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.

Sex and the Cold One

Tying your pitch to current trends or already popular topics is a common strategy in proacive media relations (PMR). PR has the license to creatively integrate their product or company with top stories of the day. Gas prices are reaching a record high and your client makes hydrogen fuel cells? Britney Spears admits she can’t read (c’mon you wouldn’t be that surprised, would you?) and you represent a literacy foundation? Framing your story around larger current issues is a premiere tactic in the elusive hunt for media hits because the writers are going to write those stories anyway. So if you can offer an expert opinion, counter-opinion or new angle, you’re already on your way to positive ink.

That impossibly lectured preamble leads to a strikingly good piece of PMR done by Punch Communications. (ed. note: also a friend of mine)

The client is Moosehead Breweries. Alcohol coverage is notoriously hard to come by as potent potables rarely get reviewed by anyone other than a few cocktail columnists. The media, generally speaking, doesn’t care that your suds now come in a 20% larger bottle or that the label is now red instead of green.

Realizing this, Punched and Moosehead released a survey on the back of the opening of some small, obscure, art film called Sex and the City. Stractical has discussed in posts past the various ways in which one can make news and the survey is an old staple of that toolbox (how many metaphors did I just mix there?) This survey found, very scientifically, that most men would rather drink beer than attend said art film. The survey is soft (in the good way) and quirky (like a diamond Shreddie) and latches on to the movie hype, giving relevance.

With his tongue firmly in his cheek, Doug Speirs of the Winnipeg Free Press reports on these results as if they were groundbreaking. There are multiple mentions of the brewery throughout the article (as Speirs haggles for beer) He even uses Moosehead’s spokesperson who plays along with the joke. The article is light as air and paints Moosehead as culturally aware. This pitch is perfect for columnists, lifestyle writers and the hard-to-reach radio media, of which there are plenty and explains why this story got picked up. 28 Stractical points for Punch and Moosehead for the percentage of men who would rather walk the dog than walk in Mahnolo Blahniks (I refuse to check the spelling of ridiculous shoes)

Sex and the City

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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?