OP-ED: Spam filters force PR pros to refine e-mail procedures

E-mail used to be the ultimate in PR technology, delivering news to thousands of reporters anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse. But with newsrooms deploying e-mail filters to fight the war on spam, press releases and pitch letters are getting caught in the crossfire. If e-mail is to remain a viable tool for our industry, PR professionals will need to understand how these filters work and use new tactics to overcome them.

E-mail used to be the ultimate in PR technology, delivering news to thousands of reporters anywhere in the world with the click of a mouse. But with newsrooms deploying e-mail filters to fight the war on spam, press releases and pitch letters are getting caught in the crossfire. If e-mail is to remain a viable tool for our industry, PR professionals will need to understand how these filters work and use new tactics to overcome them.

"My spam volume exploded over the last six months," says Jim Middlemiss, contributing editor of Wall Street & Technology magazine. "Of the 800 e-mails I was receiving each week, 200 were from people I knew, 80 were press releases, and the rest was junk. I just had to do something." Middlemiss started using a "white list," the most stringent e-mail-filtering tool on the market. The software only accepts e-mails from a pre-approved list of senders. Messages from any other source, no matter how important, are rejected. The program has tamed his in-box, but the risk of blocking information from new sources has increased. "I've specifically added 968 addresses and the domains of some of the top 30 PR firms to my white list," Middlemiss notes. "But I bet there are smaller shops sending me news and getting caught in the filter. It's not a perfect solution, but it's better than before." Less drastic, but more popular filtering tools include "word blacklists," which block any message containing words like "credit report," "buy now," or "porn." More sophisticated versions look for a combination of words and patterns in a message and grade it on the probability that it's spam. USA Today is currently testing technology with this capability. Once it's installed company-wide - likely this month - any message that has a 90% likelihood of being spam will be rejected. "These kinds of programs search messages for hundreds of spam-like patterns," says Steven Brown, an expert on spam and COO of Lyris Technologies. "Some of the most common are excessive capitalization, exclamation points, and the repeated use of a phrase." Having your press release mistaken for spam isn't the only risk that filters pose to PR campaigns. "Source blacklists" are used to block e-mails from spammers like direct-mail companies, hate groups, and countries like Russia that don't prosecute e-mail abusers. But journalists can also add new addresses to the "do not accept" list, allowing them to designate a single account executive or entire PR firm as a source of unwanted e-mail. PR agencies and departments that indiscriminately blast e-mails to reporters are at a high risk of being blacklisted. To avoid spam war crossfire, PR professionals should do the following: Aim for the White List. To keep your name off blacklists, and ensure your place on a white list, make sure each e-mail you send will offer value to the reporter who receives it. Nobody expects every bit of news to become a story, but ensuring that each e-mail is relevant to the journalist's beat will separate you from PR spammers. Use your experience with spam to spot key words. There's no single "black word" list that all programs use, so rely instead on your own experience with spam to spot trouble before clicking "send." For example, don't mention words like "free," "the best," or "incredible" in a subject line. Also try to avoid exclamation points, dollar signs, and the phrase "to learn more about" in the body of a message. You can also double check your messages with Lyris Technologies' free e-mail analyzer at http://www.yris.com/contentchecker/. Update media lists. Some programs will mark you as a spammer if you repeatedly e-mail a non-working address. Update your media lists every time you send out a mass e-mail. Alert coworkers who share the same domain name as you to delete the bad addresses from their mailing lists. Don't send attachments. Reporters hate attachments because they're a hassle. E-mail filters see them as possible viruses. Cut and paste news releases into the body of an e-mail. If your announcement includes financial tables or diagrams, convert the document to a PDF. Most filters will let those files through. Following these guidelines will help overcome the technological barriers of e-mail, but don't forget the human being on the other side of your message. "I do my best to read every e-mail," says Jennifer Barrett, associate editor at Newsweek. "But when I'm on deadline, it's difficult to respond to e-mail pitches, much less consider them for new stories. And if the pitches aren't personal - if they are just press releases - they usually go straight into the trash bin."
  • David Rosen is an associate at Walek & Associates in New York City.

  • Have you registered with us yet?

    Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

    Register
    Already registered?
    Sign in

    Would you like to post a comment?

    Please Sign in or register.