PR blacklist won't fix imperfect system

Such public call-outs might get the attention of firms, but they have little long-term effect

Last week, Gina Trapani, editor of Lifehacker, followed in the footsteps of Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson and made public a blacklist of e-mail addresses from PR pros that violated her ground rules for pitching stories. Trapani, who declined a request for interview, was receiving a number of pitches at her personal e-mail. She catalogued the list at prspammers.pbwiki.com.

Responding to misdirected PR pitches by making names public is now a Scarlet Letter of sorts for the industry, ever since Anderson published the e-mails of those who sent him unsolicited pitches last year. These outings led to blog postings by those on the list and others in the industry, questioning how they can both serve their clients and work better with journalists.

Wired.com senior editor Dylan Tweney expresses frustration with the system, but says that journalists don't have many options in dealing with mistargeted pitches.

"I don't have the luxury of blacklisting people," he says. "Because if they have news, it doesn't matter whether I like them or not, or whether they've been good at pitching in the past. I'll [still] need to hear about it."

Tweney finds reporter blacklists futile. In regards to Anderson's prior blacklist, he notes that, as editor-in-chief, Anderson's job is not to sort through a barrage of unsolicited press releases, so even without a blocked e-mail, blanketed pitches sent to an editor-in-chief would probably be overlooked.

"If you post a blacklist, it does sound a little like a hissy fit," Tweney says. "But I think most reporters are probably savvy enough and dependent enough on PR folks not to do something like that, because they know they get enough information from that channel - as noisy as that channel is."

At least one PR pro takes heart in the fact that a public blacklist only occurs once every couple of months.

"I'm surprised it hasn't happened more often, and am grateful that it hasn't because I think there is a lot of tolerance on both sides," says John Bell, head of the 360 Digital team at Ogilvy, whose firm was on the list.

Others found the blacklist frustrating - given the parameters of the give and take between media and PR - but also edifying about journalists' habits and needs.

Jason Falls, social media explorer at Doe Anderson, as well as a blogger, says that while he felt making a PR blacklist public was childish, it would ultimately motivate agencies to get better about pitching.

Todd Defren, principal at Shift Communications, whose agency appeared on Trapani's list, admits the PR industry makes embarrassing pitching mistakes, but noted the imperfect system.

"In our case, it's 'spam if we do and damned if we don't,'" he writes on his blog, PR Squared. "In your case, it's spam if you don't want it (even if we truly think it may be relevant), but damned if you want a competitor to scoop you on an agency's one great pitch."

Susan Getgood, social media and marketing consultant, says that PR pros too often pitch bad stories that are not targeted to the journalist and do not address important issues. However, she suggests that bloggers-turned-journalists should also approach blacklists with caution because of the role reporters serve for the public. Traditionally, she says reporters consider it their job to be an intermediary between the public and the source of the news and to weed through pitches to find out what is newsworthy and would have the biggest impact on their readers.

Tweney's final advice: "For PR people, it's valuable to know what journalists are interested in and what their personalities are like," he says. "But you have to use that information with care and respect people's self-declared boundaries."

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