Self-policing PR: Should we out PR Spammers?

    January 11, 2006

There are scads of approaches we can take to rehabilitate the image of the public relations profession.

One of them is self-policing. This can be handled by the associations that represent the profession (should they ever decide to put teeth in their ethics policies) or by individual practitioners. I like the idea of speaking up-I’ve done some of it myself on this blog and in my podcast. But I’m a bit troubled by Jim Horton’s modest proposal.

Jim is one of the smartest PR guys I know and his blog is one of the more thoughtful (dare I say cerebral?) among those in the PR blogging space. He was also blogging about PR before there were blogs; he may be the very first to have used the web to articulat his thoughts on the profession. (His blog-and the website the preceded it before blogging software was available, is tellingly titled “Online Public Relations Thoughts.”) Recently, Jim was spammed with a press release that had something to do with fashion magazines and supermodels. I don’t think Jim has ever written about anything remotely close to these topics. Irriitated by the clueless pitch, he makes this recommendation:

Whenever a PR firm spams any PR blogger, we out the firm in our blogs and brand them with a Scarlet S for spammer. I propose that this first S go to the firm that sent the nonsensical release to me today…Maybe if they are shamed enough in public, offenders will change their ways.
Jim figures:

If PR cannot discipline its own, who can? Reporters have bitched for years about misdirected releases and pitches they get by the pound every day. It’s time then for PR bloggers to stand together and to stop this stupidity before it overwhelms our own mailboxes.

He then names the culprit who sent the offending press release.

Theoretically, this is a good idea. However, the idea of putting negative comments about a named agency or practitioner into the blogosphere without some fact-checking seems dangerous. That’s exactly what Jeremy Zawodny did when he received what he perceived to be a spammed press release. Only after he posted his accusation did the president of the agency respond that it was, in fact, a mistake, and that her agency has a firm stand against spamming. Even the agency’s client came to their defense, arguing that the agency was one of the savviest high-tech agencies operating in Silicon Valley. Zawodny ultimately changed the headline of his post because it appeared in the top 10 Google results when searching on the agency’s name. In other words, this single blog post branded an ethical agency as a spammer even though they weren’t, and without the headline change, that association would have continued into the far distant future. (Here’s my original post about the incident.)

I’d therefore propose a slight adjustment to Jim’s suggestion: Let’s go ahead and out spamming PR agencies, but only after checking our facts to verify that what looks like spam actually is.

Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.