PR professionals -- clean up your industry
by Josh Bernoff
In the 1970s, the Ad Council created the Keep America Beautiful campaign, featuring the iconic actor Iron Eyes Cody in Native American garb, shedding a tear as people littered along the highways.
What that campaign changed was people's attitudes about littering. Before that, people thought, what difference does it make if I throw a can out the window? Aftwards, people realized it was wrong. If somebody in your car was going to litter, you might say "Hey, don't do that, keep America beautiful." The littering didn't all stop, but the violators at least felt some guilt.
In this post, I'm hoping some PR professionals who are cutting corners will get the message -- and the rest of you will shame them into better behavior. This is not just about the sad state of pitch relevance. The message here is simpler: you need a system to remove people from your email lists. "What's one email?" I'm sure some are thinking. "What you're asking is time consuming," you might complain. But remember, the people you are targeting are influencers. We can and will point out your flaws, as I am about to do. Yes, I want you to feel guilty. And furthermore, I want the PR Society of America to create a certification for responsible PR emailers, and withhold certification from violators. We need to get people on the wrong side of this to feel some pain, and some guilt.
Here are some examples of recent violations in my inbox (which has not improved at all from the last time I did this).
Seagate sends me an analyst newsletter every month. Four years ago, when was I was covering digital video recorders like TiVo, I cared about the hard drives in them, but now I don't. Seagate's newsletter includes an unsubscribe email address. I emailed it faithfully each month, and received a 2 page email in return describing in technical detail how the email had bounced.
After repeated attempts to reach Seagate including a few nasty Twitter messages, I reached David Szabados in Seagate PR. He explains "Unfortunately neither of [the people doing this newsletter] had any idea about the alias e-mail, which leads me to believe that it was setup as part of a template, but the follow through on activation of the e-mail never occurred. ... Again, perhaps the e-mail was a placeholder, but obviously it's not correct and finished." This surprised me since Seagate is a large, respected Silicon Valley company that should know better.
Other companies just can't seem to make my deletion from their lists permanent. GlassPoint, a green technology company, sends me a nice note to confirm when I unsubscribe, then blithely sends their newsletter the next month. Laura Borgstede, CEO of the PR Firm Calysto Communications, send me her "PR Vibes" newsletter regularly -- she told me it is "an altruistic effort that Calysto provides to the communications industry." She took me off her her list, but then the newsletter reappeared a few months later.This is a good example of the root of the challenge -- PR companies buy lists, but don't always check to see if removed people are on those lists.
The worst case of this may be Allen & Caron. Michael Lucarelli from Allen & Caron regularly sent me emails that made it clear they thought I was a financial analyst who could pump up their companies. I've made fun of these emails publicly at conferences and ask to be removed from their list, but sure enough, the emails started appearing again. When I contacted Lucarelli about this post, his response was quite revealing: he (1) gave me instructions on how to block him as a sender and (2) requested that Thomson Reuters, which must be where they get my name, remove me from their database. (He also blocked further emails from me-- apparently it's OK for them to email me, but not for me to email him about their policies.) The clear implication is that his emails to me are my problem, not his, and that Allen & Caron is not responsible for maintaining a list of people not to email. I find this reprehensible. No responsible company should work with an agency that behaves in this.
People -- unless you have a system that can not only take somebody off your list but keep them off, you are not a PR person -- you are an amateur. "We pull a list from Cision and you were on it" is not an excuse. I don't want to get out of the Cision list, most people actually use it properly. I am asking to be removed from you. You are responsible for not emailing me again.
Worst of all, though, are PR companies who spray, pray, and don't care. For a PR company to stand out here, it has to be repeat violator. Here's one: 5WPR. 5WPR is "one of the 25 largest PR companies in the U.S." according to its Web site, but their specialty appears to be broad, untargeted mailings. I received all of the following press releases from them (my comments in brackets):
- Breaking Announcement: Independent Gaming Developer Adds Leading Technology Recruiter to Growing Team [Hint: hiring a recruiter is not a "breaking announcement.]
- New Trends in Social Media Technology // Expert Available [News flash: analysts don't generally seek out "experts" in the areas they are supposed to expert in.]
- Photos: John Legend Parties with Fever [Party photos -- not usually part of my analysis.]
- Lil' Kim Shows Her O-Face for Three-O Vodka's Latest Flavor [I don't drink. I don't write about music or liquor. And I don't appreciate lewd pitches.]
There are lots more like this. In September, in response to my request after one of these emails, a PR person there emailed me to promise to have me "permanently removed from all media outreach moving forward." Net effect: no effect at all. On January 24, in a telephone conversation, a PR person at 5WPR said he would "have IT remove you from the list" (apparently if you really want to get off, you need to talk to the IT department). A few days later, Ronn Torossian, the CEO, accepted my proposal to do an on the record interview, then apparently thought better of it and declined. And then, on February 1, I received another PR email from them "Expert Source: Future of Digital Journalism - New Education Course Preps Students."
5WPR, please begone.
To Seagate and Glasspoint and Calysto and all the other PR professionals and agencies out there who seem to care: if you cannot respect an unsubscribe, you are not professional. Get on the right side of this. If you own a dog in New York City, you have to pick up after it. And if you email influencers, you need a professional system that can remove people.
To other PR professionals: talk about this. Shame your colleagues. Keep America Beautiful -- respect the inboxes of the influencers you are trying to connect with.
To the PR Society of America -- you need a code of conduct that reflects the difference between right and wrong, and you need to withhold certifcation from people who violate it. You need a grievance policy that goes through you, so we can report people like 5WPR who don't appear to care. If you want to serve your industry, then create a certification for people who behave properly. Because right now, every failure to respect an unsubscribe tarnishes your industry.
Note: There's now a response from the PRSA here.