Are Media Database Companies Complicit In PR Spamming?

by Jason Falls |

NOTE: This is a joint piece, co-authored by John Cass and Jason Falls. It is cross-posted on PR Communications and SocialMediaExplorer.com.

The blogosphere has been abuzz this week here and in other places about Gina Trapani’s PR Spammers wiki and the blacklisting of public relations professionals and firms. As the discussions have progressed, we have seen the issue of media database companies and their research practices come into question.

Media Database FirmsTrapani’s personal email address was listed in Cision, a large, subscription-based data service that provides contact information, editorial subject matters, editorial calendars and even preferred pitching techniques on hundreds of thousands of media members to subscribers, mostly PR folks. Trapani doesn’t mind being pitched at her Lifehacker.com address and the wiki is for those who reached out to her personal account.

Where did Cision get the email? Why was there not information indicating the appropriate way to reach Gina?

Heidi Sullivan of Cision spoke with Jason on Tuesday. The answers, candid and forthcoming, are such:

“Having her personal email listed was our mistake,” Sullivan said. “Our practices are to always contact the journalist first. If we’re able to verify the information from a public source, we do. Unfortunately, a research editor didn’t read through the information about which to use to pitch her properly. We found it and fixed it. We also had a huge team meeting to address that and make sure our researchers are very cautious on what they’re utilizing. We had the wrong email address listed. If we have an error in our database, we strive to correct it immediately.”

Sullivan went on to also offer that Cision lists over 900,000 contacts and has a little over 50 people charged with updating them. Things will slip through the cracks. They made the mistake and are owning up to it. They’ve claim to have gone further and contacted Trapani to inform her of the mistake and have given her Lifehacker’s entire listing to review. Good for them. For the record, Trapani says she contacted Cision first. (Italics added after initial publication.)

This lone issue aside, we surmise that the evolving environment of traditional vs. new media and the lack of ethics and standards within the general field of media (thanks to the introduction of the unrestrained genre of blogs and other social media content providers) presents an opportunity. The media database firms have an opportunity now to assess the marketplace, the environment and perhaps take proactive steps to improve their service to clients, the client’s service to media members and also their ultimate end clients.

We have ideas on why mistakes like Cision’s Trapani oversight happened, where the disconnect lies and what we can do to make the media databases, public relations and, yes, even bloggers/journalists better.

What We Think Happens

Media databases (like Cision, Burrell’s Luce, Gebbie Press, Vocus and Marketwire) are paid a fee to provide clients with as much information about media members as possible. From contact information to staff listings and editorial calendars, you should be able to login, research and know who and how to pitch a certain outlet by using the service. While ultimately the responsibility lies with the PR professional to do the research and pitch appropriately, the information provided by the media database can affect the effectiveness of the pitch.

Because traditional media outlets are conditioned that in order to be a legitimate media outlet you subject yourselves to public relations outreach – you have an audience, people outside your publication want to reach that audience through advertising or potentially free methods like PR – the media databases gather contact information under the assumption the outlet understands contact will occur. While the approach varies, few actually ask permission to list the contact information in the database, only reach out to confirm contact information is accurate.

Unfortunately, when there’s a lot of work to do, corners get cut. Pull the email address off the website. It’s accurate – the outlet put it there. Done. But there is no effort to ensure it is the right email address to use and for what purpose. This has probably happened at all the media research firms on multiple occasions.

Where The Disconnect Lies

The scenario above is likely considered every day business by media database firms because the traditional media have become used to dealing with mass outreach. PR folks sometimes have to reach thousands of media members at once. Blanket emails are the most efficient way to do that. The old media have become complicit in the underlying problem. While they are just as annoyed as new media, they don’t know how to react. When one came along who understood the culture of the web and the dynamics of community participation – Wired magainze’s Chris Anderson – the environment, and thus the rules began to change.

Now new media, like bloggers, are standing up and saying, “We don’t want to be approached this way. It’s noisy, ineffective and inefficient.” Bloggers are technically raising the bar for old school media members by telling public relations professionals and media database companies that the old way of doing business is the old way of doing business.

The PR blacklists have been the communications method of choice for this new journalist. Fair or not, public relations professionals are taking note. We think the media database companies need to as well and begin to provide better information, perhaps even segment information better to provide their clients with more effective outreach recommendations for media, both new and old.

Now Let’s Solve The Problem

Talk seldom solves problems. But it leads to action that does. Here are our suggestions on what can be done.

Media database companies need to:

  • Develop an industry protocol as to the method by which they gather media contact data.
  • Develop a tracking history of how media contact information has been gathered. This may only comprise of adding an additional field that describes the method of gathering (e.g. – Journalist updated information, permission granted from outreach to journalist, etc.)
  • Check the facts and ask the permission of journalists and bloggers to use their contact data, or document publicly available website where contact procedure is available from the journalist or blogger. Provide a link to the journalist’s or bloggers preferred method of contact.
  • Set up a data updates hotline, telephone number or email address for each company, for the updating of information from bloggers and journalists.
  • Start a industry education process called “the community taskforce to stop bad pitches,” the community taskforce will educate database users on the limits of databases, and steps to avoid mishaps, and educate journalists & bloggers on the steps they can take on their own websites to publicize how they can educate people on the preferred method of contacting them.

Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson of the “For Immediate Release,” podcast have agreed to host a community live podcast on this topic with members of the media database industry, PR professionals and media people invited. In the meantime, what other suggestions might we make to the database companies to facilitate better information gathering? Since the responsibility to pitch appropriately is on the shoulders of the PR professional, what can the database companies do to help educate them as to how to effectively use the data? Is it even their responsibility to do so? What roles can PRSA and IABC play in this equation?

The comments are yours.


About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls 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 Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).