Public relations professionals responded en masse to last week’s post offering some guidelines for email pitching. My assertions that PR outreach via email is, indeed, a commercial communications and, thus, falls under the regulatory purview of the Federal Trade Commission and the CAN-SPAM Act was polarizing.

Many did not agree with my opinion that the CAN-SPAM Act also encompasses public relations communications, particularly when a PR person is reaching out to a media outlet or blogger to just establish that all-important relationship. Honestly, I do think there are a lot of gray areas here, but when it comes to following the letter of the law, can we really afford to play in an unclear pool?

My recommendations to include opt-out instructions or links and clear statements the communications is advertising or commercial in nature are not based on what I personally believe is the most appropriate approach. They are based on what I believe to be the most appropriate approach in light of the law. While the courts have yet to interpret or consider cases that fall into this part of the gray area of CAN-SPAM actualization, I believe we should err on the side of caution. Hence the recommendations.

Spam 2

Image via Wikipedia

But those were my thoughts for the public relations side of the aisle. I have some thoughts for the media or blogger side as well. It is my hope these ideas will further spread understanding of what the law asks for. On a parallel path, we’re enlightening those who perform media and blogger outreach as to best practices for us. (I’m assuming the role of blogger/media outlet for the sake of the rest of this post.)

Instead of filing FTC complaints, launching public wikis of email spammers and outing PR pros for bad pitches or even potential CAN-SPAM violations, we should do our part to make things better. We should first understand that while social media and bloggers as media have been around a while now, we’re still in the infancy of this new marketing landscape.

Reacting like a spoiled child does no good. No one thinks of Chris Anderson or Gina Tripani as heroes for having hissy fits on PR people back in 2008. Bloggers who followed suit and copy-pasted awful pitches, outing and embarrassing the offenders, just showed their ass with their virtual temper tantrums.

What we should do is embrace and educate. While I certainly recognize that it is no media member’s responsibility, bloggers included, to respond to every bad pitch with soothing instructions and helpful pointers on improving their chances of being heard, I do think we can take some simple steps to improve things.

Here’s what I suggest:

Write a helpful canned response. Here’s mine:

Thanks for your email. I noticed you didn’t include an opt-out link or instructions. Did you know this may be in violation of the CAN-SPAM Act? Since your email was commercial in nature (promoting a product) not including opt-out links or instructions could subject you or your firm to fines.

Just thought I’d let you know. Please do remove me from your list. If you’d like to know how to get my attention better for future pitches, my “how to pitch” ideas are here: http://socialmediaexplorer.com/how-to-pitch-sme/

Keep that canned response in an easily accessible text file or even use a custom template tool like WiseStamp (email signatures) or even Tout that allows you to easily populate an email with your canned responses.

As you go through your inbox and find offending emails, click a button or two, copy-paste if needed, and send.

In just a few seconds, you’ve helped bring the CAN-SPAM Act to light for public relations professionals who may not be aware of it, politely responded to and dismissed the pitch and moved on.

Until the FTC further interprets the CAN-SPAM Act (it’s been around since 2004, so don’t count on that happening anytime soon) or an organization like PRSA or IABC comes down with a firm stance and recommendation for their members on the issue, this is the world we live in.

Public relations professionals are going to screw up outreach. Some will do it out of ignorance. Others may do it intentionally. But media members/bloggers are as much a part of the evolution of the current environment to something more amenable to everyone as the PR folks themselves.

So let’s chip away at the stone, gang. Eventually, it’ll be gone.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://kikolani.com/ Kristi Hines

    That’s perfect! I have a post on my site about ways to conduct blogger outreach that I could include in my response as well.

  • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

    Jason: I really love your suggestion. Have you ever used TextExpander? I use it all of the time for commonly-used replies/snippets like the one you have above. In fact, I use it nearly every email as I have a few different signatures.

    Also, FYI that I’ve asked some of my email marketing (and deliverability) colleagues to weigh in on this. Stay tuned!

  • http://www.whatspinksthinks.com David Spinks

    I know a lot of my points were covered in the comments in your first post so I’ll try not to bring them up again.

    I think for those who are new to the space, this is a great caution.

    Telling people to worry about the FTC coming after them for not putting a disclaimer and unsubscribe options on the bottom of the email is a bit over the top though.

    Hell, at that point, why not add an unsubscribe message to every business email I send. They are “commercial”, are they not?

    I’m no expert (and would love to hear from one), but I doubt when the CAN SPAM act was created, it did not intend to apply to media outreach. It seems much more focused on more marketing focused material.

    I don’t know about that message that you created either. Seemed very cold and almost threatening, like you’re going to bring the CAN SPAM laws upon them.

    I think your posts here are important because it makes us as professionals aware that there are official standards. The thing is, there are people doing blogger outreach the right way who don’t need to worry about adding a disclaimer and unsubscribe option, and there are people doing blogger outreach the wrong way, who aren’t going to add a disclaimer anyway…

    David

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Great points, David. Certainly, I recognize that the FTC nailing PR folks
      for CAN-SPAM violations is unlikely, based on past experiences with new
      regulations for media (Napster, Payola, etc.), I just want folks to know
      that the opinion of the PR won’t matter if they ever decide to. My
      recommendations are cautionary, not threatening. And they are certainly
      leveled to make us think.

      To your points, media outreach is marketing-focused material. No two ways
      about it, bro. PR folks are marketing a product or service. No, we’re not
      buying banner ads or grip-and-grinning at trade shows, but trying to compel
      media (those you know or don’t know) to write about your product, service,
      organization or event, is commercial communications.

      And there’s not a government body or court of law anywhere that won’t agree
      with that (in my opinion).

  • http://readwriteweb.com Marshall Kirkpatrick

    Speaking as someone with 266,758 unread emails in my inbox (literally) I gotta ask: is all this hand wringing over one-to-one PR emails worth it? Spam is annoying when it’s machine driven and at scale – but there are algorithms for dealing with that. Pro content producers who receive PR pitches are, imho, reasonably expected to filter signal from a lot of noise. News writers at least. It’s our discernement that is prized in our writing – so send those pitches at us and we’ll be discerning about it! My email? marshall@readwriteweb.com Got a pitch for me? Hit me! I’m not afraid! I want your pitches! I probably won’t respond, I may not even open them, but I want to see the sender, subject line and first sentence preview of as many writing opportunities as I can. That’s a big part of my job.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Bravo, sir! Thank you for chiming in. I think it’s hard for PR folks to
      differentiate sometimes between the mentality of a journalist and a
      “blogger” (someone writing for reasons other than producing
      impression-generating content to fuel a media sales entity) which is what
      got PR folks in hot water in the first place. It’s one thing for Marshall
      Kirkpatrick (perhaps once classified as a blogger, but someone I frankly
      consider as much a journalist/reporter for a big media publishing house as
      David Pogue these days) to expect to receive those pitches, discern the good
      stuff and write about it. It’s another for that grey area blogger (Some kid
      who writes about Xbox games) who isn’t a journalist, but just has a personal
      blog that isn’t quite RWW yet to have to suddenly conform to journalist
      behavior.

      And I think the hand-wringing is worth it because the vast majority of PR
      folks still don’t get it. I’m not giving up on helping them figure it out.
      Maybe I’m wrong in doing so, but I revisited the topic because I felt like
      it needed it.

      Just trying to cut down on some of those emails for ya, bro. Heh.

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  • http://twitter.com/finepointwriter Erika Gimbel

    Tons of good points here and I mostly agree. I’m just wondering about the CAN-SPAM thing – I can see it being used for email lists, and as a former PR person I had “lists” but they were never auto-send things. For every pitch I still went through my list, handpicked who I was going to send to and wrote a personalized pitch, the followed up by phone. Some people never, ever got back to me. Others wrote or told me they weren’t interested. But no one specifically asked me to “take me off their list.”

    If you’re consistently getting real spam & pre-formatted emails, then YES, a message about violation CAN-SPAM is appropriate.

    If you get a personalized email that’s totally inappropriate, maybe a note back could be something like, “I don’t write about this, please don’t send me further emails,” and then you can always auto-delete messages from that sender.

    PR people are used to having tough skins. And usually ANY response is better than nothing. A “no” at least got me to stop bugging someone! (As per my job – I was paid to bug people).

  • http://twitter.com/RexR Rex Riepe

    Jason, check out #6 here:

    http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus61-can-spam-act-compliance-guide-business

    Particularly, take note of the two definitions of opt-out request.

    For large, automated e-mail lists the opt-out solution is obviously a “stop sending me this crap” link. But for individuals who are actually sending an e-mail, the way to opt out is to reply and say “stop sending me this crap” in an e-mail.

    No court anywhere would treat this any differently. No PR person would get stung for e-mail pitches like this unless they persisted in sending e-mails AFTER an opt-out request.

  • http://twitter.com/RexR Rex Riepe

    Jason, check out #6 here:

    http://business.ftc.gov/documents/bus61-can-spam-act-compliance-guide-business

    Particularly, take note of the two definitions of opt-out request.

    For large, automated e-mail lists the opt-out solution is obviously a “stop sending me this crap” link. But for individuals who are actually sending an e-mail, the way to opt out is to reply and say “stop sending me this crap” in an e-mail.

    No court anywhere would treat this any differently. No PR person would get stung for e-mail pitches like this unless they persisted in sending e-mails AFTER an opt-out request.

  • http://ultimatemarketingstrategies.net Peter Sundstrom

    “So let’s chip away at the stone, gang. Eventually, it’ll be gone.”

    I can’t agree with your statement that eventually all PR emails will fully comply with CAN-SPAM (or any other regulations for that matter).

    Given that the CAN-SPAM act has been in place for almost 8 years, it’s fair to say it has had some impact on general spam, but like all laws and regulations, it has many loopholes and grey areas and is hard to fully police, that there will never be 100% compliance.

  • Hal Peat

    The point about opting out is always fine, but it’s kind of a sideshow to the real core of the conflict that exists between some bloggers and the rest of the PR world. And why is that? I’d say because that segment of the bloggers who tout themselves as “social media experts” and who are convinced that PR itself is redundant and/or outdated in its present methodology, yet they don’t provide any suitable or meaningful alternative. I am referencing, of course, people that you yourself are apparently “friends” with, people like Sheila Scarborough who you had on here in a similar blog and thread last year ranting about receiving “48 pr releases overnight” from those horrible horrible publicists she wants to make superfluous, of course that amount of media releases is impossible unless she went out there and zealously solicited to be on PR media lists, given what a failed writer she is to begin with. Some people are just “socially expert” at speaking out of both sides of their hypocritical mouths. This all goes to the point you make yourself above in your present blog: “Reacting like a spoiled child does no good. No one thinks of Chris Anderson or Gina Tripani as heroes for having hissy fits on PR people back in 2008. Bloggers who followed suit and copy-pasted awful pitches, outing and embarrassing the offenders, just showed their ass with their virtual temper tantrums.” Well said – because that’s just about all the social media experts in the travel category ever do!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Jason,
    As the CCO of Spin sucks, I pitch and get pitched. From a blogger outreach perspective, the pitch shouldn’t even out the person in the potential spam position if done correctly. It shouldn’t be a promotional email, it should be an introduction. A conversation starter/ relationship builder.
    That too would help avoid this Can Spam issue.

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