The public relations world that does know me, knows I like to kick up dust. In fact, my first national speaking engagement was a talk with Cision’s Heidi Sullivan and Jay Krall at PRSA Digital in New York after I criticized media database firms like theirs for being complicit in PR spam.

John Cass and I co-authored a nice review of that issue – from way back in 2008 – here.

My passion around PR spam is more than just trying to protect and correct the reputation of public relations professionals (remember, I am one, too), but also to fight for the integrity of email marketing. (I co-wrote a book on that, by the way.) Not to mention, I’d like to protect my own inbox.

While the media database companies were inadvertently complicit in PR spam then, most have done a much better job of educating PR pros on how to use the media information found in their databases, but advocating for the best practices quite loudly. I applaud Cision, Vocus, PRWeb, Meltwater and others for helping promote the notion of relationships before reports, quality before quantity.

But there are still people – some intentionally, others ignorantly – misusing these tools. Case in point: It is possible to search for a media list, download the contact information and then dump that list into one’s email marketing platform only to then blast them. And many … perhaps most … PR firms do this.

It is not illegal. The CAN-SPAM Act (for U.S. jurisdiction) does allow you to send a cold call marketing email to anyone, even using a blast service, so long as you include a clear method to opt-out or unsubscribe. But just because it is not illegal does not mean you SHOULD do this. It is spam. It is unethical.

Let me clarify a few nuances:

  • Sending a single, one-to-one email to a reporter or blogger to inquire about their interest in a client or initiative is not spam. It’s a cold-call email, but it’s 1:1, personal (hopefully) and a simple inquiry.
  • Sending a single, one-to-one email to a reporter or blogger that is the entire news release or information you want them to consume is, by definition, spam. They did not ask for this marketing material. There is no context or relationship established to ensure permission to put it in front of them. The only saving grace in this approach is that it is a 1:1 communication. A simple, “I’m not interested,” response is possible.
  • Sending an email to a reporter or blogger that is a blast email sent to multiple reporters or bloggers using an email marketing service or blast technique without first establishing a relationship and securing permission to place the reporter’s email address on the list is not just spam, it is also a presumptuous violation of that individual’s time, attention and privacy. It is no different than calling them without checking to see if they are registered with the Do Not Call registry. It is no different that walking up to them on the street and sticking flyers to their chest in assault fashion.

Last Tuesday, frustrated with yet another round of irrelevant PR spam in my inbox, I tweeted:

And it just so happens a firm sent me not one but two emails that morning through their email marketing software – a sign I’d been added to a list. I never heard of this firm, nor its clients. I never signed up to learn about its clients, nor to be placed on any distribution list.

So I outed them. The ensuing argument between me and the firm’s CEO, which I hear has inspired an episode of the UnPodcast and did fuel a Gini Dietrich post on Spin Sucks, ended well. The CEO apologized for the mistake and added she hoped others learned from it. I thanked her and wish her well.

So, while it may not be polite, I am going to continue to do so and I call on anyone else who receives public relations communications to do the same.

If you receive an unsolicited email from a marketing or PR firm or a company marketing a product or service and that email is sent through an email marketing service (meaning there is some automated way to unsubscribe or you can deduce it’s a blast list), please out them using this firm, but polite formula on your social network of choice:

. @FIRMNAME added me to an email blast list without my permission. This is #PRspam and should be prohibited. #updatecanspam

My hope is the #updatecanspam hashtag can gain enough momentum that an addendum prohibiting any company or person from adding any email address to an email marketing or blast list without the express, written permission of the email recipient.

Please know that I have no intention of embarrassing or criticizing the PR firms in question, but public acknowledgement will be made to include everyone in the conversation. I also do not wish to blame the media database companies. Both have certain culpability in all this. One makes the lists available. The other uses them inappropriately. But in order to rally the industry around change, we cannot make it us vs. them. It has to be all of us for the change.

Let’s help make PR better and update the CAN-SPAM Act. Join me, won’t you?

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