Credit card deals, how to lose weight, and the ubiquitous offers to enlarge certain parts of the anatomy are just a few of the invitations many business people receive each day by email.
The internet is drowning in a deluge of unsolicited email, or spam. Apart from being a nuisance, and occasionally offensive, anti-spam specialist Brightmail estimates that up to half of all global email is junk. And Microsoft calculates that in 2002, spam cost European firms more than 2.5bn euros in lost productivity.
The Government takes the issue seriously enough to have its All Party Internet Group investigating spam. Communications minister Stephen Timms unveiled new legislation in September that will see the European Commission's anti-spam directive come into force in the UK on 11 December (see box).
In theory, this situation presents an ideal opportunity for PROs. Brodeur Worldwide senior consultant Iain Frazer-Halpin says that, as consumers and businesses become increasingly concerned about the problem, the media churns out a multitude of anti-spam stories each month.
'Spam is relevant to all of us, so the press will continue to write about it. The biggest opportunity for the PR industry is within the issue of education and how best to deal with spam,' he says.
There is certainly plenty of scope for PROs to explain the implications of the new anti-spam legislation, while giving IT companies a chance to promote their anti-spam technology.
Earlier this year, for example, Cow Communications worked on a campaign for Yahoo's Dump The Junk Day, while Microsoft launched its anti-spam initiative in June, outlining a four-pronged approach to cracking down on the problem.
According to The Red Consultancy, which is co-ordinating Microsoft's international anti-spam PR campaign and implementing the programme in the UK, these four strands cover technology, industry self-regulation, protective legislation and responsible enforcement.
'Spam is a big issue for the technology sector, so Microsoft has been very active with the Home Office task force and is a member of the UK's Internet Watch Foundation,' says The Red Consultancy deputy MD Andrew Baiden.
Yet, with claims from inter-national anti-spam organisation The Spamhaus Project that the vast majority of electronic junk comes from the US, more specifically Boca Raton in Florida, any solutions or PR strategies need to look beyond the reach of UK and European law.
This is a view echoed by BT Openworld head of internet security Nick Truman, who says legislation does little to address either the volume or content of the UK's spam epidemic.
'Ninety-five per cent of complaints we receive about unsolicited email aren't about legitimate marketers, it's related to pornography, gambling and herbal remedies,' he adds.
Companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL have joined forces to implement a co-ordinated approach to the problem. These parties are pushing for the establishment of an independent, global authority that could provide mechanisms to identify legitimate email and serve as an ongoing resource for email certification and the resolution of customer disputes.
Text-message spamming is also a burgeoning problem. Industry body the Independent Committee for the Supervision of Standards of Telephone Information Services (ICSTIS) recently reported around 10,000 complaints about unsolicited text messages each year.
While this figure seems low, given the age profile of many mobile users, and the general lack of awareness of channels to complain, the numbers add up to a serious, and growing, problem.
Typically, the bulk of mobile spam is unsolicited promotions from advertisers.
Most recently, Vodafone has addressed this issue by launching spam reporting services for customers, in conjunction with ICSTIS.
Last month, Sicap, part of Swisscom Mobile, ran a campaign looking at the peer bullying and stalking aspects of text junk.
Devised to promote Sicap's new spam-blocking product, iSMSC, the campaign focused on two key pieces of research. The first, a study from the Lothian and Borders police force, reported that 51 per cent of cases of threatening behaviour recorded between April 2002 and March 2003 involved mobile text messages.
This was backed by findings from children's charity NCH, which highlighted that up to 16 per cent of young people say they have received a threatening text message.
However, while anti-spam initiatives are generating opportunities for firms to promote their wares, there are also drawbacks that PR practitioners need to be aware of.
Burson-Marsteller director of technology Jonathan Jordan points to the bad press heaped on the internet because of junk mail, which could undermine its more positive aspects.
'One of the things currently limiting the adoption of broadband take-up is the perception it will open up individual's mailboxes to being absolutely deluged with spam,' he says.
While Truman encourages firms to take responsibility for blocking spam, he also advises PROs to encourage their employees and clients to be more vigilant with their personal details, giving spammers fewer routes in.
As spam becomes a bigger problem for businesses, there are likely to be increased opportunities for IT companies and their PR teams to promote spam-blocking technology. This may even mean that one day, all email businesses receive will be entirely relevant.
EMAIL LAWS - WHAT THEY MEAN FOR PROS
In an ongoing move to crack down on spam, from 11 December 2003 the Office of the Information Commissioner will be enforcing new 'opt-in' regulations for electronic communications.
This means organisations won't be able to send emails or text messages about their products and services without prior agreement of the recipient.
Any breach will be a criminal offence liable to a fine of up to £5,000 in a magistrates court, or an unlimited fine if the trial is before a jury, with the potential of a damages claim by individuals.
Many PROs will undoubtedly be alarmed about the implications of these rules when sending out press releases and promotional literature.
However, there is no reason to panic. According to a Department of Trade and Industry spokesperson, the new legislation does not cover B2B comms, nor does it threaten existing customer relationships. It should be absolutely fine to email information to journalists and business contacts, as well as customers who have already signed up for electronic delivery.
'There are implications for companies who sell on details to third parties for marketing purposes,' says George Davies Solicitors e-communications and data protec-tion specialist Shelbey Whitehouse.
Beside gaining the permission of new customers before sending promotional emails or text messages, firms will need to indicate how personal data is likely to be used.
Whitehouse also warns that PR practitioners should be aware of the need to provide existing customers with an 'opt out' clause for future promotions in all mailings.
However, the legislation does leave some grey areas around how personal information is shared within organisations. It is not yet clear whether it will be illegal, or simply bad practice, for ISPs and mobile phone operators to send customers expecting service updates other offers that are deemed appropriate.
'The key is transparency,' says Direct Marketing Association head of interactive media Robert Dirskovski. 'But we do need to see how the information commissioner interprets the legislation and what cases are brought.' In addition, as spam ignores national borders, many wonder about the effectiveness of introducing UK and European laws banning junk email and text messages. Eversheds law firm technology specialist Jonathan Armstrong highlights that even across Europe, there is no consistency between member states as to how to implement the EC Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications.
There are also serious doubts about how introducing legislation in this country will clamp down on the worst spam offenders, most of whom are based in the US and already operate outside the law.
'I think one of the difficulties is that this legislation will punish the marketing and PR people who make an honest mistake, rather than punish the serial offenders,' says Armstrong.