I love the idea. Obviously. But I think there’s a missed opportunity in the execution.
Let me start at the beginning.
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.
September 22nd, 2014
Nearly four years ago, I wrote this:
What if you could tag PR spam right from your inbox with the system sending automatic responses to each incorrect query? Perhaps it could even bounce them a full bio of what you *do* cover for future reference.
The Big Why
- It’s the minimum disruption to journalists’ time. Right Click + Tag takes no longer than Right Click + Delete.
- It sends a clear, unavoidable message to bad PRs each time it happens. If they spam 200 addresses and get 180 bouncebacks each time, they might adjust their behaviour.
- It doesn’t penalise the good PRs- it even improves their understanding of the publication for the future.
And even though I had some interesting chats about the subject with Charles Arthur and Adam Parker, among others, life got in the way and I never got round to putting a theoretical tool like this together.
Then today, in the midst of the discussion on Twitter, a simpler way of achieving it struck me.
Every journalist should turn on their Out of Office feature.
Okay, bear with me here — it’s not as crazy as it sounds.
The biggest challenge facing PR today is lack of feedback. Good PRs try to send news to journalists they think will be interested. We read their writing, stalk them on Twitter — we *listen* to them as best we can. And we still make mistakes because ultimately you’re also often taking a gamble when topics are on the ‘edge zone’ of what they may or may not want to cover. Part of our job is often to help good writers discover what’s at these edges and what’s happening next.
However, because the ratios of PRs to journalists are out of kilter, we can’t always get feedback. So names stay on lists that technically shouldn’t be there. Nobody wants them there, on either side, but logistically it’s impossible for the journalists to provide the feedback that would save them.
The Bad and the ugly
Meanwhile, bad PRs are smashing out their announcements left, right and centre because they either don’t understand or don’t really care. For better or worse, we do have these people out there who maybe are just doing their first job and don’t really care about sticking around for a career or anything.
This is a whole other topic — BUT, the important thing is, there’s little in the way of immediate cost for them to go broader rather than more targeted. Maybe their account manager will just smooth over the lack of coverage with the client, or maybe they’ll follow up with phone calls and get lucky in one of the 200 leads.
We need something that:
- Scales for journalists – the closer to zero effort the better,
- Rewards good PRs and helps them refine lists,
- Punishes bad PRs in proportion to the volume of irrelevant spam they are sending
- (or alternatively gives them less and less excuse for sending to the wrong people)
So – we need something that provides feedback for each and every email. This is where the automated Out of Office comes in.
Every time a PR emails, they’ll receive a simple, personal update that clearly states what that journalist covers and how they like to be contacted. Whether they ask for it or not.
Most systems will only send this once per conversation thread, so it shouldn’t be entirely suffocating, plus it will give you a signal as to whether your email was properly received or ended up in spam (I think.)
- Bad PRs end up with an equal amount of responses in their inbox — but each one offering the potential for them to learn and refine their lists, causing them less return spam in future.
- Good PRs get to know their leads even better — especially if journalists update this stock message every month or so to keep it current. Maybe they even highlight good and bad examples, there’s a lot of potential here.
- Journalists hopefully end up with a relevant, low maintenance and direct opportunity to educate the people who email them, without things getting too personal.
The catch? Out of office goes to everyone. That I haven’t nailed yet.
But I think this might be one of the easiest, most low maintenance ways to really make progress in this area. Education isn’t enough — change will only happen if we take action.
Got a better idea or a way to improve this? Chip in.
September 24th, 2013
After years of working with journalists and writing myself, the challenge of composing emails that stand out in the right way has become something of an obsession.
But I wonder, could you design an email client for journalists that did smart things with the messages to make their life easier and the process smoother? And could that help them get to the crux of each message faster — the story it had to offer?
June 13th, 2013
— Tim Luckhurst (@TCHL) August 9, 2012
I enjoy good writing.
I enjoy strong investigative writing that gets to the heart of a topic and delivers home truths with respect to its audience, its subject or whoever deserves it more.
I love writers who cover news quickly and to the highest standards of verification, I love writers who labour over extended features that drill into the depth of a topic or its breadth. In tweets, in print, in long form, in NIBs, writing that meets a standard deserves our time, respect and support. (more…)
August 10th, 2012
For years, the world of PR has played host to aliens from the other side of its universe as journo after journo made the move from Editor to “head of content” or similar.
And while historically there have been leaps in the opposite direction, it’s generally more like a step back to square one on the career snakes and ladders board.
April 20th, 2011
Check it out below (starting from the bottom)
October 20th, 2010
The writing of this post was accelerated by today’s launch of An Inconvenient PR Truth, a marketing campaign from RealWire with its own clever take on the PR spam situation. It’s easy on the eyes, cleverly tied in with RealWire’s colours and even comes with its own journalists’ Bill of Rights
But of course, it’s just a nice idea. If the problem of PR spam could be solved by education alone then God knows there are enough training courses and articles out there for it to have disappeared a long time ago.
I think there may be a better solution out there…
January 28th, 2010
Today’s fuss about Kevin Braddock‘s naming and shaming of PRs has been interesting in itself but I think it reflects another interesting aspect of the UKTJPR community; Some journalists are much better at their own PR than others.
January 5th, 2010