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On Spam, Josh Bernoff and Pointing Fingers – Responding to the Call to Clean up the PR Industry

February 25, 2011 2 comments

Pointing the Finger at PRSA

While perusing my RSS feeds, I came across a blog post by Josh Bernoff (Senior VP of Idea Development at Forrester Research and co-author of Groundswell) titled “PR professionals — clean up your industry.”

Interest.  Piqued.

In the post, Bernoff excoriates the public relations profession and specifically the Public Relations Society of America for spam email and lazy PR pros who send irrelevant pitches his way.  In the post he highlights five companies:  Seagate, GlassPoint, Calysto, Allen & Caron, and 5W Public Relations.  Arthur Yann, VP of Public Relations for PRSA did a great job of responding the very same day, and Bernoff graciously printed his response on behalf of the organization.

Before my [obnoxious] rebuttal, I’d like to point out that I completely agree with Bernoff; there are far too many PR people running around firing off irrelevant press releases in all directions like so much birdshot from a .12-gauge.

Moreover, I share Bernoff’s loathing for spam and unsolicited contact (so much so that I’ve gone so far as to track down the originators of unsolicited faxes and emails and contact hosting companies and file complaints with the state attorney general’s office).

I’d also like to say that I loved Groundswell; Bernoff and Li wrote a fantastic book that – unlike most nonfiction works – doesn’t coast on a few breezy anecdotal examples and factoids.  It’s grounded in quantitative analysis backed up by research.

However, claiming that the public relations profession has an obligation to clean itself up is as unreasonable as claiming that the sales profession has an obligation to clean itself up.  I’d also like to point out that, in point of fact, PRSA does have a “code of conduct that reflects the difference between right and wrong” and also a “certification for people who behave properly;” two facts that are readily available to anyone who googles “PRSA code of ethics” and “PRSA certification.”

I checked PRSA’s member directory and found the following about the handful of companies he named specifically:

  • Seagate: out of 52,000 employees worldwide, only one is a PRSA member.
  • GlassPoint: zero PRSA members.
  • Calysto: zero PRSA members.
  • Allen & Caron: zero PRSA members.
  • 5W Public Relations: out of 67 employees, only one is a PRSA member.

PRSA can’t spank people who aren’t members.  Part of the problem of unprofessional people equipped with technology is that a handful of them can do a lot of damage with relatively little effort.  That damage can usually only be repaired by repeated positive one-on-one interactions.  It’s kind of like trying to stop the tide from coming in armed only with a Solo cup.

When you point the finger, four point back at you.  Well … if not four, at least one.  Surely Forrester Research has never spammed anyone, right?  Whoops:

I’d love it if all of the spammy, obnoxious, lazy public professionals were loaded up into a rocket and fired into the orbit of a distant planet.  Their poor conduct invariably affects me in my dealings with the media or the general public which may hold past interactions with PR people against me.  But I work to win their trust one interaction at a time.  I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it.  That’s why I embrace the term “flack” (to the point of having it emblazoned on my employee ID card).

In addition to conducting myself in a respectful fashion, I also try to promote those same practices in others.  That’s why I’m a member of the board of the West Michigan Chapter of PRSA, and a professional advisor to the Public Relations Student Society Chapter at Grand Valley State University.

The good thing about bad PR people is that it’s easier than ever to cut them off at the knees for their tactics with the power of social media; email blacklists can easily be shared.  Just ask Chris Anderson.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity for Forrester Research to turn the tools against these people.  Create a tool that allows disgruntled recipients of shoddy PR pitches to submit their blacklist suggestions (along with documentation of the pitch) to a database that people can download blacklist updates from.  I’d happily volunteer a few hours a month to help vet submissions.

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