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7 Tips for Reporters for Managing PR Spam

by Frank Strong

Wired PR Spam

Screenshot from Wire’s former Editor in Chief, Chris Anderson timeless 2007 rant against PR spam. He later hinted he regretted posting it.

Nobody likes spam, but everybody gets it. A lot of it.

Whatever new mediums arise, spam is just a moment behind.  It’s on Twitter, its infected commenting systems, and of course we get it by email. It is…pervasive.

For a reporter, it’s got to be the bane of existence.  What could be worse than the pressure of a deadline and having sift through erroneous messages that bombard your inbox in order to find the messages you need to confirm or otherwise relate to sources?

It’s a problem.  It’s probably never going to end in our lifetime.

The only way to fix it is to avoid using email, but then it’ll just spill over into other vehicles for interpersonal communication, like voicemail or social media.

What possibly can a PR pro tell you about managing spam?  Over the course of my career, here are tips I’ve found, including some from your peers, for avoiding spam.

1. Guard your email address. Don’t post it online – at least not in a hyperlink format. If you do, it will be scraped and you will get messages you don’t want. Every day I run across social media profiles where a reporter openly posts their email address in hyperlink format. Spell it out instead. Publications looking out for their reporters will post a contact form with stories instead of an email; you can choose who you wish to respond to (and thereby giving them your email).  Some of the better press release services do this for PR pros for the same reasons.

2. Make email your database.  One editor explained to me once he keeps two addresses. His work account, which he closely guards and hands out only to people he trusts.  The other is a Gmail account which he keeps public. He doesn’t check that email account.  Instead, he uses it like a database, when he’s working on a story, he’ll search that inbox for references to brands or key words related to his story; then he’ll reach out to those contacts.

3. Use inbox “rules.”  If you’re an Outlook user, create “rules” for messages that will automatically place messages from designated senders into designated folders. I keep one for a reading list, in many ways using it like an RSS feed.  Each day I’ll take 30 minutes to go through hundreds of messages scanning for items of interest, saving or reading these, and deleting the rest. I’m heavy on the delete button, but what this does is creates a process for managing email. I manage email; it doesn’t manage me.  Gmail has similar rules and the iPhone has a “VIP” list function.

4. There’s a difference between PR and marketing.  I have an unproven thesis: the vast majority of messages conventionally labeled as “PR spam” don’t come from bona fide PR pros, they come from marketers. We can argue the semantics, and you may not agree with me, but it’s the difference between an email with a story angle and a blatant marketing message that begs for attention. I once met a marketer that openly admitted to creating his own lists and spamming as many reporters as possible.  This person would apologize profusely to those that objected and then rinsed and repeated again, and again, and again. Why?  Because it’s a numbers game that worked every time. You’re not likely to get a story from a marketer; and while we all have our own confessions, you can influence the PR pros to give you want you need.

5. Reward the good pitches you can’t use. I’ve often received messages from reporters that say, “good pitch, but have to pass for now” or “it’s a good pitch, but I’m working on another story, know anyone that can help?”  It’s a simple message.  PR pros call this “relationship building” and while it’s probably a nebulous term, the fact is I become a source of reliable information that pays closer attention to your needs.  This is bigger than PR or reporting, it’s about source management, or leadership even.  In my experience, the veteran reporters working for the most prestigious publications do this often. It would take more than two hands for me to count the number of times a reporter never responded to me, but later chewed me out later for giving an exclusive to a competitor.

6. Good PR pros have a conscience. If a PR pro is pounding your inbox, tell him or her…or tell their client. They will stop. Granted they should know better in the first place and it’s easy to hammer out a nastygram in the heat of the moment. Save it. They’ll work harder for you if you simply tell them frankly. I once worked at an agency where a reporter had sent an especially nasty and vulgar note to a PR pro.  She forwarded the message on to that reporter’s editor; the reporter was fired. Email is akin to the internet…content and contents can never be deleted.

7. Unintended consequence of PR spam stories.  I have another theory about PR spam. When reporters write a story to “out” a PR person or agency for spam, they get more spam. Why?  Because your story gets passed around like wild fire, the PR bloggers all pile on with posts about why PR spam is bad, your profile is raised and you get added to every list in existence.  Lot of these stories pick on one or two vendors, or they single out a PR firm, but the fact is there are dozens of companies that do this with new ones popping up every day; if you crush one, another one will pop up.  It’s economics;  PR spam stories breed PR spam.

* * *

Most bona fide PR pros want to do well by reporters. We want to be helpful; we stand to gain by making ourselves useful; and we really do value trust.

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