More Journalists Prefer Bulk Email Than Personalized? Huh?

Last week saw the launch of a campaign entitled “An Inconvenient PR Truth,” aimed at trying to weed-out some of the black sheep in the PR family.

Many of us in the profession have been arguing for similar practices to those advocated there for a while. While the campaign’s approach raised my hackles somewhat, the motives stated seem reasonable on the face of things.

This post isn’t about the broader campaign though.

Buried deep in a slide deck supporting the campaign was a slide about the way journalists prefer to receive “press release emails” (a term that has me tasting bile somewhat, but moving on…).

Preference for how press release emails are addressed

Let’s set aside for a second the advisability of using a sample of 100 respondents to generalize about an entire worldwide industry (although, with the ever-shrinking number of journalists out there nowadays, it might actually be representative…). I’d like to focus for a second on the specific assertion of this slide.

I quote:

“Three quarters of Recipients are happy to receive press release emails on a bulk email basis (or have no preference either way).”

This slide says that 75% of journalists are ok with receiving untailored bulk pitches.

Say whaaaaat?!

To me, this goes against every instinct I have when it comes to pitching. It essentially says that spam is ok. Note that while the first thing the “Inconvenient PR Truth” campaign asks for is for PR pros to ask permission to pitch journalists, that’s not tied in any way to this question in the survey. Without any mention of permission-based pitching, it offers data suggesting that three quarters of journalists are ok with spam pitches.

Time and time again, journalists and PR practitioners alike have railed against the prevalence of untailored spam pitches. I’ve written about spam pitches plenty of times here (in fact given the rapidly increasing number of pitches I receive, I have even posted tips for people pitching me). I have to call “BS” on any claim that only 25% of journalists want pitches tailored to them.

This data seems wrong to me. In fact, it’s even contrary to the goals of the campaign. It also makes me question the accuracy of other potentially useful data in the survey (for example the information on the types of releases journalists prefer not to receive).

Does this seem right to you?

  • Hi Dave

    Thanks for covering the campaign and also for reading the slides in detail – took some time to put those together as couldn’t outsource for cost limitation reasons 🙂

    It is great to get discussion around all the points raised. I can see how this could be interpreted as being both counter intuitive and also contradictory to the campaign.

    However based on the feedback I think the issue here is about relative importance of these issues to whether an email is “spam” or not in a PR context. I think the recipients questioned were saying that as long as the pitch *is* relevant, *is* well laid out, *doesn’t* include attachments, *has* a clear headline and that they have given either express or implied permission, the level of personalisation of the email itself is of far less importance.

    Contrast this with the scenario where you send a personalised pitch, but to someone who hasn’t given you permission or has just unsubscribed from your list, it isn’t relevant to, has a three line title so I can’t tell from the subject header what its about, has no background information and a whopping 10Mb image attachment.

    Which of these two would you prefer to receive?

    Our interpretation was that recipients see these other areas as being far more important. Not that personalisation wouldn’t be ideal and not that it doesn’t add to the relevance. But isn’t a piece of junk mail that is personally addressed and hand delivered still junk?

    Thanks again for widening the discussion as it is only through exploring the issue thoroughly that we will address it properly.

    Best
    Adam

    • Thanks for your response, Adam.

      I’m 100% for ensuring that pitches are more relevant and better written. However, I just don’t buy the validity of the research here, and think we need to separate these two things.

      Of course people are going to prefer relevant, attachment-free, clear pitches to the opposite. I wonder why, though, the campaign isn’t advocating for both? Of course, that would be a service that RealWire can’t provide for companies, unlike bulk emails.. As such, this comes across as a thinly-veiled product pitch rather than something genuinely for the community good which it appears to be.

      That aside, there’s a massive flaw in the methodology here. Slide 23 notes the survey” consisted of replies to an email invitation sent out to over 3,000 of RealWire’s registered recipients of press releases.” So you’ve asked people who’ve signed-up for bulk emails whether they prefer to receive bulk emails. The built-in bias renders the results invalid.

      I’m sounding harsh here, which perhaps isn’t entirely fair. I do applaud any effort to try to raise standards in our profession but I don’t buy the validity of this research.

      • Hi Dave

        Firstly you are absolutely right that potential bias could exist in the replies and I don’t doubt that if we did research into different segments of the media, based on type of recipient, industry, even geography we might get different results. I am sure you have read the “areas for further study” section in the back where we outline further research of this type is required. No matter what becomes of the overall campaign we intend to carry out this work as best we can, though we hope others will join us and lend assistance as by ourselves this is too big a nut to crack.

        However I think having reviewed the comments and tweets so far around the post there is a general acceptance of the conclusion that relevance trumps personalisation. I don’t doubt that good PR practitioners, such as yourself, already do all the other things I mentioned with regards to your pitches and therefore personalisation only enhances this and takes things to an even more professional level. However as Ari says, with publishers and creators of content being so time poor these days, the areas of most frustration seem to be the ability to quickly assess if the content is something they want to engage with. Of course if personalisation is in addition to relevance then as a recipient over time I can expect relevance *just* based on who it comes from. Unfortunately I think we can all agree that no matter what the research this just doesn’t apply to everyone.

        Part of the point about drawing the environmental analogy was that some of the things that enhance relevance are as simple as turning off the light and yet unfortunately many senders of news just don’t seem to do them.

        As Jack says though the other side of the coin in the results was that 25% *did* value personalisation, illustrating that a one size fits all approach is insufficient. Your point that we currently don’t personalise is true, but we don’t address release type either at the moment, yet we did highlight the desire for this.

        In fact we are working on ways of addressing all of the findings from the research including personalisation, so perhaps I would agree with your assessment of self interest if the timing was to coincide with the launch of an improvement to our service. But it isn’t. In fact we approached two of our closest UK competitors to support the campaign precisely to demonstrate this wasn’t the case, and in fact others have joined since.

        What we have in common is we share a goal of raising the bar – as I believe Jack does for instance. As we know we can never be the solution to the problem of irrelevance by ourselves – we aren’t Google 🙂

  • Hi Dave- Good for you for uncovering this. When “data” seems wonky I think much can be revealed by looking at the source. AnInconvenientPRTruth.com is a project of the company RealWire, which offers — you guessed it — email distribution of press releases. Perhaps this campaign is a PR effort to paint themselves as different from the typical PR spam (even though it seems it could be used for just that)? Interesting.

    • I think that may well be the case. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that per se; in fact, as a campaign it’s clever and creative. I think many of the principles here are solid, too.

      The problem comes when you supply research that’s as biased in its design as this is.

  • Dave,

    I might also read this as “40% of Journalists responding don’t really see the difference in ‘bulk email’ versus ‘any email’ from a PR pro.”

    I am encouraged that 25% said that they would prefer a personalized email. Those are the journalists with whom you can make a great connection. So let’s find those 25%!

    @jackmonson

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  • Dave, I’m not convinced the survey results paint a picture of the reality that you and I are living in. If each of us surveyed 100 media targets we reach out to on a regular basis, I’m sure that the responses would be very different. Mass mailing press releases and other communications simply shows a lack of respect for the media, and is a waste of our clients $$ since that approach is not going to deliver the results they expect.

    @JodiEchakowitz

    • …and we’d certainly get different answers if one of us, say, emailed a list of people who’d subscribed to bulk emails and asked them if they like to receive bulk emails…

  • As a huge anti-spam advocate (inc. anti-PR spam) I was puzzled by this as well. BUT I do think the data makes sense if the issue is, a. you have explicit permission (I don’t believe in implied permission though) with an existing journalist who requests you send regular news releases.

    I.e. the relationship is already established, you’re company news is relevant to what the journo writes about and he/she says ‘go ahead and send me your news releases’ if that’s the case I don’t really think there’s a need to tailor every single news release into a pitch. (so long as they continue to be relevant)

    That I would certainly not consider spam. And as I read the data neither do journalists.

    Of course I’m thinking of this from a client-side perspective, and I imagine Dave you’re thinking from an agency perspective–which seems like it might be a trickier issue.

  • Bizarre. Seriously.

    I think this speaks more to the formulaic nature of old media then anything else. Were the people interviewed asked this question: Would you prefer death or spam?

    Seems that way…

    • The people who were asked were people who’d signed-up to receive bulk emails from the wire service behind the study.

      I think many other aspects of the campaign are valid – I’m totally behind any push for well-written, better-targeted pitches. There’s just too much bias for the bulk mail assertion to be credible, though.

  • It makes sense to me — with the assumption that journalists are craving content to report on and print, not conversations to mold. The conversation can come later. Think of the HARO bulk email you recently blogged about; is that, at its core, not a bulk email of different pitches sent generically to opt-in recipients?

    • I’d say HARO is the reverse – a list of story opportunities sent to people whose job it is to help get their clients into the right stories. Journalists aren’t obliged to read pitches; PR people are obliged to review journalist requests. HARO facilitates broader exchange of the latter.

      I’m not arguing that we should be writing fluffy feel-good emails to journalists. However, wouldn’t you rather receive a concise, well-written pitch that explains exactly why you might be interested in a story up-front? That’s what I mean by personalized pitching.

  • I think the problem with the research is the form of the question in the survey. In his comments Adam says that PR professionals are ok receiving bulk email if it is relevant. However, the table itself doesn’t allocate for the assumption of it being relevant. So that makes me wonder what did they actually ask the recipients.

    • Hi Roman,

      The slide deck does give the question asked, on slide #24. It doesn’t mention the relevance of pitches.

      The question was: “Are you happy to receive releases via “bulk” email (where BCC field is used) or do you prefer a personal email sent only to you?”

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  • david (digitaljoy)

    In my last job I was managing PR for Ottawa Theatres. Between the two theatres, there was an average of 3 shows a week. It was not really practical to pitch each show to each journalist (although some shows did get the “special treatment”). In that case, a once a week, generic email was more than sufficient.

    I also managed PR for Broadway Across Canada, one Broadway show (at the NAC) every four months or so. There are pitch was hyper customized… gift baskets, tickets etc.

    Based on that I would say they were asking the wrong question. Question should be, do you see any benefit to a personalized pitch? Or are you going to report a story differently if you received a personalized pitch. If your job is to bang out data (like who is playing what and where) then I would guess, “bulk email” is okay. If your job is to write flowery prose about something, then probably a little lovn’ from the PR team is going to be appreciated.

  • I haven’t read what the other folks have said because I’m the worst, but I’m less shocked than probably expected. Especially if we’re talking print journalists. I think bloggers and other Internetz kidz would be more about personal e-mails.

    Journos who’ve been at it a long time are simply used to receiving bulk e-mails and I’m not sure what students are learning in J-School, but maybe expectations are being set up to receive this kind of thing. Shrug.

    And I know a lot of reporters just want to get something that they would actually write about. I bet a ton don’t give a damn how they get that information. And I’m not sure I blame ’em.

  • Hey Dave,

    I’m not going to say this research wasn’t wonky, but let’s stand the conversation on it’s head for a minute. If we assume the data was partly accurate (just for a minute), it’s likely because so many “personalized” e-mails are now “bulk” e-mail in disguise.

    As someone who works on both sides of the fence at times, I detest receiving e-mails from people who pretend to have a relationship with me. So, I’d rather receive a bulk e-mail from someone I don’t know. And likewise, I’d be put off by a bulk e-mail from someone I do know. Mostly, if someone was going to pitch me, I prefer it has some news value beyond a balloon popping party.

    All my best,
    Rich

  • It would be very useful to see how the question was presented to journalists. It looks strange to me, too.

    The “plus” of the bulk mail could be they can see exactly what’s been communicated to other journalists.

    Obviously, a personalized message that contains both the content communicated to anyone and a personalized part should be the best way to reach out, IMO.

  • As a former journalist who had to produce daily stories, I never cared if a news release was bulk or not. I never had time to respond to anyone anyway. It’s a journalist’s job to take some basic facts, an idea, and work on it to see if there’s a story for their particular medium and to shape the story by asking questions.
    In 10 years I rarely found a PR person who could really feed me a story the way I needed and picking up the phone to listen to the conversational foreplay when I was on deadline was not helpful.
    That said, being on the other side now, I try to cultivate relationships with new media workers, but they still rarely follow up.

  • Dave,
    1. I guess I’d like to know who these “journalists” are that were polled.
    2. This proves to me, as I always believe, that the total reliance on data for decision making can lead you down the wrong path.

    I was lucky enough to have been born with strong intuitive and common sense about things. My pet peeve is when people doubt themselves about what they KNOW is true and change what they do, letting data guide every action. Data can be useful, but data can be misleading as well. I say move forward on what you believe to be your best practices regardless of what the “data” says. Work respectfully, ethically, use your smarts, intuition and common sense about things and your results will prove whether you are correct or not.
    Just my two cents…
    Cheryl

  • Call me a dumb hick from Jockland, but isn’t bulk emails what many people complain about as spam to start with?

  • Trudy Chapman

    Well, the only thing I can think of is that these journalists know that most of the spammed press releases are not useful to them (said as a former CBC journalist), and that the only ones that are useful are those that are addressed directly to them.

    Having left journalism and established my own communications strategy firm, I have worked with many federal government departments, several industry associations, and a few charitable organizations. In both places I have worked hard to fine-tune my personalized list of journalists who cover my subjects, and build a relationship with them. For those releases that are mass oriented, I follow-on with a call to the groups I think are most interested in my message, again, likely those with an interest in my topic and ones with whom I have nurtured a relationship.

    Just my two cents.

  • I find this hard to believe personally. Either way, relationships with journalists are important, and approaching them one on one is the only way. I agree with Jack Monson – let’s find the 25% that still prefer direct contact and focus on building relationships with them!

    @adam_weitner_pr

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