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February 19, 2009

Three quarters of the PR email I receive is irrelevant. Why?

By Josh Bernoff

As promised in previous posts, here is the analysis of all the PR emails I got in the last half of January.

For the record, I really like working with PR people, I just don’t like all of their tactics. If you find this to be a bit too much navel-gazing, perhaps you're right. But after 14 years as an analyst, I've received tens of thousands of these emails, and I thought it was time to look into how effective they might be, how they got to me, and why. My intent is not to bash PR, but to provide some data we can gnaw on as we think about how much effort goes into this activity, and what value might come out the other end.

When reading this, keep in mind that as an analyst, I get many of the same types of emails as reporters. My inbox probably looks like other "influencers" -- people, including bloggers and analysts and authors, that companies want to reach, especially because reporters and customers may ask our opinion. This is not an attempt to replace our professional advice to analyst relations people, as provided by my colleague Kevin Lucas. It's just a personal response to what I see every day.

Methodology. For a two week period, January 15-28, I tracked every single PR email I received, a total of 114 emails regarding 88 different companies. I didn’t count PR emails trapped in my spam filter. I sent each emailer a reply with a short personal note and a request for more information on how they use email for PR -- more on those responses later.


  • Relevance. I'm starting with this since it's the most instructive. It's purely subjective, but since I'm the target, I get to judge it. Amazingly (I never counted before) more than one in Pr_relevance five of the emails I got were completely irrelevant, like the German-language newsletter and the release that reveals "Tony Duquette Files Infringement Suit Against Michael Kors.” Who are Tony and Michael? I have no idea, although Tony is apparently dead and his company designs clothing. About half related to industries I used to cover; I haven't been a TV analyst for a full two years, but apparently once you're on the list, you're on the list. The remaining 27 emails at least had a shot at relevance, and a total of four of them (4%) were actually interesting news I would look into.

Significance. This is just sad. An awful lot of effort is going into sending me the three-quarters of PR emails in my inbox that have little or no relevance to me, to my clients, or to you. This makes the whole PR industry look bad -- it's the tragedy of the commons, and the reason that Chris Anderson and boing boing had to fight back against the onslaught. Please stop the waste and spend your effort reaching out to people, personally, who are likely to care.

  • Sources. Pr_from 57% of the emails came directly from somebody at the company being promoted. The rest were evenly split between PR firms and mailing services (either wire services or emailing service providers like Constant Contact).

Significance: Companies both large and small feel they can do this themselves. The big guys are professionals. The little guys save some money this way, but don't tend to be as professional in how they handle lists.

  • Timing. This was an interesting time period to review since it included a holiday and the very big event of Barack Obama's inauguration. The most popular day to send PR emails was the day after inauguration day (since, I suppose, it included all those releases that didn't go out on the previous two days).Pr_days

Significance. What day it is doesn't matter to me, but it does to those who work for weekly magazines, which is why Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays are the most popular.

  • Personal touches. 56% of the emails came from a person, while 29% came from an obvious machine address. (The rest came from a machine address with a person's name attached.) 15% had my name in the body, the rest did not. Three of the 114 emails had a delivery priority of high.

Significance: Neither I nor anyone else receiving these emails is stupid enough to think that the personal touch of adding a name by itself makes a difference. As for the delivery priority, that's just silly -- whatever you have to say, it's not that important. (If you tell me that adding a name or boosting the delivery priority increases the open rate, I would ask if that is a true measure of anything of value in PR emails.) However, when you say "Josh, I read your latest piece on . . ." (and get it right), I will pay more attention. I can recognize a PR email a mile away so the From address doesn't affect this, but an email from a person has one big advantage: if I am a little interested, I am far more likely to respond by hitting "reply".

  • Getting off the list. Two-thirds included an instruction to unsubscribe, either a link to click or text Pr_unsub_4 along the lines of "If you no longer wish to receive emails from this company, respond to this message . . ." Every single email from a mailing service or a wire service included the appropriate instruction, because these services know the spam rules. PR agencies were the most likely to omit such an instruction.

Significance: I am an analyst, I am not your friend. This is not an informal little note to a bunch of your friends, it is a PR email. The implied but unwritten message "you can always email me if you have a problem" is not sufficient; I would respect you a lot more if you had the nerve to include an instruction like "if these sorts of emails aren't relevant to you, email me back and let me know." If what you've sent me is interesting, that won't be a problem. If it isn't, you've at least shown me that you respect me. (One PR agency that I think is among the best convened a meeting after receiving my little survey, and decided they would change their policy in just this way.)

  • Format. About one fourth of the emails were newsletters. Another 44% were releases of some Pr_format kind -- some with a note, and some with a link in place of the release text. 14% were promotions of an event of some kind, and another 14% were just a note.

Significance. A newsletter is a fine way to package up a bunch of information. But since I didn't care that much about most of these companies, this just made it a package in a nicely formatted box that's easy to ignore. Of the "news" formats, the note is the best for me -- it's informal, interesting to read, and likely to spark interest in me (especially if the note really is personal). A note with a release is better than a release. Most releases have so little news content in proportion to the number of words, they're the bran muffin of PR techniques -- and these days, statistically speaking, the little news nuggets don't tend to be very interesting. (I love those ones about how somebody's CEO is speaking at an event, or somebody got a customer -- that's a real sign of desperation, folks.)

I am contributing this in an attempt to be constructive. PR professionals, show it to your boss or your client when they insist on the broadest possible distribution. Channel your energy into targeted, personal outreach to a few people whom you care about and know about, and you’ll do much better. And our inboxes will thank you.

Coming soon: what I learned from the 18 people who answered my survey.


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Jesse Ciccone

Interesting analysis, Josh. As a PR pro for 12+ years, it saddens me that this is still the state of things. I agree wholeheartedly with almost all of your "significances".

One nit, though...issuing new customer releases is almost a requirement for public companies. (Sometimes it actually is a requirement from a materiality standpoint, but even when it doesn't meet that threshold, the investment community expects to see customer announcements.)

This doesn't mean YOU should get those announcements, but the fact that a company is putting them out at all is reasonable in some cases.

John Caddell

Josh, I have followed this blog for a year or so, and I feel like this recent focus on "treating people like humans" is causing the posts to read like complaints. And because the inhuman treatment is directed at you, they sound like personal complaints.

For me, it's a bit too much. Can you start adding back some of the analysis that's been the backbone of the blog in the past?

thanks, John


OK Josh, you win. My response to your last post implored you to not whine about PR. But I stand corrected. You provided constructive and patient suggestions underscored by...DATA. Nice work. The implication here is that much of the PR machinery out there is not following social conventions. But they can fairly easily, as that PR firm you said you liked decided to change their ways upon receiving your survey. I hope Alex Gove sees this. You done right.


Hi Josh, Interesting post and really liked the detailed quant analysis that went with it.

Unfortunately I do agree with some of the older comments -- mainly that your campaign against PR doesn't necessarily have a whole lot to do with the alleged topic of this blog the 'groundswell'.

Luckily I don't really believe in that either, so no huge loss.

My big take away is this: "About half related to industries I used to cover; I haven't been a TV analyst for a full two years"

Maybe its time to go back to TV? At least people make money out of selling those.

Jeff Ogden

Spot on post, Josh. My blackberry goes off all time and 99% are useless promos.


Hey Josh,

Interesting timing on this post. I am ready to rip all my hair out, because I sent out two news releases on behalf of my company this week and I did everything right...

I spent two whole days researching the reporters, reading recent articles, making sure my pitch was relevant and sent each reporter an individual, personalized email that was short and to the point with a link for more info and contact info.

I know my news was newsworthy and I know I followed all the tips that journalists are always begging PR people to do, and the result was NOTHING.

No coverage and worst off-absolutely no reply: not even a "thanks but not interested right now."

Now I understand why many PR people just add every reporters email to a bulk list and blast them everything, because there's still only a minute chance of having any response but at least he/she didn't waste her time with it.

I've been doing PR for a few years, but always within niche publications, now that I'm targeting mainstream media I was discouraged and jaded pretty quickly.

Josh Bernoff

@Kelly I feel your pain, I know it's tough.

Still, if you had blasted the report to everyone I doubt the response would have been different but you would have added a whole lot of email to people's inboxes.

You said your news was "newsworthy" but unfortunately it sounds like the reporters disagreed.


By "newsworthy" I mean it was actually contained several of the seven 'news values' that make up news stories. I mean as opposed to the marketing fluff some try to pass of as news releases. Obviously it was nothing of high importance, and the only way we'd get covered would be if it were a slow day. All I'm asking for is a simply personal reply to my personal email and acknowledgment of my effort.

I was trained to write as a journalist and I know what I'm doing, but I hate being cast into the bad image of PR that plagues the industry.

Joe Ciarallo

Thanks Josh. Bad and off- topic pitches will never be eliminated, but at least we can do our best to try and make things better.

It's amazing that only 6% had links. Just out of curiousity, would you say this is the norm? Do you prefer link heavy emails? I do : )

Dennis McDonald

Josh, I'm not a PR professional, I used to do a lot of surveys, and I use a lot of personalized emails - with links - to promote my own interests. But I do get a lot of irrelevant email, so I was particularly interested in this very clear piece of analysis, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

One question: can you say more about how you manage spam and how this might impact access to your eyeballs? I have two email addresses, one a paid Yahoo! account that screens out a phenomenal amount of spam, but I have no idea how much of that might be "legitimate" PR, which I assume is your focus here.

You said, "An awful lot of effort is going into sending me the three-quarters of PR emails in my inbox that have little or no relevance to me, to my clients, or to you."

I wonder about the phrase "an awful lot of effort." It seems that some firms take the easy way out by NOT spending the time to screen, personalize, and clean their lists, nor do they make any effort, as you point out, to attempt one-on-one communication since they may be adopting a "safety in numbers" approach.

I am astonished at the low incidence of links in incoming email, though.

Hutch Carpenter

Dennis's comment is a point I'd make as well. "An awful lot of effort is going into sending me the three-quarters of PR emails in my inbox that have little or no relevance to me, to my clients, or to you."

I send out a monthly newsletter on behalf of my company (mostly to customers and prospects). The hard work is pulling the newsletter together. Adding an email address is actually the lowest amount of work.

But I do make sure the email list is a good one - I use the unsubscribe stats as a measure for how well I've done on both list selection and newsletter content.

Dana Todd

So here's the conundrum - PR wants to be in news "real estate" in some way, and they figure the only way they can tell their stories in your space is by convincing you they're interesting and relevant. And, not surprisingly, most stories are neither. And, you have limited real estate and time to tell all the stories out there.

In a very similar parallel, once upon a time companies couldn't buy a prominent position on search engine results, and the only way to get that real estate was to "earn" a spot using SEO tactics on their website. Believe it or not, when Alta Vista was the first popular search engine to offer paid links at the top, there was a bit of an uproar in the SEO community. Didn't stop progress though, and that same year startup GoTo quickly repositioned itself to provide paid links to most of the other popular engines long before Google was making its billions. Alta Vista and other search engines ultimately realized something: as long as the paid results were marked as "sponsored", and as long as they were relevant to the search, users were not upset by them and in fact actually clicked them (up to a third of the total clicks on most commercial searches are clicks on ads).

Let's flip this over to the news space. The PR industry is a lot like the SEO folks were in the beginning: entirely focused on "earned media" exposure and influencing the influencers. Web news and PR syndication services are a lot like the old "Submit Your Site to 20,000 Search Engines!" services - a shotgun approach.

What they don't realize is that they have an alternative means of being seen in News, and they don't even have to bother the shrinking pool of journalists with their stories unless it's a really good story (most PR people will admit that sometimes their clients want them to pitch a story they know in their heart is a stinker).

When we sought to build the Newsforce Network, we wanted to give companies the same shot at controlled visibility that they had with Search. And we wanted to prove that ultimately News readers care more about the relevance of information in their web experience than they do the source. We even went so far as to commission an eye tracking study to test our theories, the results of which blew us away: http://www.enquiroresearch.com/newsforce-index-page.aspx

So now, a year after we started our alpha testing, we have carved out a private channel across 280+ top news sites that lets companies tell whatever stories they choose. We contextually map story-on-story, which provides the relevance that readers seek. PR can still pitch journalists and influential bloggers on breaking stories, of course, but they have a more "always on" capability for representation of their content now by using the advertising channels to support storytelling. Sure, we charge a lot more than a wire service, but we believe in paying for the real value of that prime News real estate.

It's the natural evolution of News, and ultimately we hope we've found the magic monetization bullet that can help save the News industry. As a former journalist myself, it's painful to watch the downsizing of America's great journalistic institutions.

Dana Todd, CMO
Newsforce Network

Elizabeth Poeschl

If your post does not change the way that some Public Relations professionals are working, I don't know what will. Your post clearly illustrates a important issue that all agencies need to solve once and for all. I am a PR student who has been reading about the "spam" issues in the PR industry for a few years now, and it always surprises me that some people still don't get the point. Whoever told people that sending out mass, impersonalized emails is the best way to get coverage did a serious injustice to the creditability of the PR industry. It really frustrates me when I read about PR "professionals" who are tarnishing the name "PR" before I even enter the field.

Jeremy Porter

This is an awesome post. I disagree with some of the comments claiming that this has nothing to do with The Groundswell. PR professionals are an audience you deal with - engaging in dialogue with your audience and sharing your insights is what this stuff is all about. Thanks for sharing this post.

I think posts like this draw much-needed attention to the issue of PR spam. It's been going on too long and I think it's a cop-out to say it's never going to stop. The more journalists and bloggers that take a stand to off-topic pitching the better.

I think some of the people that get most upset with this topic are those that knowingly engage in sending off-topic pitches, or those that don't have enough time in their days to do the legwork necessary to engage with the media in a professional manner.


At least Josh didn't resort to the "PR People: please only call me between 4-6 on Thursdays" type of instruction that we so often hear when journalists are on panels speaking to PR people.


Relevant to the blog or not... This post resonated with me. PR people have turned into spammers.

Lydia Leong

Bravo -- nice dissection. I disagree with the commenters who don't think it's relevant to Groundswell. It absolutely is -- it is a clear demonstration of why social influencers have become so much more important in getting our attention.

As an analyst who has never covered television (but who does cover online video in the form of CDN services), I can tell you that I nevertheless get plenty of irrelevant TV-related PR!

david hargreaves

As someone running a large tech PR agency in the valley, I am sure we are guilty of some of the above although we certainly encourage best practice across all our staff. I would please ask that you help us on our mission to educate clients on the role of press releases today and what they should look like (and not look like) and how they should be used.

If every time you meet a company you could reinforce all of the above it would really help us help change the mind set of some of our clients. Sadly a lot of product managers think that just because they have have sent out a press release means that they have 'done' PR.

It will change but there is a lot of cultural change to effect within clients in the meantime


a lot of what you have said is common sense and very basic rules which PR agencies should follow. the fact that they continue to not do basic things like personal email i.e. not just name personalisation in an email blast e.g. Hi Josh. is stupid. its a waste of an email, if you get an irrelevant message. they should do their research and find out what industries you are currently covering.

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