Like most of the journalists I know, I spend about a third of my workday writing articles, another third making bad jokes on Twitter, and another third deleting press releases. It's not that I’m unappreciative of the PR people who score me interviews and pass along stories—it’s just that there are so frighteningly many of them, and for every inbox blast that’s relevant to me, there are four or five more that may as well be from a Nigerian prince.
But what if I’m missing something? What if I’m turning my back on the next great American cookbook or home appliance chain or photos of LeAnn Rimes’s latest outfit? I resolved to find out. Inspired by New York magazine’s “I Talked to Strangers for a Week, and It Did Not Go Well,” I set about engaging with the digital strangers who pop into my inbox every workday. In brief: I replied to every PR email I received for an entire week, regardless of the subject matter or sender. (The writer Luke O'Neil, I learned after completing the experiment, aired a similar idea on Twitter in July.)
To start, I set some ground rules:
- The experiment will begin at midnight on Saturday, August 30 and conclude exactly seven days later.
- I will reply to every press release, PR pitch, invite, or other sort of email I receive from a PR professional within 36 hours of receipt (and preferably faster than that).
- My replies will be polite, friendly, and professional, though they would not necessarily indicate that I’m able or planning to cover the topic at hand.
- I will try to read, or at least skim, the contents of every email I’m replying to.
- I am not obligated to reply to subsequent emails responding to my initial reply, though I will try to do so when appropriate.
- I’m not responsible for PR emails that get lost in my spam folder.
- Voicemails don’t count, either.
- When possible, I will try to connect the PR rep with the writer or editor who is better suited to the pitch at hand.
- Every time I receive a PR pitch regarding a musical act, I will listen to at least one song by that musical act (preferably one relevant to the pitch). I will keep track of the best song I discover via PR email each day.
- No one outside of the Newsweek office may know about this experiment until it’s over.
This is an account of the hellish week that ensued.
Saturday, August 30
My weeklong experiment is off to a quiet start. It’s Saturday, so my inbox is mercifully quiet. I do receive an email titled “Lion who attacked teacher in Peru in care of animal organization helping to enforce circus ban”; attached is a press release that says about the same thing, but in more than 950 words. I reply “Hi, thanks for sending this, will look into Operation Spirit of Freedom rescue mission” and resume my weekend.
Weirdest PR excerpt of the day: “As a result of the stand-off during the rescue, one lioness was separated from her cubs, both of whom were retained by the circus, and a solitary castrated male, Smith was separated from his cage mate and initially put with the cubs.”
Sunday, August 31
Who the hell sends out a press release on a Sunday of a holiday weekend? (Nobody.) I enjoy the day in digital peace.
Monday, September 1
Ah, yes. Labor Day. Frequently, national holidays are cause for a torrent of press releases loosely relating to that holiday, but I guess that torrent ran its course last week and publicists have the day off, because my inbox is peaceful. I do get a note about Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott throwing a “Lavish, Snackeez-Themed Birthday Party” for their son’s second birthday party, so I reply “Thanks! Sounds like a fun party,” which is a weird thing to write about a birthday party for a stranger’s 2-year-old, but whatever.
I also receive a press release about a new single and video from a band called Girl Band (there don’t seem to be any girls involved). It has sort of a noisy, Liars-y vibe to it and I’m not really feeling it, but I listen to it in bed anyway and muster up a bland “Thanks—I'll give it a listen” in reply and wonder what sort of toll the five days that lay ahead will take.
Weirdest PR excerpt of the day: “Tori, Dean and the kids posed for photos with their favorite Snackeez colors, while Tori and Dean told everyone about their love of the product.”
Best song I discover all day: Girl Band’s “De Bom Bom” by default, I suppose.
Tuesday, September 2
It’s the Tuesday after a three-day weekend, and I’m refreshed and ready for the task at hand. By 10 a.m., the press releases start rolling in, seemingly four or five at a time. By 1 p.m., I’m huddling in my cubicle, terrified of my own inbox.
Over the course of the morning, I respond to a release about a French company specializing in the production of mechanical components with a chirpy “I don't know much about drilling and optronic assembly, but thank you for sharing!” I get an email about a professor who is available to comment on Hong Kong's democracy movement and reply saying I’ll be sure to keep him in mind if I cover Hong Kong’s democracy movement even though I know I probably won’t wind up covering Hong Kong’s democracy movement. I politely decline an invite to a BuzzFeed Brews thing in Los Angeles (I live in New York) and also decline an invite to see an electronic artist called Sneakout in L.A., but I listen to his single, and it’s OK.
At one point I get an email about USA Insulation—“the country’s largest retrofit insulation company”—opening a location in Rockland County, so I reply by telling the publicist that my parents live near Rockland County and that I’ll give them a heads up, and I feel bad not following through on this promise, so I forward the announcement to my parents and my mom just replies, “Why?” That’s it, that’s her entire email, which is probably how I should have replied to the publicist in the first place. The publicist writes back and lets me know that USA Insulation “covers a 60-mile radius” and is “really a top-notch insulation business,” but I don’t share these additional details with my mom.
Then I have to stop replying to press releases because I need to finish a story that’s already past deadline and this isn’t helping me focus, so I just let them pile up for a few hours. This is a terrible strategy. Most days I delete 90 percent of the press releases I receive on impulse, the way you’d unthinkingly swat a fly, but now each one signifies mandatory reading material and oh my god there are so many of them.
By 4 o'clock, there are 17 unopened press releases in my work inbox—a 9/11 Museum event, film screenings, photo gallery invites, a “celebrated NYC realist painter”—and another 10 or so in my personal inbox, and I sigh and realize I won’t be able to get anything else done today. Probably the weirdest thing I receive in the afternoon is an email from “Ira Glass” that says “I hope to see you at Town Hall next week” in the subject line, though Ira Glass probably doesn’t care if he sees me at Town Hall or not. The most exciting PR email I receive all day is an announcement that Faith No More, a band I totally loved in eighth grade, will release its first album in 18 years. I write back asking if the band is available for interviews, but there’s no reply, which is just as well, because my inbox is a disaster.
Weirdest PR excerpt of the day: “Homeowners who live near the Tappan Zee Bridge will really appreciate USA Insulation’s Premium Foam sound-proofing capabilities.”
Best song I discover all day: “Black Wasp” by The Bug (feat. Liz Harris). Dreamy! I reply to the publicist and say I like it and might try to make it to the upcoming Brooklyn show, but no promises. I wonder how many times a day publicists receive some variation of “no promises.”
Wednesday, September 3
I get to work at 9:20, and new press releases are already rolling in, and so are replies to my replies from yesterday, and I haven’t even started work yet. I listen to an album stream by an R&B act called SOS and reply to an announcement about Sting’s new concert DVD with, “Too bad he didn't do any Police songs!” and try to muster up excitement about Yahoo Style’s first cover girl and politely decline an interview op with a band whose song was featured in Tony Hawk’s recent MINI skateboard stunt video. The weirdest press release I receive begins “Dear Zach, Why do we look at art?” and I consider replying “Dear Harry, I couldn’t tell you!” but I’ve promised to maintain some semblance of professionalism. I get a one-sentence email from my mom inviting me to come home for Rosh Hashanah in three weeks and wonder why she didn’t send me a full press release about it.
By noon there are eight unopened PR emails in my personal inbox and 12 in my work inbox. My favorite ones are invites to events happening in other cities, like a brewery party in Chicago and an exhibit of photos of Chartres Cathedral in Paris sent to me by a publicist with an AOL.com email address, because then I can respond by politely and usefully announcing that I live in New York. The music-related emails are most relevant to my interests, but ironically they are also the biggest nuisance because I have vowed to listen to one song by each artist, and I have to keep pausing whatever album I’m listening to and opening new tabs to listen to stuff like a new Herb Alpert single and a mediocre banjo group singing in a barn somewhere. This is the busywork of a music journalist today: more bands and videos and premieres than anyone could listen to in one lifetime, and nearly all of them land in the bland, demilitarized zone between "Very good" and "Very bad."
Things slow by midafternoon, but there’s a weird surge in sports-related PR (a study on NFL coaches, a “Swing for Education Golf Classic”) so I take the opportunity to inform publicists of Newsweek’s sports guy (it’s not me!). I decline an invitation to interview a guy who wrote a book about a guy trying to cure his girlfriend of Ebola, even though the publicist was nice enough to give me “Suggested Interview Questions,” and I decline invitations to try out new web security apps to keep my nudes from leaking. I wonder if these tech PR people have been waiting months for Jennifer Lawrence nudes to leak so they’d have an excuse to tell me about “the free and critically acclaimed app and web-platform that lets anyone share their images and files with total confidence.” Then I get a LinkedIn connection email from the same PR guy and wonder if that requires a written reply, but I decide it doesn’t.
Later that night, I count how many PR emails I’ve replied to all day. That number is 47.
Weirdest PR excerpt of the day: “We often make music in this barn. We're not concerned with much outside of creating something genuine and truthful, even writing this seems like more information than we want to give.”
Best song I discover all day: “Down the Wrong Way” by Chrissie Hynde. Recommended if your favorite PJ Harvey record is Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea.
Thursday, September 4
I get to work and am still behind on emails from the previous day, and almost immediately I am faced with a quandary: If I receive the same press release (about a biker gang starting a design agency, no less) in both of my inboxes, do I have to reply from each account? No, I decide, that would be weird.
Anyway, as I turn down an invite to an unveiling of a Dalmatian puppy sculpture in Chicago (Chicago people! Journey toward this Dalmatian!) and awkwardly ask a publicist if a song called “Growing Mould” is a reference to singer Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü, I notice ominous changes to the shape and rhythm of my Gmail inbox. Press releases, instead of arriving in my “Promotions” tab as usual, are popping direct into my “Primary” inbox. Google sees me opening and replying to these things. You want press releases? it’s telling me. We’ll give you press releases, kid. You won’t miss a damn one. On the bright side, I reply to a note about a “15-second Instagram reality show” and three of the cast members start following me on Twitter.
By 3:40 p.m., I have 12 unopened press releases in my personal inbox and 17 in my work email. It is impossible to keep up and also perform my job; every time I hit reply on one, two or three more seem to arrive, so I try to focus on writing for a bit and then by the time I get home, both inboxes are in the 20s and I start to power through but pass out before 10:30. Voices drift up to my window from the bar outside my apartment, and in my half-awake, half-delirious state, they remind me of press releases—unsolicited snippets of conversation and information greeting me, unannounced, and just as swiftly exiting my consciousness.
Weirdest PR excerpt of the day: “Money visualization can be used for restoring health, healing others, improving relationships, spiritual evolution or anything else you really want in your life” or “Just in time for New York Fashion Week, we have a soupçon of couture and culinary chic, including Peter Som's legendary minestrone recipe.'"
Best song I discover all day: “Give Us a Kiss” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Not exactly a new discovery but, finally, a studio recording of a lost track from my favorite record of 2013.
Friday, September 5
Friday is a nightmare before it begins. Twenty unread emails in my personal inbox, which I usually try to keep around six, and another 19 in my work inbox, and they’re still coming. I am drowning; this is Death by Brands. I want to read each one and reply with something more substantive than “Thanks for sending!” but it’s really, really hard, and I am more worried than ever that some of the genuinely great publicists who I’ve worked with previously and hope to work with again will start to think I am deranged. There is this great quote from the angel investor Esther Dyson that I read in The Atlantic recently where she writes that every email “represents a task—something to read, a query to answer, a meeting to schedule, a bill to pay, a request to fulfill or deny,” and this has never been more true. Usually that task can be reduced to Hit Delete, which takes all of half a second, but not now.
Anyway, I try to compose the perfect reply to an invite to try a food truck exclusively for dogs, and I start to consider the ethical quandaries involved in this experiment like: Am I making life easier or harder for all these PR people who are emailing me? On one hand I am opening all of their emails and listening to bands I would not hear otherwise and learning about memoirs I would not learn about otherwise. I won’t wind up writing about all of those albums or books or whatever, but I will write about one or two or five of them. I feel bad taking the time to reply just to reject things 97 percent of the time—no, I cannot attend your gala; no, I do not wish to speak to a board-certified diagnostic radiologist about Joan Rivers’s death; no, sorry, that EP didn’t really grab me—but I do receive more than a few “Thanks so much for taking the time to reply”- and “That is very gracious of you”-type notes. (I know from experience, too, that failure to reply is often grounds for a “Just following up”-type note.)
Plus, also, sometimes my gratuitous replies lead to some genuinely pleasant and friendly exchanges, like when I sincerely thank a publicist for including a video of a dog getting a massage in her media round-up or when a publicist from the underground label Olde English Spelling Bee tells me that he loved my piece on Neil Young’s Trans record. This leads to a really nice conversational exchange about his memories of AOR radio in the early 1980s and the time Trans was the warm-up music when his mother took him to see Jefferson Starship and how he wishes he could remember the opening act. I’m distracted from my warm thoughts when I receive a new Nickelback video—which, per the rules, I need to watch and reply to. It’s politically charged and calls out the NSA but otherwise sounds like a Nickelback song, and I wonder if the NSA is tracking my emails and how confused they must be by my Gmail activity this week.
Late on Friday I buckle down and begin the grueling task of opening and engaging with my hellish backlog of PR emails. When it’s all over, I have replied to 65 PR emails in one day. This takes about two hours; I stay at work past 7 p.m., long after my co-writers have all left, and reply and reply one-by-one. I am so tired, and I fantasize about going home and resting before I return to work on Monday to face the terrifying deluge of romance memoirs, self-help guides, TV pilots, and media kits that will be arriving on my desk.
Best song I discover all day: “Do You Remember” by Mirage, which is sort of a textbook example of how a video can turn a song from vaguely unsettling to outright terrifying.
Weirdest PR excerpt of the day: “Take a free family photo or ‘doggie selfie’ (does this collar make me look cute?) in a professional canine-ready photo booth.” (The weirdest press release in general is the one where the entire text is just a sort of blurry screenshot of a blurb of a video.)