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Haggling with The Haggler: PRSA Responds to The New York Times

During the week I keep up with the news on my smartphone – but come Sundays in the fall I get nostalgic for old media.  I settle in with a cup of coffee, turn on a football game, and wade through the print edition of the venerated New York Times.

And so it was just about a week ago that I was bringing the Sunday Times into my apartment when a mass of slick, brightly colored circulars fell out from between the folds and spilled across the floor. I picked them up one by one, and as I did I realized that not a single circular advertised a product in which I had any interest. Not one. Neither did the ads in the paper, as it turned out – they just got in the way as I looked for the news I wanted to read, like those emails from Canadian Pharmacies that fill up my inbox. But I digress.

Sunday’s New York Times often contains The Haggler column, a somewhat hip version of the age-old “On Your Side” type of columns chronicling stories of frustrated consumers. To my surprise, The Haggler had taken aim at “Public Relations Spam” as well as commercial databases that contain reporters’ contact information. The Haggler’s complaint, simply stated was about poorly directed public relations pitches or, more precisely, pitches that are blasted indiscriminately in any and all directions.  PR spam is what he called it.

On the topic of poorly directed pitches, PRSA agrees with The Haggler. Well-targeted pitches not only build healthy relationships with reporters, but make good business sense. Indeed, The Haggler might have appreciated the PRSay blog from March of this year, How to Pitch the New York Times on a Friday Afternoon by Lauren Wesley Wilson or any of the dozens of other PRSA articles, blogs, seminars, webinars or conference sessions that stress proper targeting and relevance as essential for successful pitching.

But in his excitement over finding spam in his inbox The Haggler somehow took a wrong turn. In addition to excoriating indiscriminate pitches, The Haggler also took issue with companies that provide media databases going as far as to urge reporters to have themselves deleted from such databases, with the goal of depleting the databases so that they become a waste of money.

Now in terms of full disclosure, PRSA partners with many organizations, including media-contact database companies.  Media databases, used properly, can be an effective tool for public relations professionals, which is why such companies are often among our partners and sponsors.

But taking broad aim at all media databases is a bit like blaming Microsoft or Google for spam or for that matter, blaming the electric company for providing the juice that makes the spam flow. Responsible, competent professionals will use these tools well, and effectively. Others will not.

And while we understand the frustration with spam, at PRSA we’d prefer to focus on solutions, of which education is a big part. We’ll continue to do our part by reminding members and non-members about best practices for pitching, and providing tools and training to help.  We’ll also work to keep our own house in order, which is why in August of this year we gave members a whole new array of options for managing their email from PRSA.

It did occur to us, though that there might be more that could be done. Since we’re all here in New York City, we invited The Haggler to meet with us to exchange views and brainstorm. Alas, in response to our offer to get together for a cup of coffee, The Haggler replied “I’m just swamped and not sure if I have any useful ideas anyway. Sorry to say.” No room for haggling with The Haggler! Next, we thought we might append a reply to The Haggler’s column on the Times’ website, but the New York Times doesn’t provide for that type of posting.

And so, in the spirit of being part of the solution, we are writing to you, our members:  Now is as good a time as any for all of us to make sure that we are committed to best pitching practices. We’d also suggest that if you have views on this topic that you share your thoughts here on this blog, or directly with The Haggler himself, who can be reached at david.segal@nytimes.com.

There’s surely much more to be said on this topic – but I’ve got to run to attend to some errands. I’ve got to clean out my own inbox, which is full of consulting pitches, offers to buy mailing lists, and offers from hotels and event management companies. Oh yes, and I promised myself that I’d clean my apartment and take the rest of those annoying newspaper circulars to the recycling bin – gosh, they pile up so quickly!

7 Comments

  • Not a fan of the slippery slope form of argument in this article. Instead of addressing the grievances raised by the haggler, the author uses a form of logic intended to discredit an opinion he disagrees with, which is ironic considering the topic.

  • Great point, William, about how all of us must purge our electronic inbox of unsolicited junk mail on a daily basis. But reporters use their email to gather more information from existing story sources, converse with colleagues and do other important work on deadline. As someone who’s been there, done that, I completely understand the frustration of having to sift through hundreds of spammy emails in order to find that important one piece of important information that you must plug into a story before the 3 p.m. copy deadline. That said, you are right that the media database is an important tool for both public relations and media professionals and Segal’s anger is misdirected to the tool, instead of its user. I addressed this in my own blog here: http://paytonpr.com/blog/. I’d enjoy your comments.

  • Well said, Bill. A perfect response to a whiny, ill-conceived column that deviated far from The Haggler’s usual territory of helping stranded travelers get some money back from those truly annoying airlines.

  • What the Haggler forgot to mention is that the newspaper he works for and other so-called top-tier outlets are notorious at sending spam themselves to PR people. I freaking get 3-5 unsolicited emails on new subscription deals. So if I have to live with their spam, he better live with ours. He wants reporters to unite. I urge PR pros to unite and use his email address in every e-commerce site and newsletter subscription that you see out there. Let’s see who he’ll be haggling with after that. Happy Holidays!

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