Tag Archives: #cision

Should PRSA Sanction Public Relations Practitioners?

In his bi-weekly column on customer service, “The Haggler,” New York Times writer David Segal addressed a long-standing and well-founded gripe that many journalists have against public relations practitioners who send out press releases and other solicitations in wholesale fashion; regardless of the content’s relevance or likely interest to the journalists they’re pitching. According to Segal, hundreds of thousands of these unsolicited pitches – or “P.R. Spam,” as he calls it – “belly flop into the email systems of journalists every day.”

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals has always been contentious. Reporters claim PR people block their access to sources, and sometimes to the truth. PR counters that journalists often don’t care about facts, or twist them to suit their editorial agenda. But because the press can deliver exposure and credibility that PR craves, journalists have always been in a more powerful position. As a result, effective public relations involves pushing a company’s or client’s agenda (or products and services) without being a pest, and ideally, by being helpful to reporters who are in a position to reciprocate with media coverage. It’s a dance that both sides understand.

Over the past decade, three developments have upset the already rocky relationship between PR and the press:

  • Email, and “blast email” in particular, has become PR’s most frequently used communication device. Standard PR procedure at most firms and agencies is based on “shotgun” tactics designed to reach as many media sources as possible, relevance or interest notwithstanding.
  • Database companies, notably Cision and Vocus, empower PR people to create enormous lists of journalists in a matter of minutes. What was once a painstaking research process now involves a few keystrokes.
  • The internet and a fundamental shift in how news is reported have greatly reduced the number of journalists. Conversely, more schools are pumping out graduates with PR degrees. So there are now significantly more PR people chasing a much smaller number of journalists. And many newly minted PR people have not been taught the unwritten rules of effective media relations.

Why should serious PR practitioners care about the behavior of the growing number of people within their profession who display no regard for fundamental media relations protocol?

In his column, New York Times’ David Segal reports that he has removed his contact information from the 5 leading media database companies. Calling on other reporters who also seek fewer unsolicited intrusions in their mailboxes, Segal provides detailed instructions on how they can delete their listings from those databases.

But it matters very little whether Segal is the canary in the coal mine for this issue, foreshadowing mass defections of journalists from online databases; thereby making those tools useless. In fact, PR may also be better served without them.

What does matter is that this sloppy, lazy, abusive practice of media harassment by so many PR people increasingly harms the stature of the profession, and makes it even more difficult for serious practitioners to work effectively with the press.

Public relations has fought for decades to be recognized as a bona fide profession, similar to medicine, law or accounting. But until the profession is in a position to self-regulate – to reprimand or sanction, in transparent fashion, individual practitioners or organizations that harm the reputation and effectiveness of the discipline – PR can never be considered a legitimate profession. It will remain a business function, nothing more.

If the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), in its role as the industry’s trade association, has serious interest in protecting the reputation and collective interests of the nation’s public relations franchise, the issue highlighted by David Segal provides an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership by reversing a troubling trend. An online “complaint box” for journalists to identify abuse, combined with a “Wall of Shame” to call out repeat offenders – both featured on the PRSA website – might be an effective first step in changing industry behavior.

Any other ideas?

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Death by Content: How Press Release Abuse Killed Public Relations

Self-serving Press Release Content Has Killed PR

The origins of the press release are unclear, but in the not too distant past, this communication tool was called a “News Release.” And its sole purpose was to provide the press with information likely to be of interest to the public; containing what journalists still call “news value.”

Prior to popularization of fax machines in the 1980s, news releases were delivered by human messengers to major wire services such as AP, UPI and Dow Jones, which in turn communicated that news to their subscribing media outlets over a broadtape machine – much like a financial ticker tape, but using a much wider roll of paper. For non-daily news sources such as magazines, news releases were often sent through the US Mail.  Regardless of how they were delivered, news releases served an important role in mass communication.

But the news release has lost its franchise as a communication tool, for two reasons:

  • Thanks to technology, news releases became an anachronism. Online news portals and email killed the underlying functionality of paper releases as a news dissemination tool. The internet delivered news faster, and this was a good thing.
  • Thanks to the PR profession, news releases (aptly re-named press releases) became platforms to deliver content with little or no news value, and largely of no practical value or interest to the press.  Flacks began using the press release as a marketing and propaganda tool, and this was a bad thing.

Over the past two decades, the sustained volume of press release abuse by PR practitioners – driven in large measure by CEOs (and clients) who fail to understand that journalists are not ad hoc members of their company’s Communications Department – has greatly diminished the stature of the public relations profession in the eyes of journalists, and has also reduced the ability of PR pros to leverage the media as a valuable means of securing objective, third-party exposure and validation for their company, product or cause.

As the number of journalists who post “Do not send press releases or pitch story ideas to me” on their Cision or Vocus profiles increases every year, the PR profession will eventually lose one of its most fundamental roles: to discover or create content that has bona fide news value, and to properly package and present that information to media sources.

If journalists find no practical need for flacks, organizations will likely follow their lead. For public companies, dissemination of financial results and material events will be handled by their legal department. Because press releases are now considered sales collateral by their target audiences, “media relations” for all companies will be managed by the marketing department. Public Relations, as a profession and a function, will simply cease to exist.

Twitter, blogs and other social media-based “pull” tools may eventually replace the press release. But unlike social media, press releases have been pushed at journalists, filling their inboxes, wasting their time, and reinforcing the media’s perception of PR as a self-serving and often ignorant generator of meaningless noise.

It may be too late to repair the self-inflicted damage done to the PR profession by years of press release abuse. Morphing from a Public Relations professional into a Social Media professional may buy some additional career tenure for young communications practitioners, and hopefully they’ll learn from the lessons of PR’s suicide: that whether it’s tweeted, posted or contained in a press release, news and information lacking intrinsic value will always reflect poorly on its source. And over time, it will make you irrelevant.

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