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Restraining Orders for the P.R. Profession

24935477 5ac6d8c8b1 Restraining Orders for the P.R. Profession

This is a post by PR columnist, Alison Kenney.

What is going on? When did P.R. start meaning “please refrain”?

I mean, I’m used to hearing grouchy editors rag on P.R. tactics during their keynote speeches. I smile politely and wait to hear their advice on how best to pitch them if I really want to get coverage for my clients.

But what used to be a low background din has become a maelstrom of ill-will towards the P.R. profession.

The latest influential personality to rant against P.R. people is Forrester’s Josh Bernoff, whose biggest beef is the unsolicited emails he receives

Yes, Bernoff could ignore or delete those emails, but most likely he’s bothered by their persistence and is trying to do something about it. Apparently, just unsubscribing doesn’t always cut it, and sometimes there is no unsubscribe feature (such as on a press release). Which led me to wonder how P.R. firms get around the CAN-SPAM act? (Bernoff counters via Twitter that “It’s not clear that PR emails are covered by FTC. Plus, their CAN SPAM enforcement is weak. This is an ethical issue, not legal.”)

It also led me to wonder why unsolicited email is so offensive from P.R. people. I receive hundreds of unsolicited emails too — from sales people at a range of different firms. But I don’t post rants on each individual sender the way these folks do:

So what do we do? Many folks chastise their comrades and take the “hey, we’re better than that” attitude. Some use it as a chance to kiss up to the cranky reporters with a “thanks for pointing that out.” PRSA tries to stay above the fray; it’s response to Josh Bernoff’s post “sounds like it was written by a P.R. professional” according to Bernoff (via Twitter).

What do you think? Is P.R. in need of some good P.R. for itself? If so, how is P.R. doing well and what are we doing right? Let’s start that conversation for a change.

Alison Kenney an independent PR practitioner with more than 15 years of PR consulting experience. She is based on Boston’s North Shore and has worked with organizations in the technology, professional services and consumer industries. She writes a bi-monthly PR column on You can find her at Learn more about Alison Kenney.

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10 Comments - Add yours!

Todd Post (March 2nd, 2011)

I don’t know how many public relations conferences I’ve been to with the “grouchy editors rag on P.R. tactics during their keynote speeches.” or a panel discussion billed as “How to Pitch Reporters” which is nothing more than a gripefest against PR “flacks”. It’s always the same thing…”You people s***. Don’t contact me unless you have something I’m interested in. Blah, blah, blah.” I’ve stopped going to them, as they’re a waste of my time.

I don’t have as much of a problem with the Bad Pitch Blog as the names are withheld to protect the guilty for the most part. I’ve only seen them out someone once and only because the person went above and beyond. It’s a good lesson of “what not to do” from real life examples.

PR doesn’t need PR. I think we should be heard, not seen. If PR is doing its job right, the target audience shouldn’t even know we had a hand in getting the message placed. When I see something in the media that has an obvious PR connection, it seems less credible.

Part of the problem is so much of PR is done by young account assistants who are right out of college and get very little direction or mentoring. They make faux pas out of inexperience and management is to blame for not teaching them better. College may teach you the principles, but you don’t understand the practical application until you start doing it for real.

Then you have people from small businesses, nonprofits, etc. who aren’t professional communicators, but venture into the fray because they have to. Maybe they’re a sole proprietor who knows they need get news out about themselves, but they don’t know how build and execute an integrated communications plan. Perhaps they’re in a small office wearing five other hats, one that happens to be PR.

And then you have those times when you have to take the “Nuremberg defense” because you’ve been put in a position where a client or executive insists you pitch something you know isn’t going to fly and you’re just following orders.

So in a way, I can understand the frustration of reporters who have to take the good with the bad, but they shouldn’t paint us all with the same brush. For our part, we should do a better job as communicators of educating ourselves, mentoring those who work for us, and educating those we work for on good communication principles. Yeah, we could do a better job, but the reporters need to have less of a short fuse too. We’re always going to need each other and we need to learn how to get along.

Louie (March 2nd, 2011)

I’ve been on both the send and receive end of a PR pitch or news release. From the PR practitioner’s end, I understand the urge to improve your odds by sending a news release or pitch to as many eyeballs as possible. As I got more experienced, I understood that a more focused list is usually more effective. From the reporter’s POV, I was deluged by the number of requests for my attention and mindshare, and sometimes it’s just not possible to hear everyone out. However, I did understand that it was part of my job to listen to the noise and to sort out the wheat from the chaff. To turn off too much of the noise would do my readers a disservice, since they deserved as complete a picture of the issue as possible, untainted by my personal feelings. And to shut myself off to any source of information is both irresponsible and condescending. I’d met many reporters who prided themselves on their primadonna-like inaccessibility to PR practitioners; very few were true pundits or truly insightful. PR practitioners don’t need to “do PR” for their profession. They simply need to do their jobs well, even when that means creatively looking for new media and the gatekeepers for those new avenues to reach audiences.

Louie (March 2nd, 2011)

Sorry, typo in my first post: “insightful” not “inciteful.”

Josh Bernoff (March 3rd, 2011)

Thanks for contributing to the discussion.

I’m not trying to get out from under the emails. I’m trying to change the industry and benefit everyone. I bet if it annoys me, it annoys all of us analysts, bloggers, reporters, and “influencers.”

I keep hearing “Most of aren’t like that” but the emailers who send the blasts are the ones that fill up my inbox. So why not certify the people who behave appropriately, to separate you from the PR spam artists?

Alison (March 3rd, 2011)

Thanks Josh. I’m really curious about your idea for certifying proper behavior. Can you explain your thoughts on that some more?

David Jacobson (March 3rd, 2011)

Hi Alison. This is a great post about a constantly recurring problem, of which there are several causes.

The biggest are the bad agencies and PR practitioners that are too lazy to do their research on which publications, analysts, bloggers, etc. are TRULY relevant for their clients. This means they don’t know their clients, don’t know the publications/analysts, or both. I believe the longest press list I ever had for a client was about 125 names, and I knew every name and publication on the list.

Some agencies are also guilty of giving this job to either an intern or very junior person to do. I can understand a junior employee not knowing every name on the list and putting too many names on to be safe, but it’s up to the account manager or VP to proofread this and they bear responsibility for handling the account.

Most PR people send releases through a service like Vocus that “personalizes” the announcement so it looks like a 1:1 communication. I don’t think Vocus has an unsubscribe feature like Constant Contact, but it’s a great idea and should be implemented. But whether you have it or not, if someone asks to be removed from your list you REMOVE THE PERSON. The examples Josh Bernoff cites are inexcusable.

Irrelevant pitch letters go back to the first point about PR people not doing enough research to see if the pitches are on target for where they are going. I got a chuckle from some of the links you put in your story, but what would be better are journalists and analysts who can point out good pitch letters that resulted in coverage. I’ll bet most of them are short and quickly address the reporter’s focus.

Finally, I’m unsurprised to see PRSA not helping here. Anything they could do (which they won’t) would be irrelevant since at least 95% of PR pros don’t belong and even fewer are accredited APRs (most agency executives are not). If PRSA were more effective, problems like these may not happen in the first place!

Alison (March 4th, 2011)

Thanks everyone for the comments. Awareness of the problems certainly isn’t the issue!

Gerry Corbett (March 4th, 2011)

Oh my gosh Josh, are you suggesting that everyone who sends an email be certified to be able to do so?

Pray tell, who will be the certifying body?

The associations that play in that space are far too many to certify. Let’s see you have PRSA, IABC, PR Seminar, Arthur Page Society, Social Media Club, Women in Communications, National Association of Science Writers, San Francisco PR Round Table, New York PR Society, Wiseman, Wise Guys, Public Relations Professionals for Fair Treatment of Analysts, etc, etc.

Let’s go where the issue really is and that is personal ethics and professionalism. Unfortunately, you cannot legislate ethics. Reasonable, intelligent people will do the right thing.

If the Can-Spam act has not had an impact, no amount of certification of emailers will accomplish your desire.

Let’s be practical here. We have been given a delete button for a reason. Please exercise it.

All the best,

Gerry Corbett

Steven Spenser (March 5th, 2011)

In my 15 years of corporate, agency & nonprofit PR/public affairs, I have yet to encounter a client or employer’s media list—especially those created from commercial databases (Vocus, Cision, et. al.)—that has not contained a significant number of wildly inappropriate inclusions and inaccurate listings. Granted, much of this stems from operator error (GIGO) in selecting the wrong parameters for choosing various categories of outlets, niches, etc. But my point is that we can never rely on uncorroborated press contacts.

I used to be an editor and writer with The Associated Press and The Seattle Times. Getting unsolicited press releases was, and remains, part of the job for most journalists (and other influencers, such as analysts). But if you listen to most major-market reporters—and, especially, tech reporters—it’s plain they’re being inundated and that many of them resent receiving mistargeted pitches. As a result, an increasing number of them don’t want to be sent anything they don’t request.

I have been telling PR students, new practitioners, junior staffers—even veteran PR pros—for years that sending an unsolicited press release to a stranger who’s never heard of you or your client, relying on a database of unknown accuracy (since you didn’t verify the media list before using it), is unprofessional and unacceptable behavior. Simply being included in someone’s database does not constitute agreement to be spammed.

The PR profession has long been plagued by lazy or uncaring practitioners who broadcast their announcements to as many media outlets and influencers as they have on their media lists, regardless of the story’s fit, and without bothering to confirm whether each name should even be on the list.

What puzzles me about this continuing practice is why anyone would blindly trust a media database, and send out material without confirming the media list’s accuracy. What if the media database upon which you’re relying has misspellings, incorrect titles and outdated contact info? How will you know that your pitch will reach its intended recipient if you don’t first verify the list?

In these times of shrinking newsrooms, with sudden reorganizations, mass layoffs and early-retirement buyouts, the information contained in any subscription-media database is potentially already out-of-date. Journalists might get briefly sick, go on medical leave or vacation, or take a sabbatical or fellowship. They could be reassigned, fired, quit or retire. Any PR practitioner who fails to confirm that each person on her inherited media list, or a freshly generated, database-derived list, is doing a disservice to her client or employer that could have significant impacts on a PR initiative or campaign.

You only have a single opportunity to make a great first impression with a reporter. Thus, any pitching campaign needs to verify—before the first call is made or e-mail sent—every name on the list, along with its spelling (often pronunciation too), proper title, beat, contact info and pitching preference.

Even if reporters need PR content and contacts to do their job, we nonetheless can’t afford to irritate them, especially by sending them something that plainly has no value to their audiences—which we would have learned had we spent the time to research the media outlet’s audience(s), the reporter’s beat(s), favorite topics and what she’s written in the past. Journalists continually harp on this, but their advice too often falls on deaf, or closed, ears.

Journalists have little respect for anyone who doesn’t do her homework in approaching them, and practitioners who call to follow up on a mistargeted press release will only make matters worse for themselves and their client or employer.

Obviously, if you have a legitimate hard-news story that most outlets are going to be interested in covering, shotgunning your announcement may not cause any problems. But I think that we still should strive to find an acceptable line between best practice and operating solely on unconfirmed assumptions—IOW, between “good” and “good enough.”

In practice, this means every PR practitioner should introduce herself to each name on her media list, briefly describe the industry news which her client or employer can provide, and learn whether the journalist would like to be contacted in the future. And all of this should happen before any initial pitch is even contemplated, or made.

The most effective PR agencies have built successful relationships with their media contacts, who trust them to only send newsworthy stories. Regrettably, our profession still has its share of unscrupulous companies that continue to engage in spamming improperly targeted press releases to every media outlet far and wide, relying on the huge volume of their e-mails to produce results for clients who don’t care about what’s done in their name. Such PR firms often declare that complaints from spammed journalists are rare, but few journalists have the time to stop and call (or even e-mail) with a cease-and-desist demand. Most simply delete the spam announcement and look for something newsworthy to pursue.

One of the hardest things I ever have to do with clients or employers is inform them that the announcement they want to make will not interest the press. Clients rarely can see past their blinders, and assume that if something is impressive to them that it will be of interest to everyone else—which is why so many media lists are filled with every outlet under the sun that deals even tangentially with a given subject.

Too many practitioners are unwilling to deliver the bad news if it means a loss of income. They take the client’s money, write the best release possible promoting something with little or no news value, then send it out hoping for hits. This practice devalues our profession and reinforces the long-standing misperception that PR is only media relations, and that publicity is the chief benefit of PR.

Every practitioner frequently has to rely on her best guesses, based on years of professional experience. I’m not gainsaying that occasional necessity. But we are ethically compelled to deliver to our clients the best and most accurate data and work products that we can create. If we have to charge more for delivering our best effort—the comprehensive research required to create a completely accurate media list—then everybody wins, because the client will get more hits from a properly vetted list.

No one argues that the subscription databases are perfect, but no practitioner can afford to assume they are. With just a few fone calls to confirm names, spellings, titles, beats, contact info and pitching preferences, any media list can be transformed from something riddled with unknown inaccuracies into a perfect. If that sounds like a huge task, well—that’s why God makes interns. (And assistant A/Es.) The larger the organization, the easier such homework becomes.

The PRSA is incapable of monitoring its thousands of members, and any push to make it do so, with the goal of decertifying, expelling or punishing PR practitioners who spam, is doomed to fail. The PRSA’s Code of Ethics is meant as an advisory guideline, not a set of procedures that can trigger consequences for violation. However, since the PRSA is the industry’s principal professional-education resource, I think the best chance of reducing PR practitioners’ reliance on spam is to have the organization launch or sponsor an industry-wide campaign to educate professionals about how media lists should be properly sourced. This will change the dynamics of Bernoff’s situation from getting off spammer’s lists into making sure that lazy, ignorant and unintentionally unprofessional practitioners contact him first to confirm his interest.

Why Editors Are Losing their Taste for PR Spam | The PRagmatist (March 6th, 2011)

[...] intrigued with a guest blog posted by Alison Kenney on Lindsay Olsen’s PR blog calling for “A Restraining Order for the PR Profession.” Apparently, in the eyes of the press, [...]

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