraGeissinger I think some of it is ignorance. I’m pretty sure the pitch I received yesterday that I mention in the post is the result of a very young professional who doesn’t know any better. But I also keep hearing stories of how experienced professionals keep saying the numbers count and want their younger peers to just get it out to large numbers of people. Bad, bad, bad.

  • This has always been a pet peeve of mine. While it’s easy to just hit send, it SO much more effective to do your homework. I know, I’m preaching to the choir here.

  • annelizhannan I almost hate to keep talking about this, but it’s pretty clear by articles published by the NY Times and my inbox that people aren’t hearing the message.

  • Howie Goldfarb THAT is exactly how you should do it.

  • RAReed I should start forwarding you some of the pitches I receive…from people you and I both know should know better.

  • RobBiesenbach I have so many thoughts about this one comment, I don’t know where to begin! I think I know which one you’re talking about AND there are a couple of others that do the same. I’d actually never thought about it from that angle. They’re spamming us…we’re spamming journalists. It’s a never-ending cycle.

  • belllindsay Work is hard, Elbee.

  • belllindsay I think *some* of it is naivety. The rest? Laziness.

  • JayDolan You know what that makes me want to do?

  • ginidietrich Howie Goldfarb I can create a webinar for Spin Sucks on how to send out individual emails.

  • Sigh, those like the one you mentioned “You have not responded…” make me insane as well. Perhaps there is a reason I have not responded? There are several reasons 1) Possibly you spammed me  2) I dont know you 3) You didnt do you research and I have no interest in what you are pitching,
    I raised my hand about using lists in the past without weeding it out first…but a long time ago.  Now it kills me when I get competitors who call me and have no idea we offer the SAME, EXACT SERVICES?!? Seriously, you waste time, money and resources by not weeding out the list.

  • And someday, Howie, I’m going to take you up on one of those offers. I still can’t believe I can pull in $8K a week working from my home! Your system sound almost too good to be true! Almost.

  • Beer talk!
    I will hand it to Bulldog Reporter. Some of their morning alerts landed in my spam folder. I didn’t mark them as “not spam” and they automatically took me off their list. Smart!

  • CommProSuzi

    I’m going to float a couple of thoughts to the “SuperFriends of Public Relations” (that’d be all of us commenting away on Spin Sucks.) 
    1 – Teach the Fledglings/Practice What We Preach
    How many of us were taught to pitch correctly when we were fledglings? How many of us were handed a copy of Bacon’s — sometimes outdated — told to compile a list of (TOPIC) reporters, send to that list, and then follow up? So, without questioning the wisdom of our elders, or our client, we executed. And it kinda sorta worked. So we did it again. And again. We were congratulated on our effort. 
    How much more effective would it have been if someone walked us through the most basic of public relations practices… the pitch?  How much more effective if we mentors introduced our fledglings to the reporters? What if we truly “Watched One. Did One. Taught One.” like they do in medical circles? 
    So, if we want the madness to stop here, let’s stop it by teaching the proper way. 
    2 – Help us out,  Reporters
    On the other side of the fence, reporters/bloggers could do themselves and the public relations pros who love them a huge favor by completing their profiles on the databases. Having pulled my fair share of lists as starting points for franchisees, those profiles are woefully sparse.
    Please use the notes section to inform us of your beat so you can save both of us a phone call. Let us know what you want to see, and what you really don’t want to see.  If your beat changes, update your profile. I’ve followed reporters across the Southland and even followed them as they took promotions.  The scope of their work changed, and they were able to suggest another contact.  In 2008, my lists of contacts went sideways as many of my contacts were downsized and those remaining took on a larger scope of assignments — interior design and automotive, for instance. 🙂 
    3 – I’m always looking to improve and fine tune my pitching technique. What works for you? 

  • CommProSuzi

    ginidietrich you are truly a world-class imp! Love it!

  • CommProSuzi

    belllindsay I suggest, they weren’t trained in the ways of the pitching pros.  I can’t blame folks if they were trained incorrectly or not at all.

  • CommProSuzi

    ginidietrich TaraGeissinger That comment about “large numbers” kills me.  
    I pitched a client who said he hired a firm a few years ago to get his name everywhere. They did. In some pretty suspect places, e.g. those internet Ask A Question/Get an Answer from someone who THINKS they’re an expert. The question is usually phrased: “Is XYZ legitimate?” “Is THIS PERSON a fraud?”  Ironically, he saw this as success.

  • CommProSuzi

    jasonkonopinski If you get a pitch for a really nice dressage saddle, please keep me in mind. But the Coach purses are a great runner up in my book. 🙂

  • CommProSuzi

    MonicaMillerRodgers  I suggest that a good tool is following Twitter feeds. I’ve pitched over twitter…successfully. (I was shocked!)

  • susancellura

    One just cannot be lazy with public relations and the media. I think I’ve told this story before, but at one company I worked for, a much younger person actually told me, “Oh, just send it to the distribution list  – put it in the BCC line”.
    I took so much time building a relationship with one editor, that he would always work our news into the publication, web site, etc.
    And, I agree wholeheartedly with many of the comments/conversations going on below!

  • Clients/companies/orgs are often numbers/quantity-minded. How many places did you send the release to (sorry about that preposition, Gini)? How many releases have you sent this month? 
    In addition to being responsible for respecting and working well with media contacts, as a PR professional, I also have to educate people in my company to understand that not everything is BIG NEWS and that releases should be well-written news stories that truly offer value for the audiences of the media outlets to which we send them.

  • susancellura

    Word Ninja YES! YES! YES!

  • BHSMITH Very good point! I can imagine it’s extremely frustrating to be tarred with the same brush, just because you’ve provided the contact info.

  • At a previous agency, I had to provide a report for every. single. journalist who I pitched who was on the media list for a given announcement. It didn’t matter what they said. I just had to explain how my pitch efforts went. This made it feel like the numbers outweighed the success.
    In other words, if I provided a report that said I pitched 45 reporters, I felt like I had done my job better than someone who only pitched ten. But you know what? Quality should trump quantity. But like Word Ninja says below: Some companies judge success by the numbers, regardless of whether or not they are the right numbers.
    Long story short: This practice will likely never go away.

  • People are going to abuse whatever device, service or lists make their lives easier. As stated in earlier comments, everything’s a numbers game. Quantity is the appearance of doing work. Quality is actually DOING the work. 
    I guess because so many businesses associate “quantity” with productivity they fail to see how much more important the impact of “quality” really is. It’s also harder to measure quality in comparison to quantity. 
    And because PR people are clever kittens that understand this idea of “perceived work,” they don’t want to look like they’re not doing anything, so they abuse email lists to impress their clients.
    Only when businesses emphasize quality over quantity will such abuses end.

  • bradmarley Crazy. All that time you were required to spend providing a report, you could have spent pitching.

  • ginidietrich JayDolan Try me.

  • RAReed

    ginidietrich RAReed I do find this topic infuriating. I am manic about proper planning and targeting. Sure, it costs more for an experienced human to parse a target and send personalized pitches, but the end result is so much better. Besides, I think of my personal reputation because my name is on the email.

  • JRHalloran You win comment of the day for using “clever kitten”

  • bradmarley I also had to provide that kind of report early in my career. Clients wanted to see it and they wanted to know who was saying no. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had my team do said reports when I started this business. And then I discovered how wrong that practice was.

  • Word Ninja I just had a friend ask me if I thought she should push back on her boss wanting her to send a release about something that was not at all newsworthy. I confirmed her instinct and helped her message how to tell the big boss. She won the fight.

  • susancellura OMG! What did you say??

  • CommProSuzi Like you, my relationships went sideways in 2008. My biggest advocate at USA Today was furloughed and then laid off. It still makes me sad.

  • sydcon_mktg Bwahahaaha! The competitor one kills me. I had a young lady from a competing agency do that. I called her boss (who I know really well) and said, “Um, you might want to take a look at who your team is pitching.”

  • yvettepistorio I’ll sing some amens!

  • BHSMITH I’m headed over to read that now.

  • ginidietrich Yes please…and record it so we can play it over and over!

  • CommProSuzi Here is what I sent him!

  • KevinVandever

    I’ve had the “sending again to get to the top of your inbox” too. I fool them all. I read my email from the bottom up. I’m at 2008 now.

  • beckyverner

    Media relations today is tough, especially when you are just starting out and just about every pitch is a cold pitch unless I’ve (I mean you) had a class with the reporter in college. It’s disheartening to research a publication, find stories that relate to your topic and follow & begin trying to build relationships with those reporters, only to have the majority of your communications ignored. I’m going to try this strategy I found on SpinSucks to ease my way on to the radars of reporters in ways that hopefully seem less “creepy” than a random follow and continued retweets of their posts.

  • BHSMITH Great article, have pinned, scooped and added to my curation files.

  • ginidietrich They may not be hearing but they’re definitely not listening, or educated and experienced properly, or simply don’t care which are all major problems in our industry…trust and respect.  You continue to do the field a great service by highlighting the problems and teaching. It is obvious by the comments that most of us (listening) appreciate and feel your frustration and will continue to be your amplifier 😉

  • ginidietrich Cool to have these real life examples happening as we speak.

  • KevinVandever LOL!! I love you.

  • CommProSuzi TaraGeissinger ARGH!!

  • susancellura

    ginidietrich I politely told her that in all my years that my experience showed that was the BEST way to guarantee that the release would NOT be picked up, and as it was her product launch, surely she wanted it picked up?

  • Hi Gini,
    Thank you for diving into this conversation. We agree that
    creating targeted campaigns is the most direct path to success. To that end, we
    introduced a new search more than a year ago that allows greater filtering and
    identification to thwart spammers, and we continue updating our functionality,
    like with our Social Influencer Search that launched last month.
    We know you’re aware of many of the steps we take to make sure
    our tool not only provides the best value to communicators, but also guides
    relationships with journalists. We honor journalists’ requests to remove or
    update their listings, and aim to update both client and journalist requests
    sent to within 24 hours.
    Situations like these help us to be more aware of what we can do
    to better our product and the industry, and it’s helpful to not only hear your
    insight, but also hear from your community; this is what drives our industry to

  • susancellura A-M-A-Z-I-N-G

  • Cision NA Like I said, I don’t think this is the fault of the tool at all. I know you guys are doing everything you can to make PR pros better at media relations, but sometimes all of your efforts fall on deaf ears when they just create a list and send an email.

  • CommProSuzi

    Howie Goldfarb JayDolan If you ever really want to see people convulse, ask them for the evidence that supports their claims.

  • ginidietrich Yippie!  🙂

  • Gini, ICYMI, here is the PRSA official response to The Haggler. I agree that the industry of media database tools is not to blame but the user who abuses the tool. I would love to hear your opinion on the tongue-in-cheek style of the response, though.!

  • bobzeit

    Sorry, Gini, but there are some of us PR folks who have NEVER sent a news release to a huge list without thought to who should actually get it. 
    And it is partly Cision’s fault for even offering a service that allows lazy PR people to send out a news release to hundreds of reporters in a mass fashion. 
    Maybe its’ because I’ve always done B to B PR, and the lists shouldn’t be so large to begin with. 
    I’ve always said the good thing about responsible PR people is that most other PR people set the bar so damn low.  But it’s also the bad thing about PR as well.

  • bobzeit

    bradmarley Word Ninja 
    Brad: let me ask — what was your goal or your agency’s goal for that client? Was it to pitch 45 reporters?  That’s not too lofty of a goal.  Or was it to get five stories placed?  If that was the goal, I wouldn’t care if you pitched six reporters. As long as you placed the five stories.  Hell, I’d even give you the rest of the day off if you did it quickly!