Tuesday, November 24, 2009

When publicists spam other publicists

Publicists have to be social media mavens, but they are finding out, along with the rest of the world, that "old school" bad PR habits get them hung out to dry on Twitter and blogs. They can't get away with it anymore.

Just a week ago, PaidContent.org founder Rafat Ali declared war on "Vocus PR and its scummy PR practices," even suggesting people look up "Vocus spam" on Google -- he wasn't kidding about the results.

Brandweek editor Todd Wasserman tweeted: "FYI to pr folk: If I get a call asking if I received so and so, I always say yes just to rush the person off the phone."

I know first-hand why journalists feel this way because I get my occasional spam from PR firms. I'm only a mild case compared to the avalanche other lucky PR bloggers find in their in-boxes.

Not only are ignorant publicists baiting professional journalists to roast them publicly for their sins, but they are begging to get it from their own kind too.

This is my definition of spam: impersonal e-mail blasts that contain completely irrelevant information.

Yet, as you'll see, there are publicists who think this practice is perfectly acceptable.

PR spam originated from two technological advances: the ability to form groups in e-mail software, and companies like Cision and Vocus which can easily compile media e-mail addresses and export them in Excel format. Even a third grader can cut and paste an Excel list column into Outlook and let it rip by pressing Send.

However, bloggers and reporters have made it no secret over and over again that they can't stand PR spam-filled e-mail boxes. What makes publicists think other publicists don't feel the same way?

I have a simple method of handling PR spam. It's probably far more time consuming than anybody else would do, but I feel I have to make an educational point and it's far less messy than hiring "Johnny Knuckles" from Bayonne.

1) I reply to the sender politely: "Why did you send this release to me?"

Almost all of the time, they reply with a rousing explanation about the press release's importance.

2) I then ask them if they've ever read my blog.

Most of the time, that results in silence.

3) If I am feeling a little more ambitious, I'll actually look up the firm and drop a line to whoever is in charge, asking them if they knew their staff was sending out spam, that this is why reporters despise many publicists, and shouldn't they be enforcing proper media relations instead of shotgun missives? I ask them if it's OK if I blog about it.

Almost unanimously, they shoot back apologies, agree with me, and beg to not be mentioned in my blog. One even called me.

I figured it would be a noble ideal if I let a supervisor know that this is a surefire way to be ostracized, there may be a little less PR spamming in the world. Touching, but true.

Last week, I had a typical PR spam from a JAG Entertainment account executive, who sent out an e-mail blast addressed to "Hey!" and plugged her boss' new Chicken Soup for the Soul book with an attached press release. When I asked why she sent me the press release, she took a different, more direct route: she said she found me on a list of PR bloggers on Cision. Of course, when I asked if she'd ever read my blog, no reply was forthcoming.

When I e-mailed her boss Jo-Ann Geffen about receiving the spam and why this hurts our image in the eyes of the press, she shot back: I hardly consider this spam. [Name of account executive] is extremely capable and there are hundreds of thousands of blogs. It is unlikely that ANYONE could read all of them. Perhaps you should notify Cision to take you off their lists.

Unfortunately, it's not Cision's fault that I am on their list. I do believe it is the fault of lazy supervisors and executives who find sending out e-mail blasts easy but teaching and enforcing the basics of media relations hard.

Do you pitch TV and radio shows blindly without knowing a thing about them? That's a PR 101 concept that still stands today -- watch the show so you know what it's about before you pitch them. Same thing with blogs and every other form of media.

My fellow PR bloggers have their own thoughts about handling our own profession's saboteurs:

The Flack's Peter Himler: I usually ignore them, but if the pitch is so annoying I'd write them back and ask "why would I ever report this? Do you read my blog? Next time do your homework. In rare cases, I'd post or tweet about it. I might include the offending publicist's client or place of work.

PR Squared's Todd Defren: I ignore 'em. They make me sad. I used to reply but the volume of nonsensical inquiries became too much to do anything but ignore.

PR 2.0's Brian Solis: I'm deluged with horrible pitches by PR professionals who contribute to the stereotype. I delete them, I suppose until I finally get pushed over the edge. However, please do note, that I proactively write about how to do PR better as a positive means of teaching these individuals how to do their job better...I don't see them reading the posts however.

Rolling the dice with a press conference

With a struggling economy, journalists and editors pink slipped more often than baseball managers, and editorial staffs cut to the bone, it takes some kind of cajones to have a press conference these days.

Press conferences are one of public relations' great gambles. It's like throwing a party, sending out a lot of invites, and then praying somebody shows up after you've invested in decor, food and time.

What does it take to pry a reporter away from their desk, especially when they are probably stretched thinner than ever?

Clearly if you are Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo or the President of the United States, you can pretty much count on everybody showing up, even if it was held on an ice floe in the Arctic.

Not long ago, I had lunch with the head of marketing of a Colorado-based digital start-up who was so smitten by his company's product that he proclaimed that it deserved a press conference. Delicately, I asked him what if nobody turned up because they were, uh, so busy? He stopped for a moment -- he had not thought about that -- and then replied that there's no reason nobody would come to a product that was so cool.

However, if anybody get an award for pulling a rabbit out of their press conference hat, it has to be CNN.com. Last week, on the same day Steve Ballmer was unveiling Windows 7, they held a snazzy soiree at the Time Warner Center to demonstrate... drum roll, please... the redesign of their web site with a new opinion section, and more photography and video.

Did that rock your world like, let's say, the introduction of the new Motorola Droid or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concerts at Madison Square Garden? Didn't think so. Redesigns happen about as often as Metro North trains leave Grand Central Station.

But somebody at CNN.com felt it was worth a live press conference. And not just any press conference, but from what I hear, a lavish one with booze and food. So with that kind of lure, it was no surprise that many members of the third estate showed up. One of them said that CNN.com threw two parties to celebrate the occasion (perhaps to grab the media's attention off the fact that the parent network fell into last place against other news cablers).

Another reporter said they didn't think it was a press conference at all, but "more akin to an internal presentation" that was streamed live to employees, advertisers and the press.

Afterwards, about 25 stories were posted according to Google News. Whether this was the press coverage return on investment CNN.com was looking for after spending some serious party coin, I don't think they'll admit it, versus being a company-wide morale booster.

"Between you and me -- it was strange," one reporter e-mailed me, who didn't post a story about it. "CNN even booked an outside PR firm for help with it."

Free food and booze have almost always the surefire aphrodisiacs to get coverage of any event. Despite the depleting of journalist ranks, they still seem to do the trick -- if you can afford the bill.

The shrinking newsroom changes the game for PR

When the New York Times announced yesterday that they had to eliminate 100 newsroom jobs in a mere 2 1/2 months, it was a chilling arrow shot across both the media and PR professions.

Job loss of any kind is miserable and debilitating. When you sit back and think about 100 reporters and editors losing their jobs, it's an incredibly large number of people who will take buyouts or be shown the door. If you are a regular reader of the Times' excellent reporting, than imagine what a gaping hole in coverage will be made when that many people are gone by the end of the year.

As a public relations professional, I'm encountering the kind of sea change that reminds me of when local and national TV networks began trimming their staffs in the late 80's. Because of manpower shortage, publicists were forced to become amateur TV producers, organizing segments and providing props if they wanted their segments to air, a trend that is still in force today.

For print and the web nowadays, my role has expanded unconventionally as well. For a research client, I have to provide more analysis to accompany the data than ever before because there are not enough reporters to do the job. I'm encountering more editors who are singlehandedly balancing print and web editorial duties. The AP's Houston bureau chief told me she had only three reporters there, so unless there was something earth shattering, she could not afford to take somebody off business, political and sports coverage.

Clearly, there are going to be many stories and beats that are going to fall between the cracks and left behind. From a reader's perspective, we're not getting a complete picture of what's going on in the world. From a public relations perspective, our windows of opportunities are smashed and shrinking.

Social media has forced us to become our own wire services. We are our own distributors. With a lot of moxie and persuasion, we have to use Twitter, blogs, Facebook, StumbleUpon and other vehicles to carry our message and news. It looks increasingly like it's going to be a "change or die" scenario ahead.

Yet, there are still many public relations pro's -- more than you would think -- who don't know their Facebook from their checkbook. Many sign up, make a few friends, and leave it lying. I've run across a lot of professionals who have less than 10 connections in LinkedIn, and I know they are not that unpopular. One unemployed publicist I know is so clueless online, that her friend e-mails her Monster, PRSA and PR Week job ads daily because she has no idea how to have them sent automatically to her. Business Wire's "Lost in MySpace" beginner seminars for learning social media always packed them in.

So when you read about journalists, editors and bloggers being let go, no matter where they are, those big bells should be ringing like the opening of the AC/DC song from Back In Black. It's a wake up call that the game is changing.

Do reporters actually read quotes in press releases?

The second draft of the press release was placed on my desk, featuring a brand new spanking quote from my client's CEO. Like Pavlov's dog, I immediately crossed out the first sentence which began "We are pleased," only to notice that the rest of the quote had actual substance. Real facts and explanation on a deal.

Then that paranoid thought came bubbling out: do reporters really read quotes in press releases anyway? What if I turned this quote into a regular certified paragraph of information? Would it receive more attention?

I fantasized about inserting a quote about concocting a deadly bomb plot in the middle of my next corporate announcement to see if anybody would notice.

Then I snapped out of it. Before I could do anything drastic, I decided to inquire real reporters and ask them if they read the quotes in press releases and if so, did they find them useful?

What resulted was a still sad commentary on the state of press release quality. At the beginning of this year, I warned everybody about the three words that had to be banned in 2009: "excited," "thrilled" and "honored" because of their absolute emptiness. You responded with more words that had to be eradicated: "pleased," "announced," "held" and "very." All very noble, all very instructive.

You studied David Meerman Scott's annual compilation of press release gobbledygook words that have been repeated into meaninglessness, right?

Unfortunately, we're all still a tiny minority of righteous standard bearers.

Nearly all the reporters I spoke with read quotes in press releases. What they think of and do with them is another matter altogether.

"Sure, I read them," said one trade reporter. "I usually do not use them as they offer little information and are often spin/hype/cheerleading rather than information/facts/details that are useful for readers to have."

"I can't remember one quote I've found helpful,"
replied a New York Times editor.

"I assume p.r. people write them though and then get the person being quoted to make adjustments or sign off. So it's not like I think I'm getting a window into anyone's spontaneous thinking or a slice of their actual voice," said another trade reporter.

"Mostly they are awful, but sometimes I do [use them]," an interactive reporter told me. I asked why they were awful, and they replied: "I'm excited about this partnership. It's going to be great." He added: "'Solutions' -- that is the worst word ever."

"Quotes in press releases are almost always useless and it's plain that a) the person to whom they are attributed didn't write them or b) the person did write them, but wrote them in their 'press release' voice," moaned a wire service correspondent.

"99% of them are useless," echoed the business writer.

But what about that 1%?

"No surprise, but negative quotes work," they advised. "Like how bad the economy is. Essentially, anything you might think is controversial works. Or how difficult or challenging something is." He added that companies which are getting hammered on earnings usually put those kinds of quotes in, "and if they're not there, they're lying!"

After hearing all these complaints, you would think perhaps it's a good idea to stop inserting executive quotes in press releases and letting the genuine cold hard facts and information of the announcement do the talking.

As a matter of fact, I double dare all of you to issue a press release for the next 30 days without an executive quote -- perhaps we'll all be able to gain the respect of reporters while quashing a little ego in the process.

4 warning signs that you need a new PR firm

Since car leases first became the rage in the early 90's, consumers have rushed in to get identical deals to the ones they see on TV commercials. But as personal finance magazines warned, if you did the lease math, you'd find out that generally they were not the best deals you could get.

Many companies' relationships with their PR firms operate very much on the same principal: they settle, they're comfortable, and they think they are getting a fair shake.

They either don't know or have a bar of measurement to assess if they are really getting acceptable work. Sometimes they are too preoccupied with other matters to assess PR. Sometimes they are in flat out denial that they hired a dud, so they just keep writing them checks as an act of charity. Sometimes it's all nice and comfortable, nobody wants to hurt anybody's feelings -- they receive a slap on the butt as a warning sign and then it's back to where it was.

The fact is, many clients have no idea what they may be missing, and they could have it so much better. Like that car lease, how do you know it's time to trade in and get a better PR ROI?

Here are the warning signs that it's time to move into a new vehicle:

LACK OF IDEAS: This could be the number one complaint when I speak with potential clients dissatisfied with their current arrangement. "We have to give them ideas," they often say, "not the other way around." Executives are already busy running their companies and doing their jobs, they should not be doing the PR firm's as well. Which reminds me one of my favorite sayings: "If a client doesn't know what you are doing, they think you're doing nothing."

LACK OF SERVICE: Public relations is a service business. It's not just about producing super placements, but all the little things that go with it. What would Neiman Marcus be if they put your beautiful purchases in plastic bags, didn't handle your alterations expertly or had nice chairs for you to wait in? In public relations, the equivalent means being prepared in advance for media interviews, receiving placements on a timely basis, getting a strategic game plan, discussing and being well informed on the playing field, and the ability to anticipate needs before you have to complain about them.

THEY DON'T "GET IT": There's always an "education period" where the publicist learns first-hand about the intricacies of the client's product and ideally how to use it, what it means, and its messaging. One or two months fly by, there's very little press to show, and it seems that the PR team is spinning its wheels trying to figure out how to do its job. You have some more meetings to explain things that result in a couple of hits, but still, it's nowhere what you'd expect. You demand to speak with the company's president, who goes into emergency salvage mode, and throws different people on the account.

ALL THEY DO IS PUMP OUT PRESS RELEASES: While issuing press releases over paid news services like PRNewswise, BusinessWire and PRWeb has its questionable SEO benefits, most reporters don't even bother reading them unless they're from a public company. Good public relations is about relationships and developing your story, so if you're not speaking with genuine reporters and bloggers, but instead paying newswire bills and being shown hits on irrelevant sites like "earthtimes.org" or "newsblaze.com," something is wrong.