SPam, SPAm, SPAM… Fire Your PR Agency

Danger Will Robinson! School’s out for summer, and maybe longer for cyber PR practitioners whose reputation is sinking faster than ever; faster than the Nasdaq under a torrent of anti-PR rants popping up with increasing frequency and vituperativeness in the Internet trades and zines.

I hate to revisit the latest, but it is a must when Industry Standard contributor James Fallows headlines his May 5 column with “Spam, Spam Spam Spam,” and then goes on to write, -“I can recommend one way to save on overhead. Fire your PR consultants and replace them with eight-year-olds from the neighborhood. The kids will be cheaper, and at most companies they couldn’t do any worse” -something is indeed rotten within the ranks of online PR firms. Buckling under intense pressure from bulging dot-com client lists (plus huge revenue increases), PR agencies need to heed Fallow’s advice to “think about it (PR)less stupidly.” I advise all PR pros to read the column themselves. On my part, I find it more appropriate to once again offer some more positive perspectives.

About Spam: Why We Fail…

It’s all about what we say, and how we get the word in front of the press. Much is said about how to say what clients want to say, so let’s move on to how to move those messages.

Who handles media list management (yes it really is a management process) and news release distribution at your agency? How far down the agency food chain are they? An intern perhaps?

Don’t tell me you still maintain media lists in a word processing program. Surprise! There are professional, powerful mail list management programs available that allow you to create dozens of targeted sub-lists. Or at least use the list making tools of those clunky Bacon’s and Burrelle’s CD/web directories. If not, maybe it’s better to just toss everything out to the online world via a paid wire service and call it a day.

Please don’t tell me that you send emails with the “bcc” function of your email program. Please don’t tell me you send emails addressed to “Dear Editor” or “Attention News Desk.” Again, there are powerful email list management tools with multiple variable merge functions.

The Internet is a one-to-one medium, and PR pros should be out front and center. We need to master the technology to engage in the appearance of a one-to-one dialog with our media targets.

OK, so now you got your lists right. Right? But, how do you headline your message? What headline do you write in that all important message box? “Company X makes Big Announcement” or “Company Introduces Mega Biggie?” I think not. It’s time to move away from a client-centric approach to a media-centric model. What is the reporter or editor waiting to hear?

I suggest PR adopt a naming protocol along the lines of Internet domain names’ .com, .net, and .org. Try leading with an instant descriptor, like: News… Commentary… Perspective… Background… and lead into a short (no more than seven words) and pithy identifier.

Next, how to salute the addressee? Yo, reporter? I think not. Fallows writes, “That’s Mr. Jim to you, bub!” Since informality implies prior contact, one should use the formal Mr. or Ms. for most pitches. But this is where the technology separates the men from the boys. Your email program should be powerful enough to enable you to create a sub-list of “Dear Joes” for those you actually do know.

Then again, who gets what message? According to Fallows, whose mailbox is filled with misdirected pitches, that’s the 95 percent solution, “because the PR person has scraped every available name off a publication’s masthead and blasted press releases to all of them.” Worse, (in his opinion) such releases build up grudges against those who repeatedly send errant offerings.

So, what’s the cyber publicist to do? It’s time to use the tools at hand. Surely, we all have the bandwidth and the staff to actually read the target media, to develop appropriate media lists in a networkable database or contact software, and to respect editors’ time and email boxes. After all, they are as busy as we are.

So let’s try the following:

  • Build a targeted media list for EVERY client.

  • Adopt a consistent release naming protocol.
  • Address people properly.
  • Keep emails to no more than 500 words. No HTML, just plain text.
  • No attachments. Many journalists set their email browsers to skip them. Instead, send links to additional background material, client web sites, projects, etc.
  • Go easy on the tech jargon.
  • Always provide an opt-off your list email reply option.

Otherwise, we may as well use the U.S. Postal Service to mail news releases and those four-pound press kits. After all, trying to call editors cold (who maintain voice mail firewalls) is even worse.

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