Public Relations

CAN-SPAM and PR Pitches

I’ve thought a lot about the topic of PR and spam in recent months. Coming from a PR and marketing background, I’ve managed PR and email marketing campaigns. I understand the rules of CAN-SPAM compliance as they apply to email marketing, but not so much when it comes to the unsolicited PR pitch.

On the surface, it’s easy to assume that if a journalist or blogger hasn’t opted-in to receive information from a PR firm, it must be a violation of CAN-SPAM. If you read the CAN-SPAM guidelines on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) website, you could easily see how PR messages could be considered spam by some media professionals. For example:

  • You must include an opt-out – a lot of agencies provide – and PR database vendors – provide mechanisms to be removed from a distribution list. There are many that provide no opt-out, and those that do, may not have adequate systems in place to ensure others in the organization don’t send to the email on the next campaign.
  • You can’t use misleading information in the subject line – a simple reference to “the world’s first” or “the leading company” could be interpreted as misleading, along with any other tactic that attempts to convince the journalist to open your email. But that’s nit-picking, and not really what the law is designed for, right?
  • If a recipient opts-out, their request must be processed within 10 days, and the sender must have a system in place to manage opt-outs for at least 30 days. Technically, if a journalist says “take me off your list,” you can’t send them information again for at least 30 days, regardless of the subject matter.

Do PR agencies violate CAN-SPAM? The short answer is “not really.” Journalists and bloggers do not have to opt-in to receive information from PR, but they do have the right to opt-out. The real issue with the PR spam problem is that many journalists and bloggers do not opt-out, but rather work to solve the problem on their own, creating email filtering rules or their own homegrown list of PR spammers.

If they did formally opt-out, and the agency continued to send them information, it would technically be in violation. A journalist could file a complaint with the FTC, but there is no guarantee that this would be enforced, given the fact that most agencies are not serious offenders. And most of the journalists we’ve talked to said they simply don’t have the time or desire to take such drastic measures, even though they are frequently frustrated with the amount of “PR spam” they receive.

Regardless of whether a journalist opts out or takes things to the extreme and files a complaint, agencies are within their right to send unsolicited emails to journalists and bloggers. However, those who have not opted-in may be more inclined to report your agency’s email as spam, potentially affecting your ability to send an email with a high deliverability rate.

If an ISP (Internet Service Provider) regularly receives complaints that your email is spam (when they click the “report spam” button in some email clients), you may be added to the ISP’s blacklist, and all emails you send to users of that ISP will be labeled as spam.

Read on for “Best Practices for Staying Off Spam Lists”.

Best Practices for Staying Off Spam Lists

  • Make sure your pitches include an opt-out – consider using email marketing software to manage your press lists. This software will most likely comply with CAN-SPAM and guide you through the process of formatting your email communications to avoid the most common problems. Of course, this solution is best for mass distribution, which isn’t always the best PR tactic.
  • For individual communication, make sure you have a clear, descriptive subject line on your email that describes exactly what the content of your email is about. Make sure your name and organization are clear on your email, and include your physical address somewhere in the communication. It’s also a good idea to provide an opt-out contact in your signature or email footer, providing them with a mechanism to get off your list. If you provide such a mechanism, make sure you have systems in place to ensure you don’t email to that address again within 30 days of the date you receive the opt-out request.
  • Build your own opt-in lists for the industries you serve. If you work with healthcare or technology clients, offer journalists the ability to opt-in to your press distribution lists for that industry. This ensures journalists have given you permission to send them information. Again, most mainstream email marketing software can help you manage this process with minimal effort.
  • When in doubt, don’t send. If you know a particular journalist or blogger tends to have an anti-PR sentiment, don’t send to them without their permission. As a general rule of thumb, you should only send relevant information to the journalist or blogger you are targeting. While this may seem common sense, it’s not always common practice.
  • Don’t assume that email addresses in your PR database are opt-in. While some vendors do provide opt-in features for journalists and bloggers, you should assume that all email addresses are for contacts that have not given you their permission to contact them.

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