Flacks = Quacks? Avoiding PR Malpractice

Photo by Joyrex at Flickr

So you’re an entrepreneur reading the latest “pr sucks” meme to hit the Internets and thinking, “shit, we were counting on PR to drive 1,000 beta sign-ups in the first 6 months… now what?”  Or you heard that your agency is listed on the ignominious prspammer blacklist.  It’s not good, Jim, not good at all.  To recap: Gina Tripani at Lifehacker created a blacklist of agencies who spam her personal email address; Todd Defren apologized; then the conversation got ugly with PR’s on one side saying, “hey, there’s bacon and tofo besides spam,” or “blacklists = bigotry against PR’s,” and “oh, by the way, quit crying, PR spam is an occupational hazard,” and bloggers saying, “wtf… why can’t you read my ‘How to Pitch Me’ instructions?” Or worse, “It’s ALL spam.” 

So what’s actionable for the entrepreneur?

If you have an agency on the blacklist, I wouldn’t worry about it.  No serious blogger is going to use the list.  For starters, if people like Brian Solis are banned, there’s a problem with the list.  Second, if anyone can add to the list, good firms will be blacklisted for pretty weak reasons.  For a serious tech blogger, the risk of missing quality tips is too high.  Indeed, Gina isn’t proposing to apply the blacklist to tips @ lifehacker, just her personal email.  But there’s a more insidious risk: you or your PR people may already be blacklisted by bloggers and not even know it.  Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook all have easy “spam” flagging, which bloggers are undoubtedly using.

As Warren Buffet says in his ads for  Borsheim’s, “If you don’t know diamonds, know your jeweler.”  The same applies here… really know who is contacting the media on your behalf.  Find out if they’re using backchannels like Twitter, AIM, and Facebook messaging to contact the press.  Find out which feeds they’re subscribed to (and do these correspond to the top blogs in your industry?).  Are they giving bloggers an OPML file?  If they give you a wild look and a bs line like, “oh, we’re exploring and adopting new technologies all the time,” that’s a very bad sign.  It roughly translates to, “No, we are too busy spamming the crap out of the media to have actually started using any of  this new stuff.”  One more thing you should ask: do they generate media lists from Vocus or Cision and/or send bulk pitches from within there? If so, be worried.  If so, it indicates they are doing extraordinarily little research on the reporters they’re reaching out to, not personalizing their outreach, and basically spraying and praying your pitch to journalists.  There’s a very good chance they’re already ending up in the spam folder.

If you’re doing the outreach yourself or have a freelancer, internal marketing manager, or Evangelist assigned to the job, here are a few thoughts:

  1. It’s about following directions.  People not reading Gina’s site and abiding by this following statement, “Please, no press releases or Lifehacker story pitches to my personal email address,” is what set off the blacklist.  So you need to get of our your feed reader occasionally and look for the “How to Pitch Me” page on the blogger’s site.  If they don’t have one, my first email would not be a pitch but rather, “I wanted to send you some PR news, is this the right way to contact you?”
  2. It’s about targeting.  The prspammer wiki describes the companies listed on it as having sent, “unsolicited (and almost always irrelevant) product pitches…” As an entrepreneur, if I had significant news (funding, product announcement, private beta invites, etc.), I’d want my team spreading it as wide as reasonably possible.  If a reporter wrote about a competitor, they’re relevant to me.  If they cover my industry, they’re relevant.  If they wrote about a topic that’s relevant to my customers or end-users, they’re relevant.
  3. It’s about personalization AND context.  Now, even if you’ve built a carefully targeted and relevant list, the journalists you want to pitch may not see the connection between their beat and your news, so it’s your job to provide the context (“You may recall you wrote that story about our competitor, XYZ.  I wanted to tell you about our news…”).  Maybe using Word Mail Merge to personalize greetings (e.g. “Hi Mitch…”), is your idea of a personal email.  You need to take it a step further.  I think it’s fine to send the same basic press release (and consider sending a social media release if you do), but you need that precious little personalized blurb at the top that says, “Hi Gina, I commented on your post about X, and I wanted to tell you about Y news that relates.  I know you said Z in your post, but we’d love to get your take on our product because we think it does a better job addressing A, B, C issues that you discussed.”


So you’re probably thinking, “How do we build a broad yet targeted media list?  How we ensure that we aren’t  contacting a blogger the wrong way?  How do we personally convey why we’ve targeted a particular journalist?”  There’s the rub.

Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Even if you hire an agency, you can’t expect them to instantly have a list of perfectly targeted media.  So if you’re doing it yourself, the first step is to setup a bunch of Google Alerts for your keywords, subscribe to (and read) relevant blogs, and build your media list slowly over time based on the coverage you discover.  Use delicious or Diigo to bookmark the most relevant stories.  Then when you’re ready to send some news, you or your agency has a realistic starting point for doing it in a targeted, personalized, contextual way.


  • Thanks for the link 8)

  • robashwell20

    For someone who claims to be an entrepreneur and not a PR you have it nailed.

    I’m a PR and feel exactly the same, it used to be about lists now its how you can get the message and personalise it.

    As an industry we seriously need to get smarter and lose databases we haven’t created ourselves. Good to read, I’ll add a link.

  • I am honored to be included on your list of ugly PR people. Ha! No, but seriously, great post. We all have to get a lot smarter — and learn to deal with each other a lot better. To use your medical analogy, it’s not brain surgery.