Spray and Pray Dismay

Two of my colleagues recently interviewed journalist and author Roben Farzad on what’s becoming one of my favorite podcasts, appropriately enough called It’s a PR Podcast. Roben hosts Full Disclosure on NPR One, is a special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour and used to write for Bloomberg Businessweek. He’s smart and curious, engaging and fun, and he’s also pretty generous with his time. The episode is worth a listen.

First, for the sake of full disclosure (speaking of which), I’ve had the pleasure of being interviewed on the podcast myself, weighing in mostly on the changes I’ve seen in our profession in close to 40 years of slugging it out in the trenches. What I could not deliver, however, and what Roben offers so matter-of-factly, are the kind of insights that come from being on the reporter side of this symbiotic relationship we have with the news media. Roben’s perspectives – as a proxy for all journalists who (pick one or more) work with, abide, indulge, ignore or loathe PR people – are as instructive as they are honest, and most of all, they should be taken to heart by public relations practitioners who not only want to be successful but also care about our profession.

One of Roben’s bugaboos, which happens to be one of my own, are PR folks who practice the evil art of “spray and pray” public relations, i.e. the practice of indiscriminately carpet bombing the news media with your news releases, advisories, pitches, bundt cake recipes…whatever. Rather than take the time to research the right outlets – and the right reporters at those outlets – they are content to build media lists that likely approach the size of Cambridge Analytica files. If they’re lucky, they’ll hit pay dirt and stumble upon a reporter whose beat and interest align with the topic at hand. But don’t count on it. Instead, what these folks have mostly done is clog up reporters’ inboxes and fomented their disdain for lazy PR people.

What’s particularly maddening about this approach is that there are plenty of resources available – albeit some on the costly side – that have been created to forestall the need to spray and pray. Searchable databases from Cision and Burrelle’s make it easy to pinpoint who covers a particular beat within a certain geography. But even without them, searching specific reporters on Google, Twitter and Facebook can get you so close to a reporter that it might border on stalking.

Now you might think that firms like ours – those who take painstaking measures to seek out just the right outlets and reporters and exact a high degree of disciplined targeting in our media relations work – might welcome the fact that other PR pros are wasting their time in shooting news releases out of canons. After all, our well-research and tailored reporter outreach stands out even more when compared to such coach potato approaches. But the fact is, spray and pray is hurting the reputation of our entire profession, and even if a minority of PR folks are the ones responsible for inbox overload, it reflects poorly on all of us and makes it all the more difficult for our well-honed emails to get opened, even by reporters who could very well be interested.

So here’s a plea to PR practitioners everywhere: stop polluting the media landscape with the equivalent of media relations spam.

Next time: why news distribution services are largely a waste of time and money.

Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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