The journo who replied to every PR email missed the most important point

I love the idea. Obviously. But I think there’s a missed opportunity in the execution.

Let me start at the beginning.

The problem

In a world where PRs outnumber journalists so hugely, the biggest obstacle to improving our industry today is the broken feedback loop.

If every journo could reply to every single PR email, good PRs would gradually refine what they send and who they send to, reducing volumes. Meanwhile, careless PRs would receive large quantities of replies and be unable to escape that there are real humans on the other end, whose time they are wasting.

If every journalist took a week out to do what’s described in this article, even just once, it could help close this loop. Spending a little time could reduce future unwanted email, help PRs understand interests and refine one of the most important but frustrating systems in a modern journalist’s life.

Sadly though, the execution in the article rather limits this potential, even from day 1:

It’s Saturday, so my inbox is mercifully quiet. I do receive an email titled “Lion who attacked teacher in Peru in care of animal organization helping to enforce circus ban”; attached is a press release that says about the same thing, but in more than 950 words. I reply “Hi, thanks for sending this, will look into Operation Spirit of Freedom rescue mission” and resume my weekend.

Instead of clarifying the kind of thing that might be of interest, Zach is providing positive feedback for topics outside his remit – especially in a world where they are used to deafening silence.

Two days later, more inaccurate positive feedback:

I do get a note about Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott throwing a “Lavish, Snackeez-Themed Birthday Party” for their son’s second birthday party, so I reply “Thanks! Sounds like a fun party,” which is a weird thing to write about a birthday party for a stranger’s 2-year-old, but whatever.

In fact, twice in the same day:

I listen to it in bed anyway and muster up a bland “Thanks—I’ll give it a listen” in reply and wonder what sort of toll the five days that lay ahead will take.

Monday hits and he issues another self-defeating barrage:

I respond to a release about a French company specializing in the production of mechanical components with a chirpy “I don’t know much about drilling and optronic assembly, but thank you for sharing!”

By Wednesday, he may have realised the damage he was doing — things turn around a bit:

My favorite ones are invites to events happening in other cities, like a brewery party in Chicago and an exhibit of photos of Chartres Cathedral in Paris sent to me by a publicist with an AOL.com email address, because then I can respond by politely and usefully announcing that I live in New York

Useful feedback. A good PR will use this detail to save further irrelevant pitches in the future. After all, they don’t want to waste their own time either.

Then, an even better move:

Things slow by midafternoon, but there’s a weird surge in sports-related PR (a study on NFL coaches, a “Swing for Education Golf Classic”) so I take the opportunity to inform publicists of Newsweek’s sports guy (it’s not me!).

This is incredibly useful feedback. If it’s not relevant, making that clear is great — but if it’s a half decent story then pointing toward your colleagues will, again, help in future.

This turn around reveals something I think is interesting — journalists inherently know that there’s a possibility to save themselves future aggro. But the fact is, most journalists have stopped trying.

The aftermath – what can journalists do?

From Zach’s followup:

 Now I’m the most revered journalist in PR agencies nationwide, an earthly god among flacks.

I was forced to a startling conclusion: My week-long immersion in the gaping uselessness of PR emails had produced something…sort of…useful to PR people? Essential, even?

Nearly. So nearly. And so nearly to journalists too — but I think it just fell short of being actually quite revolutionary.

With that in mind, I thought I’d supply some options to help journalists manage the incoming PR flow, based on my perspective halfway between the two worlds.

1. Tell us what interests you and how to pitch you

Every writer is different. Zach mentioned in his follow up how to catch his eye: “Consider me the last writer on Earth who still loves receiving physical media in the mail.” But for a million other journalists, they can’t stand the idea.

Yes, PRs should read your writing and ideally tweets before making unsolicited contact. But if you can supplement that with a short note about how best to contact you, what your current agenda, commissions or core interests are, you’re only going to help them do it better.

2. Use auto-responses

Plenty of tools will allow you to either juggle multiple items on a clipboard, expand text from little shortcuts or even just keep multiple responses that you use often. Write some up — perhaps a simple “I don’t cover this patch, I write about XYZ, see my statement here” or “I will never write about this, please take me off your list”.

How about including links to your colleagues on various topics in the response too? If you’re worried it’ll increase emails you receive, include a clear statement: “no need to respond to this message”.

3. Use email properly

Know your weapon. Email isn’t going anywhere. You’re not about to be pitched any less. Developing rules as the first line of processing makes sense but try to focus on highlighting the unmissable messages instead of filtering out all the noise.

Take it seriously. Read Getting Things Done. Consider how you might link Mailbox into the workflow so you can get through it quicker. This isn’t just true of journalists, it’s true of everyone in an email-heavy environment.

- Max Tatton-Brown

September 22nd, 2014