Dear PR People Everywhere: I Am Not Your Savior

Harry Potter
Me, receiving a deluge of responses from PR people. Image idea via @CindyPerman. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone/Warner Bros. Pictures

At a routine editorial meeting late last month, I pitched my editor on a spur-of-the-moment story idea: I would read and respond to every PR email I received for a week, then write about the presumably unpleasant experience. Simple enough. So I did.

Now I'm the most revered journalist in PR agencies nationwide, an earthly god among flacks. On the one hand: I do kind of like all of the attention. On the other: Help?

I'd heard before that there are roughly five PR people for every journalist, but I'd never really known what that meant. I figured the piece would be lightly tweeted across media Twitter until everyone got distracted by the latest Vox.com gaffe, and I nervously wondered if a few PR types would come across it, but I hoped not too many or at least not the ones who email me every day, lest they reach for their pitchforks.

But I misjudged the size, insularity and interest of the PR universe. The emails came, and they came fast. "Your genius article/experiment…is lighting up PR agencies around the country," one PR guy wrote me. "I'm seriously laughing out loud here as I am about to blast off the link to my entire office," wrote a senior account executive, who—following traditional Jewish geography protocol—noted the reference to Rockland County and began inquiring as to my childhood rabbi. "Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! You have just written Required Reading Article #1 for my PR students (and some clients)!" exclaimed a weirdly non-vitriolic reader comment. Below it: "Agreed, this will be really useful in my Intro to PR course."

My inbox.
A sample from my inbox.

Predictably, replying to every PR email for a week only landed me on more PR databases. (Many thanks to those PR agents who told me they loved my article about being deluged by PR pitches and then proceeded to send me more PR pitches.) Then came emails from the PRs I'd mentioned or quoted, flatteringly or otherwise. Some were bemused: "I literally thought yesterday, 'Wow Zach's been really responsive lately.' Having been on both sides of a pitch, I wouldn't wish your experiment on my worst enemy." "Zach!!! I thought we had something special!?!? But I was just part of your "inbox" experiment—now I feel so used!!!" Others, a bit defensive: "You also need to remember that if it wasn't for PR professionals, you would be spending a hell of lot more time writing and researching, and not posting humor. Which I will say was kinda of funny."

gmail
gmail.com

Meanwhile (caution: #humblebrag ahead), I landed 100 new Twitter followers, mostly people with bios that say things like "#PR guru" or "#SocialMedia Strategist." Reporters had been tweeting stuff like, "Literally my worst nightmare," when sharing the link, but PRs were overwhelmingly positive: "A must-read for all PR professionals," @katherinen tweeted. "#PR peeps can learn from this," @nataliebannon echoed. My name was splattered across PR blogs that I'd never known existed, and I was forced to a startling conclusion: My week-long immersion in the gaping uselessness of PR emails had produced something…sort of…useful to PR people? Essential, even?

That was never the intent. But suddenly, the PR world cast its seedy eyes on me, a new idol: What can you teach us from your journey into hell? How can we improve the PR/reporter relationship? Do you control your CisionPoint profile? Why not just reply asking to be removed from all those lists? "what did you learn from all this? What should PR peeps take away?" one Twitter user asked me, except I really didn't learn anything at all! I just heard from a lot of nice-seeming PR types who now want to buy me a beer.

If you're familiar with the 1985 black comedy After Hours, you might think of me as Griffin Dunne's character, lifting my arms toward the heavens and crying out, "What do you want from me? I'm just a word processor!" albeit with more bemusement and less despair, because it is funny: I'm just some reporter somewhere who gets a lot of emails! I'm not a #PR #guru. I know nothing of how PR works, really. I'm happy to tell you why I ignored your PR email, but the answer is almost certainly that I received 42 other PR emails on the same day and that I can't attend Coffee Fest Portland because I live in New York and that I don't care about some CEO somewhere who is available to whisper sweet nothings about brand engagement to me on the phone. Nothing personal! You seem nice!

What few PR insights can be gleaned from my experiment seem, in retrospect, so self-explanatory that my two-year-old could grasp them, and I don't have a two-year-old. Of course, it's not particularly strategic to alert New York media about a dog sculpture in Chicago. Of course, maybe don't place the wrong publication name in the email subject line (as is not uncommon). Of course, it's wise not to pitch journalists on topics that have little to do with their beat, just as I, a journalist, have never pitched an interview with the dude from Smash Mouth to The Los Angeles Review of Books. (Though if you're interested in this sort of thing, LARB, do get in touch.)

Another PR response.
Another PR response.

Weird thing is, I am just a word processor, and finding time to accommodate the three or four dozen PR people who ping me on the daily isn't, and never will be, part of my job description. I wish it were, or maybe actually I don't. How can it be? Most reporters set out to write stories their readers and editors find compelling, and if those pieces jive with the daily influx of press releases, that's cool, but if not, ah well. I can hand out personalized tips on how to catch my eye (memo to music publicists: Consider me the last writer on Earth who still loves receiving physical media in the mail. I really do!), but those will invariably reflect my own idiosyncrasies more than they contain a secret key to counter the media inbox nightmare.

Speaking of which, maybe the most interesting email I received all week came from a PR guy who asked for 15 minutes of my time to tell me about an innovative new system he was developing to cut down on PR spam. The idea, vague as it was, seemed intriguing, but so did the way he concluded his note. "At the very least," he wrote, "we could talk about how I was the first drummer of the Dismemberment Plan, (true story) if you are familiar with that band—(I know you are…)"

Of course, I wrote back, asking to hear more.

Anyway, if you're looking for a #protip or PR takeaway, that's it. There's the one. Identify yourself as the original drummer of the Dismemberment Plan. I'll be sure to respond.