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Comment: The problem with PR email

November 6th, 2009Posted by in Comment, Online Journalism

As Journalism.co.uk reported earlier this year, former PR Manager and national newspaper journalist Iain Fleming decided to try and assess which PR distribution methods work and which don’t, by conducting a small survey as part of his CIPR (Chartered Institute of Public Relations Diploma) course at Queen Margaret University. He now works as the business development manager for Wirefast, which provides the Newslink story and picture wire service and is launching a new multimedia management, distribution and syndication service, called Tradeclips, on 19 November.

As the PR industry has grown – from being worth just over £106 million in 1986 to £6.5 billion in 2005 – so has the number of people working in it and inevitably producing material to send to the media. Back in 1985 fax machines were just coming in and were expensive to buy and run, and most material was still sent by post, so there was a direct financial link to distribution.

Jump forward 20 years and there has been a huge increase in media outlets. So most people in PR have to use some form of directory. If it costs an agency several thousand pounds per year to access an online database, but they are allowed to email as many addresses as they like free of charge through that database, then it is no wonder that content is literally being sprayed in a scattergun approach by many.

Now add in to the mix the growing adoption by publishers and broadcasters of websites linked to their traditional products and the need to use multimedia content, but source it for as little as possible – preferably for free from readers and viewers/listeners – and we now have a situation where an industry is rapidly shedding staff but expecting those who are left to take on more work and learn new techniques.

So it came as no surprise to me that the results of my small survey – including responses from 101 editors, section editors, journalists and IT managers – showed just how much those working on news desks disliked the PR industry – despite their growing reliance on it. So much of what is being thrown at them is completely irrelevant – if it gets to them at all.

What does get through – and 95 per cent reported problems with email of which around a quarter said it was ‘every day’ – is sent in ways which either crash their systems or can’t be opened because their employers simply cannot afford to upgrade software on 200 computers as regularly as a small PR agency of just a few people can – and does.

And that is just for ‘traditional’ text and pictures. The message that a national newspaper can happily use a picture – even across several columns – if it is only a few hundred Kb in size has not got through to the PR people, who keep sending out 10Mb files at a time.

Move on to ‘new’ media and the situation is even worse, with the same issues of incompatible file types, too large files, poor quality content and stuff that is ‘just not newsworthy’ topping the list of complaints. A senior manager within ITV told me just last week how one station struggled for several hours to get video sent by a fire brigade into a format suitable for broadcast, but ran out of time and the bulletin went out minus the footage.

This isn’t a rant about email – I don’t know how we managed to exist before it came along and I was an early adopter, although I can’t now remember my first Telecom Gold address back from 1984. It is ubiquitous and for many – probably most – people working in PR – it is all they know and is an appropriate method. It is a system which has mushroomed and in the space of five years moved from being a ‘nerdy’ plaything to universal acceptance and usage.

But there are many PR practitioners who don’t know of anything else but really should, for every day they are flying by the seat of their pants and taking an unnecessary risk, potentially with the lives of many others. They are the people working under civil contingencies legislation and have a responsibility to ‘warn and inform’ the public – they work for the ‘blue light’ services, the NHS, local authorities and the like. They are supposed to use what the legislation says is a ‘robust’ form of communication, and by no stretch of the imagination is e-mail ‘robust’.

The governments in both Westminster and Holyrood have been investing millions recently in new and secure networks and providing things like satellite phones to such organisations, and while their internal communications may be ‘secure and guaranteed’, these networks don’t  – and never will – extend to the media. There are ‘robust’ services out there – of which my employer Newslink is but one – but the basic understanding of effective communication methods beyond email, mobile phones and fax by even the most senior PR practitioners is simply not there.

I met the head of comms of a major public utility – in the news that day for an issue potentially affecting the health of hundreds of thousands of his customers – at an event in London earlier this month, and tried to discuss the issue with him. The best he could come up with was that ‘he was sure’ they used methods other than email, but could not tell me what they were, nor could he see the importance of being able to guarantee delivering messages affecting public safety. We are on the cusp of a possible swine or bird flu pandemic, but for all of the planning which has been done, how much of it assumes that warning messages will actually be able to be delivered?

I know and appreciate that media distribution is the ‘back end’ of a very creative process – but what is the point of writing the best press release in the world if it never gets there?

So I believe my project has some merit, and may be of value to others. I don’t claim it to be anything other than it is, a university project to which just over 100 editors and journalists contributed and by its very nature could be seen as partial, but I believe it does reflect what is happening in the industry just now.

Findings from Iain Fleming’s research:

  • Lack of targeting, sending large attachments – often in formats which the recipient cannot access – and making ‘follow-up’ calls were just some of the main complaints by the 101 editors, section editors, journalists and IT Managers who responded to the survey.
  • The project also reveals that the practice of making ‘follow-up’ calls by PR practitioners is intensely annoying and ultimately counter-productive, while the demands made on news desk staff by media distribution companies updating their databases are also heavily criticised by journalists.
  • While the media is encouraging user generated content from readers and viewers, much of the content – like that supplied by PR professionals – is unusable because it is sent in the wrong format, is technically unsuitable or is ‘simply not newsworthy’.
  • The research highlights that many public sector organisations with responsibilities under civil contingencies legislation to ‘warn and inform’ the public are relying on a communication method which is not ‘robust’ and not guaranteed to work in an emergency.
  • Due to the unreliability of email, a lot of material never gets there, and if it does, it can’t be opened. And if it can be opened, much of it is irrelevant and just wastes the time of the recipient.  Fifty-five per cent of respondents said that less than ten per cent of the material sent to them from the commercial sector was relevant and 83 per cent said they wanted less material. Only 10 per cent of respondents said they wanted more content from commercial PR operators.
  • While content from the public and non-commercial sectors (local authorities, NHS, charities etc) fared somewhat better, with 25 per cent saying they wanted more from such contributors, and 54 per cent saying they wanted less, this still indicates that a great deal of time and effort is going to waste.
  • The survey looked at the way such material is now delivered, and showed that 80 per cent is sent by e-mail and fax represents less than five per cent.
  • While email has become the dominant distribution method, the survey showed that almost 95 per cent of respondents had suffered problems with it, and almost one quarter reported this to be every day, with half reporting problems several times a week or weekly. This included delayed delivery or even outright failure of messages to arrive, corrupt characters or badly-formatted content, multiple copies and spam.

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