Comment: The problem with PR email

As 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.

16 thoughts on “Comment: The problem with PR email

  1. Seth Jacobson

    Note to music biz/entertainment PRs: when sending out emails, please don’t assume a matey tone with me eg ‘Hi guys!’. You don;’t know me and I certainly don’t want to know you. Just tell me about the bloody product in 50 words, and give me a number to call you back on. Otherwise the BS-filter in my head deletes you unquestioningly.

  2. James Ward

    “You don’t know me and I certainly don’t want to know you”

    Typically unpleasant attitude by a journalist. Journalists need to treat each PR person on their merits, and not just be miserables b*stards to all of them.

  3. localhack

    Within the last year I’ve moved from a role where I was involved in writing or commissioning stories to one where I don’t. However, on my very first day I was listed on a media database, and have since been put on others. The kind of press releases which have since come my way (several a day) have been, without exception, absolutely useless to my new publication.

    These lists enable PR companies to target huge swathes of publications with badly targeted and badly written releases with very little effort. The organisations which have news which will actually interest you should know of you already – they don’t need a media database to find you.

    So, if you want to cut down on the amount of crap PR sent to you, it’s simple – get yourselves taken off these lists. The number of valuable stories you might miss as a result is likely to be a fraction of those you’ll miss because they’re lost in a sea of PR spam.

  4. Barrie Hussey

    I’ve been on both sides of the news release business for the better part of 35 years. As an editor (one who had to deal with the myriad pieces of poorly thought-out and written ‘pissing into the wind’ missives being sent out by flaks – sometimes hudndreds a day to major newsrooms)
    I wonder if people such as James Ward had to deal with these mounting piles of crap day in and day out while trying to do their jobs… would soon be a tad miserable too. As for bastards… I’ve been a Flak and found the world of flakdom is rife with them.

  5. Chris Lee

    It seems the PR industry never learns. This is chiefly because, I believe, not enough PRs have experienced the journalism side of the industry. I have, luckily, and recommend that PRs put themselves in the journalist’s shoes before they take the scattergun approach.

    I did a podcast for my website with freelance tech journalist, Gordon Kelly, on this very subject. You can listen to it or download it here:

  6. Peter Himler

    The problem of PR SPAM primarily stems from two steps in the process PR professionals use to engage/pitch journalists. The first has been around for decades, and has to do with the way PR “pros” identify the “right” journalists to contact. The second is a result of the recent and growing popularity of media database companies that empower PR people to automate mass-emailing with just a keystroke.

    Basically, PR people have long identified journalists by their titles or reported beats. These measures, still used by the major PR industry vendors, often do not reflect the journalist’s true editorial interests, e.g., there are many flavors of technology reporters.

    There is one promising PR application (with which I’ve had a hand in developing) that takes an entirely new approach. It is a search app that produces a list of relevant journalists based on how closely their cumulative body of work reflects the search query (keywords, pitch letter, news release).

    What’s more, this new application, called Matchpoint (, only permits the PR pro to email one journalist at a time, and then lets the recipient journalist rate the quality of the pitch.

    While not a remedy for lazy PR people, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

    Peter Himler
    Flatiron Communications LLC
    Twitter: PeterHimler

  7. Jon Boroshok

    I am a journalist and a marketing communications/PR practitioner. There are problems on both sides of the fence in this relationship.

    As journalists, we tend to only accept phone calls or e-mails from sources we already know. That’s a dangerous place to be these days. How are we, as journalists learning anything new if we keep going back to the same old proven sources? By playing it safe, we become as bad as commercial radio-only playing the hits that are focus group tested to death.

    As PR practitioners, we don’t take the time to get to know our target audience, in this case the journalist. We build huge media databases, and blast out the same pitch to the entire list, with hopes that a few hits may occur. This is particularly dangerous when we allow younger, inexperienced people to do the pitching. Where’s their business and life experience?

    I also happen to teach marketing communications and public relations classes at Emerson College in Boston, and Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

    Here’s how I teach my students to pitch the media via e-mail. It’s starts with the proposition that what you’re pitching needs to be a bout and for the reporter, not your own company or client. I use the acronym “WIIFY,” which stands for “what’s in it for you” – “YOU” meaning the reporter.

    A good pitch letter is typically about four short paragraphs:

    1. The first paragraph helps build a relationship with a journalist. Show you know the media outlet, the individual, and what he/she writes. If possible, tie in your idea to an article he/she has written – it shows you’ve actually read his/her writing, and helps you establish relevancy for that reporter (it’s a WIIFY). It gives you the benefit of having a story idea and/or information for him/her that fits what he/she writes about, and would be of interest to his/her readers.

    2. The second paragraph elaborates on what that story idea and/or information is. You offer just enough detail to get the journalist’s interest and ask you for more.

    3. The third paragraph justifies the reason why the story idea/information is important and/or why the journalist and his/her readers should/will care. This is about what’s in it for them (the “WIIFY”), not what’s in it for your company or client. Don’t tell them about your marketing strategy – they don’t care about that unless it’s a business story about marketing strategies.

    4. Your final paragraph is your closing and a call to action. This is where you offer some sort of value-add, such as arranging interviews with experts, celebrities, offer to provide additional information, invite them to an event, etc. It needs to go beyond, “for more information, please contact me.” Give the journalist a reason to want to contact you.

    Then you add your name and full contact information (title, phone e-mail) at the bottom. That’s it – a nice brief, informal e-mail.

    Remember that paragraphs should be short and simple – not more than two or three sentences long.

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  11. Matt Cross

    Interesting article (and of course, let’s not forget, a great bit of PR for Iain’s new service launch….)but I am somewhat concerned by the attitude of the many comments that blame all PRs without another thought. I’d suggest that any press who really find no value in the PR side of the industry are not carrying out the job correctly. Without a doubt there are many agencies that use dreadful span-like tactics to hit the media, and I am not condoning this, but there are also many agencies that have decent two-way working relationships with journalists at all levels. If you don’t have a relationship with any agencies or PRs then you need to ask yourself why.

    On another note, with modern day technology as it is, filtering, blocking and categorising unstructured information such as email is really not that hard. You may be surprised to know that not only press receive spam, but we still get on with our lives.


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  16. Relationship problems

    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.

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