Unsubscribed: Will the spam pitch kill PR?

A friend in PR and I were talking the other day about media lists. This friend was lamenting the difficulty in finding good lists for  print and online journalists and bloggers on specific topics: luxury travel, foodie, parenting, etc.

This led to me running down some of the media list aggregating services that I have used before: Vocus and Medianetcentral. The friend currently used Cision. The danger with these services, I warned, is that they make it too easy for PRtists to pile together a big ol’ list of names and e-mails addresses without actually positioning their pitches and press releases. That’s how, even with the best of intentions, you become a spammer.

And so when that same friend re-tweeted (did I say that right?) this from UnMarketing I thought it was only prudent to stractualize. Or stracticulate? Yeah, I like that.

In the tug-o-war between PR professionals and the media they’re trying to pitch to, both parties try to balance objectives with what they need from the other side. Okay, that was incredibly generic. What I mean to say is that the PR side wants to impress and interest the journalist with whatever product or story or angle they’re trying to promote. Journalists also need PR to feed them stories, grant them access to interview subjects, pass along products to review, etc. But don’t be fooled: PR is always a guest at this party and has to be on their best behaviour all time.

Unsolicited e-mail pitches or pitch spam has become the dominant force in 21st century pro-active marketing media relations. To extend the party analogy, the spam pitch is the guy who keeps opening beers without ever finishing them and won’t stop hitting on your girlfriend. The conversation about spam pitches lit up after Wired editor Chris Anderson published a list of e-mail addresses from (what he concluded were) PR spammers. And while this post may be vitriolic and punitive, he’s right for no other reason than these PRtists need him.

So, you’re thinking, the answer is we must all swear to uphold the sanctity of the incredibly narrowly-positioned and researched pitch and chastise those lazy charlatans who hurl mass e-mails to anyone labelled “entertainment” on a piece of software, right? We know who to blame!

Yet, like health-care reform or capital punishment, there’s three or four or 103494 sides of this coin.

As I’ve discussed before within the pages (posts?) of Stractical, I receive these spam pitches daily. Even with a finely-tuned spam blocking system, about five a day still pop through. The number of these e-mails that have actually piqued my interest, ever? One.  And just barely. Quite simply… it’s awful. And shameful. Somewhere, clients are paying for this to happen (though, with e-mail as we all know it only takes a second to send one or 500).

But at the same time, I’ve been on the other side. I’ve been an intern and a junior PR coordinator with billing commitments, managers breathing down my neck to produce a media list in four minutes. What was I to do? Those cool, crisp, focused pitches take research and style and most often a prior relationship with the writer. Juniors have none of this. To make the kind of media lists I should have been producing, it would have taken days, maybe even weeks. Which client was going to pay for that? So we resort to software and keywords, quantity over quality, our seniors look the other way and life moves on.

So in conclusion… we’re nowhere. Yes, there’s been some services popping up attempting to mediate journalists’ requests with PR supply but even when successful, they’ll never fill the void left if the pitching machines at agencies went away. But we know something must be done. And with so many of these spam pitches apparently bouncing back from vacated scribblers‘ e-mails, PR and journalism must solve the spam pitch issue before we lose the ability to tell a fantastic story pitch from a bottle of V1agra or a favour asked by a Nigerian prince.

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Blog to Stick

While I might be wiser to write a post on keeping up with writing posts on one’s blog (and hey, I think I will) I thought I’d take some time to share a great book I’ve been reading.

If you’re like me, you’re probably in the middle of reading three or four books at any one time. I tend to have a work of fiction, something on economics or history, something on sports (mixing with economics and history) and a book that can be generally described as marketing, business or communications strategy-related on the go at any given time.

orange is a sticky cover for a book, dont you think?

orange is a sticky cover for a book, don't you think?

For the latter category, I’ve just finished Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. One a Stanford professor of organizational behaviour and the other a new-media education expert, these brothers walk us through the foundation of what makes certain ideas break through the clutter and attach to our brains like Velcro — that’s the “stickiness” factor.

The book is broken into six sections with a cleverly-designed acronym (a catalyst for stickiness). Ideas, the Heaths argue, should be:

Simple
Unexpected
Concrete
Credible
Emotional
and tell a Story
(SUCCEs)

While treading similar water to Malcolm Gladwell’s wildy popular The Tipping Point, Made to Stick survives with circumstance where Gladwell led with pomp. The authors use countless real life examples in a variety of situations to show why the basic principles weed their way into the best ideas. One central theme is the evidentially “stickiness” of urban legends. I won’t ruin their deconstructed examples but I’ll add my own:

Let’s take the tale of giant sewer rats scuttling through New York City’s sewer system and occasionally popping up through people’s toilets. This is a myth I remember hearing from my older sister when I was 8 or 9. I was very familiar with the giant rats from The Princess Bride and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and was both insanely excited and terrified that I could catch a glimpse of a super rat one day.

The rumours were simple, unexpected (frighteningly so), concrete in that anyone who’s seen a rat can imagine a gigantic one, credible in an anti-authority way — what they don’t want you to know!, obviously emotional and in each instance of the myth, the storyteller will claim to know someone who knows someone who’s actually seen one.

While the book is not aimed intentionally at business communicators, in spirit it’s all PR. From the “clinics” bearing examples of more and less sticky messages, to the narratives about a health official using a vivid Big Mac comparison when trying to communicate the dangerous saturated fat levels in movie theatre popcorn, marketing and communications, specifically, are tested against the theory the most.

I’ll file this one under Streducation as I would have relished the opportunity to be assigned this book back in PR school instead of those textbooks that are now holding up a wobbly bookshelf in my bedroom. I’ve started to go back and look over past campaigns, white papers and strategies I’ve been involved in and test them against some of the principles in Made to Stick, meaning the book itself resonated with stickiness for me.

I’m a heavy user of the Toronto Public Library but if you’d like to pick up your very own copy, here’s Amazon. I think you can even read a chapter there.

Read a good book PR/communications book lately? Drop a comment or an e-mail to stractical [at] gmail.com

Pitch, Feverishly

I recently received a pitch from a PR agency through e-mail. At first, I was a little annoyed. There was no possible way I could have been interested in the watery social media company the practitioner was acting on behalf of. I thought of simply deleting the e-mail. I thought I might publish the pitch and critique it in a “how to write e-mail pitches” post. I thought of sending a “STOP SPAMMING” reply. But after my initial displeasure subsided, empathy sunk in as I realized that I have been that practitioner. I have shot a thousand pitches from the hip and I have received angry, threatening responses from bloggers. So I decided I would send back some constructive advice to the coordinator. Here is my response:

Hi Elliot,

Unfortunately, Stractical doesn’t solicit pitches from PR agencies. Also, there are some glaring spelling and grammatical errors in your pitch. You really should take additional care before sending out mass e-mails, especially to bloggers as many will publish your contact information and vilify your client if they feel they have been spammed.

I’ve been in the position of intern/account coordinator and I understand the pressure to get media hits without having my own media contacts. Perhaps a more focused approach with fewer journalists/bloggers would be an effective strategy — something to consider and discuss with your supervisors. Often senior level practitioners preach relationship-based media relations yet bill on the backs of coordinators who are building media lists from software services and pitching for quantity.

Best of luck with your pitching.

Cheers,

Adam

Stractical: Very Public Relations

I run this blog, more or less, for my own interest and amusement and therefore do not use unsolicited pitches from public relations agencies. But I never explicitly state that on this blog — and I should. Blogger relations, as a subset of media relations, is an unfriendly, impossible to navigate terrain right now. There are billions of blogs about millions of topics and 99.99% of them are not interested in pitches. But if 0.01% do then it is in PR agencies’ best interests to explore that space. What we need is to start the conversation: between media/bloggers and PR, between PR and their clients and between senior and junior PRtists. Focused pitches, developed relationships take time and investment. Agencies need to provide the time and clients need to make the investment. Until then, media pitches will remain a numbers game, an obfuscated practice we’re not proud of, yet refuse to abandon. Good luck, Elliot.

A typical pitch environment?

Student faces expulsion for Facebook study group

Interesting and troubling story coming out of Ryerson University about an engineering student who is being threatened with expulsion for administering a Facebook group that included some quiz answer sharing. I’m not going to deride the university for refusing to comment on an ongoing investigation or even praise the student’s representatives for going on the offensive, but we just can’t talk about social media and digital communities without emphasizing that we’re still figuring this whole space out.

Facebook

Obay Buzz Goes Offish

It’s tricky (tricky, tricky, tricky) pulling off an “It’s Coming…” campaign. You know the ones. Some vague, non-sequitur ad that doesn’t mention a product or a brand but instead leaves you scratching your head and wondering “What was that all about?” “It’s coming…” campaigns double down on a bet that the audience will take notice, engage the message and anxiously await the payoff. But audiences tend to consider these campaigns as gimmicky, requiring too much investment and mildly insulting, which is why the bet rarely pays off.

Obay

Enter Obay!, a new series of spots now identified as being from Colleges Ontario, a marketing and advocacy association representing… well… Ontario colleges. I first became aware of Obay from a subway ad.. It was a mock pharmaceutical ad proclaiming: “My son started thinking for himself. OBAY put a stop to that” I usually dismiss “It’s Coming…” type messages but I was intrigued by the lack of any type of call to action from the ad. No mini-site. No 1-800 number. Just a message. Toronto culture blog, Torontoist, took up the cause in identifying the source. Soon the blogosphere was ablaze in chatter about Obay! which made the big reveal actually pay off.

The point of the campaign is to encourage dialogue about the stereotypes that cause parents to aggressively push their children to pursue entry into universities when they may be happier and more productive in a community college. While I won’t pull out my old sociology papers that examine why the university stereotype are false (maybe in a future post) the execution by Colleges Ontario and agencies Smith Roberts and Flex PR, has been flawless. Engaging “It’s coming…” teaser. Lack of call to action leading to buzz. Payoff in reveal with media relations leads to earned media where Colleges Ontario spokespeople deliver their advocacy message. A perfectly integrated campaign.

Maybe advocacy issues are better suited for “It’s Coming…” than product promotions. Advocacy often requires the most creative stractical (small “s”) planning but also have the most to gain from delivering messages through earned media.

Professional associations take notice. PR agencies too. It’s time to obay.