Take a moment to consider what exactly spam is. According to Wikipedia, the authority on everything these days (including the life and death of Sinbad) describes spam as such:
Anyone who uses email understands spam. It’s something unsolicited and almost always unwanted. If you’re lucky, you don’t get a lot of it. It’s rarely useful/tasty due to the fact that it’s mass produced and, by and large, artificial. At times, this is exactly how one could describe an unsolicited press release sent from a PR practitioner to a journalist: information that is electronic, unsolicited, useless, mass produced and artificial.
Spending some time chatting with a PR professional the other night, I was reminded of how our business can be perceived by outside observers. Working in PR affords me only the rarest of opportunities to speak with people outside the industry, so I found the exchange to be pretty amusing. The person I was speaking to was putting together media kits (or an information package of some sort) with her husband, with the intention of sending them to certain media persons. Her husband was probably more than unhappy to help and probed the purpose of the exercise. “So the journalists you’re sending these to all asked for this, right?” he said, to which she obviously replied, “No.” His response was straightforward and oh-so-telling: “So you’re a spammer! Your job is spamming the media?” She did not take that accusation well at all. A fairly good debate ensued between the two of them, according to her, and they simply ended up agreeing to disagree. Nonetheless, he made a good case: journalists didn’t ask for this information, so it must therefore be deemed spam, or at the very least, spam-esque.
The only defense I can come up with for PR is that we know our business. If our client has information about a new product in the pharmaceutical business, we know better than to send it to the entertainment editor, food columnist, and sports reporter. If there’s something to be said, we know who within the media might want to hear it.
Granted, PR is not bursting with what the media would consider news all day everyday. Sometimes we have news; sometimes we don’t. It depends on who might be interested in what we have. The national newspaper might be interested in a story about golf, while a small trade magazine might be interested in a story about the latest Acme widget. That’s half the battle: finding your audience within the media.
Also, our job is to help determine if the client has news or not because it’s far less effective trying to get a hit in the national newspaper if we know it’s of no interest to them. If a client tells us to send their latest press release to every business editor in the country, it’s our responsibility to evaluate whether or not we’re putting our reputation on the line (assuming it’s a good reputation) by sending this to the media for consideration as news. The more press releases we send the media that are of no value to them, the worse our industry looks from an outsider’s perspective and from the media’s perspective.
Even when PR professionals use their best judgment when pitching the media, at times they can be almost completely wrong. In my short career, there have been times when I expected something to work and it’s fallen flat. I’m sure there have also been times when I expected the worst and the result was quite positive, but I can’t actually remember any such occasion. The lesson is that PR is an art, not a science, according to former journalist Mark Evans.
A few ways to avoid being spam when emailing a press release include addressing the journalist by name, referencing recent articles, actually knowing if a release may or may not be of interest to them, being direct in your approach, and not making it easy for them to do their job should you have something for them that is of interest. There are many more ways to be successful, and there are a number of ways to learn from those who have been unsuccessful. To read up on the former, visit the Good Pitch Blog. For the latter, check out the Bad Pitch Blog.