Public Relations

How to Stop PR Spam

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…

From what I can make out, the general pattern of these things runs as follows:

1. PRs send out their release about Russel Grant’s Mothers Day Gift Guide.

2. It lands in a respectable journalist’s inbox- the 20th in a row on deadline day.

3. Said journalist blogs or tweets, analysing the experience and giving insight into their side of the issue.

4. PRs take the advice on board, adapt their habits and we all live happily ever after.

The Big Problem

Okay, this is where it falls apart- number 4 obviously isn’t that simple.

I’ve read those articles. You’ve read those articles.  We all understand the importance of knowing your press.  But we’re the good guys. It’s not us that goes to address book, hits select all and fires off the news about the Superbowl party at The Chicago Rib Shack.

The guys who are doing this don’t read those blog posts.  They don’t follow the journalist on Twitter. They don’t read the publication they’re pitching.

As a result, the posts keep coming, the journalists keep getting more frustrated and the good PRs start to tire of reading the  same advice ad infinitum.

So I think we need to look at this differently.

The Big Idea

Take a deep breath, we’re nearly there.

Really, I see two options:

1. Spend years working on institutional reform with initiatives like An Inconvenient PR Truth,

2. Every time a journalist receives PR spam, they send a reply asking to be removed from the list.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Journalists are busy people and can’t/ shouldn’t have to spend all day responding to inaccurate press releases.

But 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.

Whether it be an Outlook plugin, something built into (the amazing, check it out) Xobni or just clever Outlook macros, I’m sure it can’t be a hard system to put together, it’d just be a matter of getting it institutionalised.

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.

Your Big Thoughts?

Education isn’t reaching the people who need it- without some kind of direct response system, I can’t see things changing.  Could a system like this be our best hope for the future?

If you’re a PR sick and tired of watching this debate go round in circles or a journalist desperate for respite, I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

UPDATE: Lots of talk about the “Inconvenient PR Truth” campaign – see the following:

+Max Tatton-Brown

By Max Tatton-Brown

Max Tatton-Brown is founder and MD of Augur, and has written for publications including the Guardian, Sifted and TechCrunch.

13 replies on “How to Stop PR Spam”

Hi Max

Thanks for getting involved and a brilliant post. I think you are spot on except for one thing. I think you probably need both.

Technology without education may not be adopted. However technology could indeed enhance the impacts of education considerably by finding efficient and productive ways to achieve the relevance recipients are seeking. Whilst, at the same time, making it easier for now educated senders to adopt.

But to maintain the analogy in the video should we be waiting for technology to provide all the answers to climate change? Or should we at least start doing the things we know we can now and then invest in technologies that will enhance the impact?

Thanks again for getting involved and as you say look forward to more comment and debate 🙂


Thanks Adam, I think you make a good point in that education at a good agency puts PRs on the right tracks. I think it’s desperation in reading the same posts and hearing the same tips over and over again that makes me yearn for a catalyst.

What spurned me on to support the campaign was that Adam’s research found that PRs don’t have to be much more precise to achieve satisfaction among journalists. That made me think an industry campaign may be worthwhile, and perhaps all that is needed.

I kind of like this idea.

When I read through the Bill of Rights on the campaign website, I agreed with the first few, but not so much with some of the later ones. For example, I know certain journalists who don’t mind at all if I call them to follow up. In fact, since they’re ploughing through spam and may miss my email, they are glad if I give them a quick heads up. Of course, I don’t know any journalists who like a call that just says “Did you get my release?”

So yes, it’s vital that you know your publications and know your journalists….and know your PR from your spam.

That’s why I like the idea of journalists “bounc[ing] a full bio of what [they] *do* cover for future reference.” But would they really take the time to do that? I don’t know. Some would probably say, “Why should I do that when you should just do your job properly?” Others might say they don’t really mind the irrelevant stuff, so wouldn’t bounce it (remember those stats were quite high too).

But maybe journalists have already taken the time to put a pretty extensive bio somewhere on the net – maybe on their publication’s website, maybe on FeaturesExec or MEDIAtlas, maybe on their blog. The info is usually out there somewhere, so perhaps just bouncing a hyperlink and “Do your research next time” would be enough.

Then again, if people who mass mail don’t go looking for that sort of info for themselves, would having it handed to them on a plate really make any difference?

Nice blog and agree with your thinking Max although I would also agree that at some level (i.e. when people walk through the door on the first day) PRs need to be trained in the right way.

Spamming releases isn’t logical so why would you do it? Because someone has told you that is the way it works…. If that person had said “go forth and form a trsuted relationship, it will get you further” then we might not have this situation.

Agency heads need to take responsibility and realise that this is how the job should be done – many many agencies do already but unfortunately it seems at the same time, many couldn’t be bothered.

Unfortunately, for these people, the plug-in may be useless as no amount of returned spam will ever get through to them I fear.


Interesting post, Max.

I do mark some unwanted releases as spam and I have placed a block on some PR people who persist in sending irrelevant mail.

Can I add a couple of points from a journalist point of view. I don’t mind calls from PRs telling me I may have missed something relevant, a good PR knows what I cover and 90% of the time they’re spot on (they can also tell me when I’ve forgotten a conference call 🙂 ) I hate when PRs ring to ask if I’ve received a release or, and this is the new trick, ask would I like to receive a release. It sounds great in theory but there are some days/weeks when I’m run off my feet and don’t want any more distractions (and some days when I’m looking around for more to write about, but the caller doesn’t know which).

I’m also surprised as to how few PRs engage with journalists on social media, I will often put what I’m writing about on Twitter or Facebook and that should help PRs enormously. As you say, the people who are doing the spamming don’t do this and that’s really the area where agencies should be laying down some rules.

I agree that PRs should do more research but there are time pressures – I’d like to do more research for everything I write but there’s a limit.

Good debate though.

Good article and great suggestion for a solution. I think a good portion of the problem actually relates to distribution services like Cision’s MediaDisk, which gives PR companys access to journalists’ contact details based on search topics. So you type in ‘Food Production’ and it brings up a list of publications or journalists that are listed as having ‘Food Production’ as an interest. Obviously some journalists are going to be incorrectly listed, and others will have more specific interests within the category which means that they’re interested in food storage, but not food processing, and so forth.

Often, a PR company will want to keep its contacts database as up to date as possible, so it’ll grab the contact list off the database and send the mail out to it. Some journalists may request to be taken off the list, but unless Cision (etc) are notified then the next time they search for an updated list then the journalist will end up getting the spam again.

The problem I’ve encountered is that Cision doesn’t really like taking contact details off its database. I requested to have mine taken off as I was listed for a long since defunct publication, and I have requested about 10 times now, but I STILL get the odd press release through, and when I complain, the PR points back to Cision. Of course, if Cision obeyed every request it for removal from their database, then their contact numbers would shrink and they’d look bad and possibly lose business. Because Cision build their contact lists based on a combination of copying details from magazine credits and calling offices up and trying to retrieve contact details, it’s again only a matter of time before the poor journalist ends up back on the list again.

So while putting an auto-reply feature into a mail client is a great idea, it’s not going to solve the problem – it will just reduce the issue by the amount of conscientious PRs who check through their lists thoroughly, or who purely base their mailings on direct relationships.

…which, let’s be honest, is going to be precious few of them.

Another aspect to consider is that the spam is sent by the poor PR Account Execs, who are being driven by their managers to get the results which have been promised to the client. Having been in that position as well, I can assure you that many Account Managers will tell the Account Execs to send the email over and over again until it gets coverage, and/or call the journalist day in day out, selling the story to them over and over again until the poor exec – and the journalists – both go insane.

So these are both things to bear in mind. As both a PR and a journo I really want to see some sort of solution. Good luck!


I genuinely found your post engaging and your suggestion worthwhile, and very much hope that it doesn’t provoke too many self-important bleats from PR industry peers (i.e. “yes very novel but here at 13Drivellers we never make this mistake in the first place” etc. etc.) or scoffs of derision from those especially brow-beaten hacks who find the very idea of press releases vaguely disgusting.

I’ve been in this game 10 years and have become rather sick and tired of the rather childish and overexcited rhubarb that has coloured this debate during that time. It might just be (just…) that we can ALL be grown up about it for a change.

Marketing is a business and so is publishing – let’s just get on with it.

Bad PRs are like bad drivers in my experience; you remember them, whereas the 90 per cent who do a perfectly passable job slip under the radar (that leaves 9 per cent who really shine and are memorable for that).

My experience is that more PRs are good at their job than not. I’d suggest, then. to journalists watching, that we try to bear in mind the following points:

1. There are indeed some crap PRs who bother good journalists. There are also crap journalists who bother good PRs and clients. It’s an industry, there are going to be bad practitioners as well as good on both sides – it’s hardly unique.

2. I’ve had stand-up rows on Twitter with journos and bloggers who claim they’re being sent unsolicited material – whilst (on one occasion) describing themselves in their profile as ‘blogger and information junkie’. If you’re saying you’re a journalist a PR has every right to approach you in his or her professional capacity. Naturally the better ones will learn your preferences as they go, but whining or Tweeting because you’ve said you want information and someone has said some? Come on…

3. To the minority of hacks who claim PRs are somehow lesser professionals because they have a vested interest in their client (I’ve actually been told by one experienced PR that what I do is more ‘pure’ than what he does) – get over yourself, you wouldn’t be writing this stuff or remotely interested in it if you weren’t being paid.

4. Above all else, I’ve seen on forums before now comments from journalists that PRs don’t understand that they’re there for our convenience. Damned right they don’t because it’s not true – but if a hack has that expectation they’re going to end up very angry. PR personnel are there for their shareholders, for their clients, they are businesses in their own right and there are areas in which they overlap with journalists – and areas in which they don’t. Deal with it, both sides.

5. As a refinement of the above points, journalists need to be aware that in many areas of PR we have the upper hand – if we decide not to publish something about a PR’s client, or to go public about a bad experience, the PR is unlikely to have much of a platform on which to put their case. It is important and professional to be sensitive to this and to avoid abusing it.

On the idea of a software add-on, though, I’d have to say it would only work if adopted by the majority. This would be simple enough if a few key publishing houses bought into the idea but I can’t see the freelance community, not a cohesive bunch at the best of times, agreeing to adopt one single thing. I’ve seen senior journalists blogging about bad PR websites – which were only bad because the hack used a very obscure web browser indeed, never mind adopting a single email add-on for PR peeps.

That’s my tuppenyworth anyway…

I’ve just read though all of these comments. Great debate.

I’m not sure it will ever be entirely resolved but Alex’s comments come closest to the mark for me.

When we (PR firms) first had the likes of Benns and PIMS in the mid 80s there was a period of mass mail outs. I can remember sitting stuffing envelopes in the office. During the 90s I think the PR profession got a lot more professional and there was a great journo/pr cross over and level of mutual understanding.

I turned more to writing and journalism in the noughties and didn’t like what I saw.

Now it seems, especially with the online media list services, and all of our obsession with clicking ‘send’ on that email, that we are back at an unhappy journo/pr stand off.

I think the time spent to write ‘this is what I’m interested it’ would surely be time well spent, wouldn’t it? And tough luck to those PRs who then ignore such messages and continue to spam.

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