How to build a better PR media list (the best tools & template)
An in-depth guide to setting up and managing your PR contacts
Despite the wide availability of technologies from social media to dedicated PR CRMs, contact management remains a time-consuming headache for pretty much all PR teams – a headache that develops into a fully-fledged migraine when applied to PR agencies that manage multiple clients and overlapping contact lists.
But there are some quick (and, admittedly, not-so-quick) wins to be had for publicists looking to save time on their contact management.
This extensive guide details opportunities to create a better and more effective contact management process, from setting up your own media database to choosing the right tools to nurturing relationships with those contacts as a PR team.
Throughout this guide, you'll see statistics from our Global PR Survey as well as advice and anecdotes from heavy hitters in the field of comms and PR. If you have a unique and educational viewpoint to add to this guide, or disagree with something we've said, do get in touch – we'd love to hear from you.
Now let's get to it, because – tragically – these contacts won't manage themselves.
What is a media list? It's the PR term for a list of contacts that you send your press release to. Those media contacts can include journalists, bloggers, reporters, editors, influencers and so on. Ideally, your media list will be targeted by topic or geography, so that you can tailor your email to that particular group of people. In the real world, media lists are often jumbled and way, way too long to allow for any sort of meaningful personalisation.
Buying media lists has become the norm for public relations, and why not? It's so simple.
Need a list of journalists who write exclusively about hot dog flavours? Cision probably has that. How about people in Calgary who specialize in formal cowboy attire? Boom, done. The world should be your oyster.
So why aren't you getting results?
If you have a solid strategy that you're executing on, the good news is it's not you – it's the system.
Because there's an ugly side to buying media lists that people rarely talk about:
- Low-quality emails, high bounce rates
- Frequently out of date
(If an email is on a list, you can bet your rolodex that 20 others have already spammed them)
- Breach of privacy
(The people on those lists didn't exactly give their consent to be contacted)
- Buying media lists ≠ buying relationships
(and it's the relationships that matter.)
Relationships beat out cold calling and first-time pitches every time because they compound value. Once you and a contact are familiar with one another, you'll both know what topics to collaborate on, you'll both trust that any email from the other is worth reading, and you'll both be excited to forward any opportunities you see come up – not to mention the time you'll save blindly pitching stories that could never be a good fit.
And it isn't just us saying this – here's what journos Kelsey and Holly said when we asked how they feel about soulless distribution services:
– Kelsey Ogletree on press release distribution services
Using a newswire is pretty similar to hitting up a list of contacts you just bought and have no history with: that is, not very effective. (More on buying contact lists in Chapter 4.)
Instead, this guide focuses on something far more valuable: building and growing a media contact list from scratch.
Defining a structure for your media lists might sound like a weird place to start, but much like investing in a house foundation made of concrete instead of, say, hopes and dreams, it will save you heaps of time once you actually start building out that contact list.
The planning stage of any project is where you have most control, where you can play with different approaches without having to upend all the work you’ve already put in. It’s why startup companies are so much more agile than established ones, and why training regularly does more for your fitness than hitting the gym hard for two weeks straight.
Wait, so you’re saying that if I already have a hot mess of a contact list made up of hundreds of people, it’s too late?
Not at all – as with so many things in life, it’s rarely too late. You’ll just need to spend some more time unraveling what you already have.
There are a million different tools out there on the Internet. It can get a little daunting, and sometimes it even feels like a full-time job, to keep up with the ever-changing technological workflows for the modern public relations professional.
Because of this, it makes sense that people tend to revert back to what they know. Excel, Google Sheets, or various bits of paper tend to be the default, because who wants to spend endless amounts of time (and money) trying out a bunch of contact management systems? In fact, over half (59%) of the people we surveyed said that they use old-fashioned spreadsheets to manage their contacts.
Hey, if it works, it works, right?
Databases were not meant to be used as active Contact Management Systems. They were meant to perform data analytics, help programmers, and terrorize college students. So why do so many PRs use them?
A few reasons that databases make terrible Contact Management Systems:
- Clunky integration with other tools, particularly email programs
- Hard to synchronize with your team (particularly with Excel, where files have to be sent back and forth and can get outdated fast)
- They take forever to update (the average PR professional reports spending 5.4 hours a week updating their spreadsheet!)
- Lack intuitive features and are difficult to keep organized (and keep organized)
Think of this with the same amount of gravitas as you would when buying a home, because once you’re settled in, it’ll be one hell of a pain to switch.
Your main options are:
- The aforementioned spreadsheet tool
- Your email client
- A specialized CRM tool or software
- Pen and paper or equivalent
What you choose depends on your own preferences, but it’s worth thinking beyond what you need your contact list to do now and considering instead how it can continue to serve you for years and years, hopefully forever.
A few things you need to consider:
- Who will need to be able to access/update this contact list, now or in the future? You might be running a solo operation now, but you may expand into an entire comms team down the line
- How many contacts are you likely to manage here? Pen and paper can work when you’re juggling ten or twenty people, but any more than that and the admin burden stacks up
- What would be a helpful way of categorizing your contacts? How will you choose who to approach for specific campaigns?
- How will you resolve privacy and compliance issues?
- If you’re choosing a specialized service or CRM, how much is it likely to cost you after x years? Is the pricing based on volume of data, number of users, or… ? Does it allow you to easily export your data for backup or in case you ever want to switch tools?
Let’s take a closer look at those options, starting with the contact management option with the lowest ROI and moving through to the highest.
If you're still using pen and paper to manage your contacts, then it's likely you can save literal hours each week by switching to a CRM (that's Contact Relationship Manager for those of you who spent your teen years partying instead of playing The Sims). And that’s not even saying a particularly good CRM – literally any CRM will be a marked improvement.
Tools: Google Sheets, Excel
The main benefit of using a spreadsheet for contact management is accessibility. Chances are you already have Excel installed on your computer or a Google account ready to go. It’s a great starting option.
It can be something as simple as a Google Sheet – in fact, here's a free media list template you can use right now.
However, it’s an option that offers diminishing returns the more you use it.
Google Sheets works well for managing a few dozen media contacts, but once you're dealing with 50 people or more, you'll likely want to invest in a purpose-built contact relationship manager (or, CRM) – more on that below.
The downside of using a spreadsheet is that it can quickly become messy and inefficient to use.
- Difficult to tell who made what changes to the spreadsheet
- Impossible to view a history of and undo changes for one specific contact
- Hard to keep track of changes to contact history
- Requires constant manual review to understand the context for each contact
All of this makes spreadsheets a huge time-sink for managing contact lists – one that gets exponentially worse the more contacts you add. So while the cost of using something like Google Sheets may be appealing at first, once you factor time spent into your ROI, it becomes clear that spreadsheets are far from the most cost-effective option.
The equation will be different for every team, but generally speaking, most PR people can save up to two hours per week on contact management by switching from using a spreadsheet to a PR CRM.
As a rule, this only really works for managing the same number of contacts as you can keep in your head, since email clients don’t have any built-in parameters to help you parse your database, such as tags or contact type.
The upside is that you can absolutely create mailing lists in your email client, which can work for sending generic newsletters or updates to people in your contact book. Just be wary of potential consent or GDPR issues, since people cannot unsubscribe from receiving your comms unless you manually remove them.
A PR CRM is a contact relationship management system built specifically with the public relations use case in mind. Where management systems like Salesforce or Hubspot are geared more towards tracking leads as they travel along your sales or marketing funnel, a PR CRM stores all your media contacts and gives you insights into how responsive they are to your pitches.
While tools differ, some of the typical perks of a PR CRM include:
- Tagging and segmentation rules for creating dynamic media lists
- Automatic flagging for bad or duplicate email addresses
- Contact enrichment features that suggest updates to your database
- Team collaboration options
- Contact analytics on how people engage with your content
- Compliance with data protection regulations
- Often packaged with other PR tools, such as a press release creator, newsroom publisher, email pitching, media kits and coverage tracking
Despite these benefits, in 2020 only around one-quarter of PR professionals used a CRM for their contact management.
Whether you’re running comms in-house or are part of a big agency, we have all the tools you need to ensure you deliver the right story to each contact, every time.
There are many options on the market to suit different needs and budgets, often rolling contact management together with email pitching features, newsroom publication, analytics and media monitoring. Use established comparison sites like Capterra, Trustradius and G2 to compare features and reviews, and take advantage of free trials and demos before you commit. We’ve also rounded up the top five PR software options using information from publicly available comparison sites.
A big factor in choosing the right software for managing your contacts is return on investment, aka “is it worth it”. How much you’re happy to spend on a tool will likely change with time, team size, workload and the number of contacts in your database – with each of these factors, the ROI of investing in a tool that helps you and your team save time increases exponentially.
Taken at face value, the price of a specialized solution can seem hefty; who wants to pay $600 a year to manage something you currently do for free in a spreadsheet?
The answer? Probably, you.
(This is where the illusion of false economy comes in.)
Let’s take the statistic mentioned in the section above as our very basic example: that you save two hours per week on contact management when using a paid PR CRM vs using a free spreadsheet tool, like Google Sheets. If the cost of the CRM is $50 per month, that works out to around $12.50 per week. If you’re saving two hours per week, then you’re paying about $6.25 for each hour you save. Tally that against how much you earn for those extra hours and you can already see that what looks like an additional expense at the outset is actually saving you money.
The rough financial cost of the tool actually = price of tool for given time period – (cost of current solution + number of people who update contacts(hours saved x hourly wage))
Now factor in things like the number of team members who work on managing those contacts, the amount of time spent dealing with spreadsheet errors or figuring out who updated what, and you can see how the value of having a dedicated CRM goes up.
It’s very difficult to work out a precise figure for ROI, largely because some benefits – like less stress and seamless access between deep contact management sessions – aren’t easy to quantify. But you can always get an idea of whether it’s worth taking the leap by looking at the trends more generally.
The only real question you need to answer is, am I getting more than I’m sacrificing in a given time frame?
If the answer is “yes” – even by a small margin – then it makes sense to go for it. (A similar logic applies to boots, the delegation of tasks and, yes, whether or not to buy that fancy coffee machine.)
Here are some factors it’s wise to consider when balancing that equation:
- The number of people currently managing your contacts and their hourly rate
- The time each person spends on contact management
- The frustrations you and your team currently have with managing your contacts that can be solved by specific CRM features, like bounce detection, automatic contact enrichment and GDPR compliancy
- How many contacts you currently manage and how much this number is likely to grow in the next x years
- How much your team is likely to grow in the next x years
- Any migration and integration costs (time and money)
- How long this solution is likely to work for your use case
What details about a person will help you determine quickly whether or not they’re right for a story?
If it helps you brainstorm or thoughtshower, you can break these down into categories:
- Expertise: this will include things like the geography they cover, topics, …
- Context: important information on the type of story they’ve covered (or refused to cover) in the past, any limiting factors like planned absences from work
- Relationship: how you or your team has interacted with this person before – names of events you attended together, stories you’ve pitched them, how they prefer to be contacted, etc
Be aware that more isn’t always better, particularly when working with contacts that move around a lot; spending an hour noting down someone’s go-to coffee order or mum’s maiden name isn’t going to account for much ROI if that person retires from their journalist career in favor of something less stressful, like deep-sea mining, a few weeks down the line.
You may also find it helpful to categorize your media contacts by the type of content they produce. This can include general categories, like journalists, bloggers, influencers, industry experts etc. It can also get into specifics like preferred media type, e.g. prefers video content, or key distribution channels, e.g. TikTok, in-person interview etc.
Depending on where you store your contacts, you can add all of the above as contact tags (if using a PR CRM system), a new column or field (if using a spreadsheet), or as a note (in the case of, lord forbid, pen and paper). Those are listed in order of preference, since tags are the easiest to filter by when parsing a long list of contacts, followed by table columns. Notes tend to necessitate manual review and so are the hardest to work with en masse. In general, you want to take advantage of technology wherever possible to automate as many tasks as you can, since every automation wins you back your most valuable resource: time.
More on tagging and segmentation in Chapter 4, but first, let’s take a look at how we can go about looking for your best-bet contacts.
Alright, you decided on a system in Chapter 1. Good for you! The hard part is done.
Just kidding, the hard part starts now!
A good system is nothing without the right data (which is, in this instance, contacts). However, unlike your Facebook friends list, a good quality contact list is not a “the more, the merrier” kind of situation.
This is one of the biggest traps that many PRs fall into, thinking that a good contact list needs to be quantity over quality. But one could argue that 100 targeted, niche-specific, curated contacts are better than 10,000 random, outdated, irrelevant people you downloaded from an online database.
In the world of PR and comms, your contact list is your currency. And here it’s not just about quantity, but also the quality of connections. A high-quality, accurate contact list helps with targeted messaging, ensures high engagement, and lays the groundwork for enduring media relationships. In a business where a well-placed story can open doors, your contact list is the master key.
Define who is working with whom before you even start uploading contacts. If you are a solo pro, then it’s probably you working with everyone, and that’s totally fine. But if you’re on a team or part of an agency, managing contacts can get messy fast.
Of our respondents, 71% say they split the responsibility of updating the database across the team, with no one person in charge, while 6% saying the task falls specifically to interns. It sounds like a fair deal since it's not a job people like doing, but in practice, this can mean that databases go for long stretches without an update.
"Currently it is no-one's job because it is such a massive task. We actually hired a temp for one month solely to go through our contacts and update them/sort out any issues," said one respondent, while another adds: "It is supposed to be the job of the whole PR department but at the moment it mostly falls on the PR Intern."
How you delegate will depend largely on your team, how many contacts you have, and the system that you established in Chapter 1.
- Should one person be responsible for contacts A–F, another F–Q, and so on? Or are you dividing the contacts by beat, where they publish, language, geography?
- Should you update and add contacts based on current established contact relationships?
- Does each contact have a particular internal ID number that is used for organizing?
Whatever you do, do it strategically. This will help you and your team avoid messy duplications and potentially unprofessional mistakes in the contact management workflow. Not to mention, a ton of time wasted. It's much better to take the time to establish a process beforehand than to have to double up or redo a bunch of work.
Establishing a contact management system does take a pretty significant initial time investment, but it pays dividends as long as it's done well and with a cohesive, clearly communicated team strategy.
Researching contacts (media or otherwise) is a surprisingly controversial topic within the communications world. Many people have strongly held opinions on how this research should take place, how much of it should happen, how organically a contact list should develop, etc. You wouldn't think that contact research would be so hotly debated, but you'd be surprised.
And why is this such a controversial topic? Because contacts are so critically and incredibly important. I mean, it's the relations in "public relations" it's the communicating in “communications”. How are you supposed to get coverage for your clients if your virtual Rolodex is full of tumbleweeds?
And, of course, because this is such an important part of the PR workflow, people are naturally going to find unethical and ridiculous shortcuts. It's human nature. But these shortcuts are borne out of one undeniable reality of contact list building and researching: it takes a ridiculous amount of time. High-quality, relevant, niche-specific contacts who actually want your news are not easy to come by.
1. Start with your network
Networking is ingrained in human society.
It might not always be pretty (only hiring from within a certain college, giving jobs to people just because they once petted your uncle's dog, etc), but that's how the world works. I would even argue it's the main benefit of attending university, at least for chumps like me who decided to spend three years and £44,000 studying literature 💅
Network is everything.
And if you don't have it, steal it.
Your network isn't just who you know, it's who the people you know know.
The best outreach consists of three elements: 1) it's between people who already know and like each other 2) it's mutually beneficial to both parties and 3) it's valuable to your target's audience.
You don't have to nail every one in every pitch (e.g. it can be fine to get an intro from a shared contact or pitch something that's valuable to your target's audience but might not be directly beneficial to them), but the closer you get to those three, the more success you'll have.
2. Ask for an introduction
Friends, family, former colleagues. For the most part, these people like you and want to help – there's no shame in asking them for an introduction. Who is already in your address book?
Just don't spam these people. Send a personal email telling them about what you're doing and the type of person you're trying to reach, and ask them if they know anyone who fits the bill. You'll be surprised at how happy people are to help.
3. Social media
LinkedIn and X (née Twitter) are the preferred platforms for many PRs to find and build organic-ish, mutually beneficial relationships with contacts. Using socials can be ideal because that's where many media personalities maintain their brand identity, list their preferred contact methods, and give you an organic opportunity to connect with them by replying to their posts. Some journalists will even share calls for pitches in their pinned posts.
4. Download your LinkedIn connections
If you're already active on LinkedIn, this can be a great place to start – particularly if you're just setting up your new CRM and want to get all your contacts in there so you can start tracking your relationships as they bloom.
They won't all come with emails and phone numbers, but downloading your LinkedIn connections list definitely worth a shot. You can try this for your own account, your CEO's and so on.
Just go to your settings and select "Get a copy of your data" →
5. Make friends online
Join online communities of people working in your space and collaborate with them. If you spot an opportunity, share it with these communities, and keep an eye out for when they do the same. Remember that you don't need to be in hostile competition with your peers; the wheels turn a lot faster if we're all pulling the same way.
Here are some wonderful comms communities and regular jams you can take part in:
- TechJPR (Facebook group for UK tech journos and comms people)
- SpinSucks Community (Slack group for communicators)
- #PRLunchHour (on Twitter Spaces, every Friday at 9am PT; for the uninitiated, here's a post on how to use Spaces)
- Reddit (take a look around, there's a subreddit for everyone!)
I've also come across some paid groups that could be interesting, but never gave them a try because I'm not convinced you can eke out a caring community from the cold, dead heart of capitalism.
6. Use tools
There are a ton of tools at our disposal available to find the perfect contacts. Not all tools are created equal, however, and some of them can get pretty costly, which tends to be a big detractor for many comms folks. Some examples of media contact researching tools include:
- Muck Rack
- Press Hunt
For more media researching goodness, read this handy list here.
7. Buy media lists: This one is probably the worst option, if we're being completely honest, and we have a whole section of this guide just below dedicated to trashing the concept of bought media lists. For now, let’s just say that media contacts tend to hate these lists, and we trust their judgment.
To find the biggest influencers in any space – whether these be journals, websites, YouTube channels, podcasts or actual Influencers – you need to become part of the community. That way you can get an insider's perspective on your audience's point of view, pains and interests, which can inform everything from content creation to the angle of your next pitch. The downside is, as with networking, it takes a really, really long time.
But then again, there are a few helpful shortcuts you can take.
1. Use SparkToro for audience discovery
In a subspace as vast and ineffable as the internet, it can be hard to navigate big communities and identify individual people to contact. That's where SparkToro swoops in to save the day.
You can create lists based on keywords to see where the people interested in that topic spend their time, the most engaged people in the area, "hidden gems" (smaller social accounts that punch above their weight when it comes to influencing – great for spotting high-value content collaboration opportunities) and lots, lots more. You can export your subsequent lists with all their social profiles and emails automatically factored in via hunter.io*.
*I actually have some beef with hunter.io, which boils down to this: never blindly email addresses you get through there! Technology can do a lot to save us time, but it isn't infallible, as my tortured Twitter thread will attest. Always supplement results with your own research and common sense.
Smart people try before they buy, so here's a link to SparkToro's free plan →
Perhaps more importantly, the (two) folks that run SparkToro are lovely human beings whom we don't mind plugging since their values of transparency and trying to do the right thing massively align with our own. That's why we invited SparkToro (and Moz) founder Rand Fishkin to speak at our PR Roundtable: How not to be evil. You can watch it in full here.
2. Identify influencers
Working with influencers is different from working with traditional media – for one thing, influencers want to be discovered. It's a relationship that is at once transactional and completely reliant on mutual understanding. The balance to a delicate one to strike, because in order for influencer marketing to be effective, the fit between product and audience has to be spot on; one inauthentic misstep and the influencer can lose the respect and attention of all her followers.
Needless to say, finding the right influencer fit for your story is pretty important.
Traackr is one tool that helps you do that. You can filter its database of influencers by topic, hashtag, brand mentions, geography and so on, as well as search by your audience criteria. Once you're in, you'll also get proactive notifications about any up-and-coming influencers entering your space.
It comes well recommended by an impressive client list, though I'm still waiting to try this one out for myself and will update this section as soon as I do.
Klear is another popular platform for influencer discovery, covering everything from Instagram to TikTok.
Awkwardly, neither tool lists pricing on their site, which always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.
3. Piggyback on existing X (née Twitter) lists
Twitter lists are extremely helpful for checking in with particular topics and audiences, but they can also take a lot of research to set up. That's why I recommend first checking if someone's already made a list that you can piggyback on.
Here's a helpful blow-by-blow guide on how to find Twitter lists →
If you find a few helpful lists but they aren't quite what you were looking for, use them to pilfer people to follow and create your own Twitter list.
On the flipside of this suggestion, you can choose to do a public service for your niche by creating an interesting list and sharing it with the world. Here's one I made for the absolute finest street food in Cambridge, UK – if you're ever in town, hit me up :)
⚠️Note: Make sure you name your list something flattering if you're going to keep it public, as anyone you add to a public list will be notified. No one wants to hear they've been added to "Luke-warm leads 2023".
4. Take advantage of SEO tools
Digital marketing is a vast discipline, but you don't need to be an expert in it to start using SEO tools to better understand your audience – particularly if you publish content on your own website.
By examining how people find your site using a keyword explorer tool, you will better understand a) what the people visiting your site are actually looking for, and b) whether the content you're creating aligns with the audience you want to reach.
Every niche has its superstar influencers. These influencers include podcasters, bloggers, content creators, and personalities who are movers and shakers in the field. These are fantastic contacts to have and relationships to cultivate. They often know the latest news in the niche, and they are always looking for new opportunities to expand their influence and engage with their audience.
Even if influencer marketing isn’t something you have planned in the near future, building relationships with leaders in the field is always a good thing. Tools like Upfluence, SparkToro, BuzzSumo, and Influence.co can help you find these influencers and make connections.
It's all well and good to stay where people can find new contacts, but where are real-life PR practitioners actually finding contacts?
According to most people we spoke with, there’s really no substitute for good ol’ fashioned manual labour / research. Sure, other methods can supplement this research, but there’s just no getting around the time investment required to find new contacts.
I'm not surprised to see 'manual' as the top choice, especially right now. There's a personal side to all of this research – you get to 'know' someone a bit better not only by discovering their email address, but by seeing how they interact on social media, what their interests are and personalising your interaction. A bulk media list doesn't get you that, although it may be a starting point. The real work starts with getting to know one person at a time.
Some dos and don’ts when researching and compiling your contacts list:
- Don’t assume every journo wants your news
- Do understand the niche and publication your contact works for
- Don’t ignore their preferred contact method (if they say they only want email, don’t DM them on Instagram)
- Do perform regular audits of your contacts to make sure their niche, publication, or position hasn’t changed
- Don’t be a creep and research too deeply into their personal lives to try and “connect” with them (it’s weird)
- Do be mindful of who on your contacts list are colleagues and avoid spamming people from the same agency or publication with your pitches. Word gets around, and you don’t want to be flagged as that person
The only thing worse than having no contacts is having a bunch of outdated, inaccurate contacts. Even if you get your contacts from expensive databases, odds are you're going to have some inaccurate information because that’s show business, baby.
No matter what kind of promises the media databases make (so you sign up and give them money), there really is no substitution for good old-fashioned googling. Many databases are out of date, and some social media accounts are stagnant or infrequently updated. Because of this (and many other reasons), Google is your friend.
The best places to look for information:
- The journalist’s personal website. Many media personalities work as freelancers, meaning they write for several different publications within their niche. The best way to reach them is typically through their personal website, where they either indicate an email address, a contact box, a pitch hotline, or some other preferred method of contact.
- Social media. Look 'em up on Twitter, Linkedin, Threads, etc.
- The publication’s website. If they are an in-house writer for a specific publication, they may have a bio or some sort of profile indicating the best way to reach them.
- Their journalist bio/boilerplate. When a piece is published online, often there will be a short bio for the rider. This will often include some sort of contact information (if they want to be contacted).
- Nothing (don’t contact them). If you ever find yourself struggling to find a journalist’s contact information and are getting nowhere, odds are they just don't want to be on your contact list. Take the L and move on. Some media contacts are completely inundated with so many pitches and have absolutely no desire nor capacity to take on any extra work. This may change in the future, but if they say “closed for submissions” or deliberately make their contact info hard to find, let it go.
One of the biggest pain points I've experienced as a PR professional is keeping up with the constant job changes in the journalism industry. Many journalists stop working for a publication within 6-months of us adding them to our contact list which makes it essential that we update it as often as we can. What we try to do is to make sure that we follow those relevant journalists on social media platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter because they often announce new job changes on these platforms. This is always a good opportunity to congratulate them when they land new roles, but it's also important to take note of the new publications they write for and check whether their beats have changed. It's very important to build contact lists, but those lists are practically useless if they are not regularly updated.
Technology is a double-edged sword when it comes to creating and perfecting your contact list. While it can offer some amazing tools, shortcuts, and research opportunities, there are also myriad “hacks” with dubious moral implications. Before using any sort of tool or piece of technology in finding and researching your media contacts, first, ask yourself, “Would I want my information to be found and cataloged on this site/tool/database?”
For example, there are CRM tools out there that sell supplemental databases for an additional fee that can integrate with their software. While this seems like a handy-dandy, easy shortcut, you have to ask yourself:
- Did the journalist consent to their information being added to the database?
- How do I know that?
- Are there any privacy implications of using this information?
- How updated is this information?
The same consideration needs to be taken when using artificial intelligence PR tools and generative AI when creating your contact list. Pulling information straight from ChatGPT or Bard is a fantastic way to get a bunch of garbage information cluttering up your precious contact list.
AI is useful for a lot of things, but it is not a consistently reliable source of information, and many generative AI tools are not "live" on the internet, meaning the data that you mined from it might be years outdated. This isn't to say you can't or shouldn't use AI tools for finding possible contacts. It is saying that anything that you learn from AI needs to be taken with a grain of salt and fact-checked diligently.
Tired of using a million tools to support your PR workflow? We got you.
Part of building a powerful contact list is not simply going for the most obvious journalist contacts. Sure, everybody wants to be in Forbes and the New York Times. But simply pitching the same writers that everybody else is pitching just to get onto the biggest publications is leaving out a lot of potential for creative and interesting collaboration.
I mean sure, pitch NYT too. But dig a little deeper and get innovative. Brainstorm other possible sources of media coverage that may not seem immediately apparent in order to develop a more well-rounded, curated media list.
Some questions to ask when diversifying your media lists:
- What are some fresh, unexpected audiences that may resonate with our content?
- What are some unique angles to pitch that we may not have considered, and who might be open to these avant-garde perspectives?
- What other communities could we reach out to in order to include more diversity? How can we tailor our pitches to reach these audiences?
- Are we including varied perspectives when it comes to LGBTQ+, gender, cultural, racial, age, and geographical diversity?
- Are there other media formats we haven’t yet considered (TV, podcasts, print, social media)?
You may have a specific, demographic or target audience in mind for your media pitches, and that's okay. Not everything must be for everyone. But sometimes, expanding your niche and getting creative with how you connect to diverse audiences can open up a world of opportunity.
I wish I could tell you that since you’ve found some niche-specific, active, well-researched media contacts your journey is over, but it’s not.
Part of having a great contact list is constantly adding, curating, refining, and updating your media list. A good contact list should be a living thing and one of your most valuable resources as a PR. Taking time to regularly audit and update your contact list is incredibly important to building and keeping those strong relationships.
You can do these audits and updates on an ad hoc basis, but many PRs find that scheduling regular audits is preferable as life gets busy and things like “contact list updating” fall to the bottom of the to-do list. How often you want to schedule these regular audits is between you and God.
I'd say my biggest pet peeve when building and managing media lists is the constant maintenance. Members of the media don't always stay at the same media outlets and oftentimes times that information doesn't get updated immediately. When you're spending hours building your contact list just to find that 40% of the emails bounced because of outdated info, it can feel pretty defeating.
We spend about 30 minutes to 1 hour a day per list going through all our media contacts to make sure it's updated, relevant, and still a potentially beneficial relationship to establish/maintain.
Remember when we discussed previously how we’re going to talk crap about buying media lists? Well, now’s the time, so buckle up and put your petty pants on, because we’re going to be haters. Media lists are basically lists created to shortcut the entire process of finding and researching media contacts.
A person will buy a media list for, say, outdoor journalists. Or fashion journalists. And then, voila! ✨ All the work is done, and they can immediately start emailing their pitches without a care in the world. But alas, like many things in this life, it’s not quite that simple.
The list of pros, when buying a media list is short and obvious: it’s easy. And fast. But does that mean it’s better? An initial upfront investment in time and energy when researching and compiling media contacts may seem like a waste of time, but the contact list is the backbone of a good media outreach strategy. Do you really want to shortcut that?
Understanding the return on investment for purchasing media lists is a bit more complicated, since simply looking at cost will not give you a good foundation for making your decision. Instead, you need to start with (sigh) strategy and experience.
Ask first, what do you want to achieve by buying this media database? Have you used it or a similar service before? What were the results?
It may well be that jumping on a newswire or buying a media list and blasting out a seasonal company update gives you great ROI for a certain type of story. While the majority of the people you pitch this way will ignore your email, the reach is wide enough that some will likely pick it up if it’s something they can easily copy-paste into their own updates.
On the flip side, if you’re after a feature, brand building or thought leadership, your campaign will be far more effective sent to a curated number of contacts that you understand and with whom you have nurtured a mutually beneficial relationship.
We've used several different PR newswire services this year (2022) such as Cision (PR News Wire), Business Wire, and Brand Featured.
Our results have varied between the three, but from our experience – newswire services are quickly becoming outdated and ineffective. Cost-wise they are very expensive (except for Brand Featured) and their pickup/engagement metrics are misleading.
Developing relationships with journalists in specific niches through cold pitching has had better results for us than these expensive options.
We at Prezly may be dedicated media list haters, but we can admit that they are timesavers.
Because at the end of the day, your reputation is on the line. If you mess up and incorrectly pitch the wrong contact or if your bought media list is full of frazzled journalists who never wanted to be on the list to begin with, it’ll be your reputation that gets tarnished.
But in addition to that, you’ll still have to research all the contacts regardless. This makes the “shortcut” bit of the process a little less short.
One of [the biggest pain points] is that when I have tried to use a media database, they are OFTEN out of date. It's hard to recommend using one to my clients when this is the case. I find it's more effective to build a list of the top 20 or so media outlets clients would like to be featured in, then go and do the research by visiting the sites and putting a Google sheet with the contact information.
Using a bought media list without verifying contacts is definitely something you can do, but should you? Think of it like “writing” articles with generative AI and publishing them with only minor tweaks and edits. Technically you can. Nobody's going to stop you or throw you in prison. Many people do it every day. But the quality is lacking. You’re creating the exact same content that so many others are, and it just comes across as cheap spam.
The same is true of purchased media lists. Journalist can clock them from a mile away, many of them do not want to be included on these media lists and have their information sold for profit, and much of the information is outdated or incorrect anyway.
In the last section, we discussed your reputation as it pertains to media relations and purchasing media lists. But what about your email address reputation?
Some people may not realize this, but each email address actually carries a reputation score based on how many emails are marked as spam and other factors. If you find yourself repeatedly, blacklisted, sending out undelivered or bounced emails, or dispatching a ridiculously high amount of emails, your reputation score may go down.
This is just one of the many reasons why quality will always trump quantity when it comes to media relations. Not only may you be annoying the actual journalists themselves, but you could be damaging your and your agency's email reputation before anything even hits an inbox.
There doesn't seem to be any regulations explicitly stating that the act of buying an email list is illegal. However, using bought email lists could very well be illegal, or at least put you dangerously close to a legal pickle.
Pre-GDPR, the US took on unsolicited commercial emails with the CAN SPAM Act. This law laid out the rules for commercial emails (which includes the promotion of a product or service) that includes allowing for easy opt-out and implies the need for recipients to be opted in of their own volition. It's like GDPR-lite. Fines for this reach above $40,000.
One of the things that is strictly prohibited under the CAN SPAM Act is the use of "Email Harvesting". Some of the practices defined as email harvesting is the purchase of lists with the intent to spam, using webcrawlers to scoop up addresses, or using a "dictionary attack" where you try to guess the email address of someone by using multiple variations of the same email (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, initial.lastname.company.com… you get the idea).
Of course you aren't buying the list with intent to spam, but you can still get into hot water if someone accuses your organization of doing so. It is on you to prove otherwise.
Then there is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and for PRs and digital marketers it is still a grey area when it comes to legality. Article 7 of the GDPR states that:
Consent must be freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous. In order to obtain freely given consent, it must be given on a voluntary basis.
What you are up against here is trusting that the email list you bought is made up of people who have consented to be on it and it is really hard to say if that is the case.
There is another lawful basis apart from consent that saves you a bit here and that is the legitimate interest clause (more on that in the GDPR and ethics chapter below). This makes it okay to send unsolicited emails to your recipients based on the assumption that you are sending something they want. But again, this is up to them. All you can do is make sure you send relevant, timely information that shows your best intentions, not an email blast with no rhyme or reason.
This is just another one of the areas in which your legal and ethical reputation is on the line. If you're caught using an inappropriate or unauthorized email or misusing private data based on purchasing it from some random company and using it without careful consideration, the heat will come back on you and your team, not the people who sold you the information.
As with all things related to privacy, ethics, and the GDPR, it’s better to ask for approval before assuming you have their permission to send them pitches and campaigns they never asked for.
If you go against our better, collective judgment and purchase a media list, that's okay. There are some steps you can take to clean it up a bit and avoid some of the potential risks.
- Heavily research every contact that you get and make sure that they are accurate, valid, and up-to-date
- Gather as much information about the contact as possible, and make sure that they are niche-appropriate
- Watch your analytics for open and bounce rates and adjust your approach accordingly
- Do everything necessary to remain privacy and data-compliant, and allow your contacts to opt out of emails anytime
The main idea of segmenting contacts is to make it clear for you and your team which people to approach for what campaign or content.
Seeing what segments or tags are associated with each contact also gives you a helpful at-a-glance reminder of who that person is and what they’re interested in.
Tags are a deceptively simple way of categorizing your contacts.
The main pitfall of using tags is that it’s easy to get carried away. But here, as pretty much everywhere, more does not equal better.
Tags can also become challenging when working with other people, since everyone involved in the contact management needs to know what tags are available and what each tags means, otherwise they inevitably end up duplicating tags, creating dated tag variants and generally making a mess. It all comes down to communication, which, as you well know, is not easy.
Here are some best practice rules to follow when working with tags as a team.
- Decide what tags you need and how they’re going to serve you before you start tagging; there’s little point having "journalists based in Berlin" to filter by if you’re never going to use that as an angle
- Create a simple document that lists all the tags in your system and clearly states what each tag means
- Regularly clean out tags that are no longer useful or relevant
- If your software allows it, consider restricting who can create new tags in the system
Stuck for a place to start?
It’s easy to get lost down a rabbit hole once you begin tagging, since being busy often feels like being productive, but don’t let this trick you. Instead, take some time to outline your tag structure based on the types of story and content you pitch, and go from there.
This list is designed to get you thinking about what you can include in your contact management tags:
- Behavioral tags: Categorizing media based on their past interactions, responses, and engagement levels with your content
- Culture and localization: Tailoring media lists based on cultural nuances, regional dialects, and languages
- Frequency: Segmenting based on when and how media outlets publish or broadcast content (e.g. prime time TV vs morning radio)
- Media format preference: Differentiating between media that prefer press releases, video content, social pics, infographics, long-form articles
- Generational segmentation: Targeting media that cater specifically to Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z
- Geography: Beyond just country or region, segmenting media based on specific cities, towns, or even neighborhoods
- Media sentiment: Segmenting media based on their general sentiment or stance towards certain industries, products, or issues
- Event-specific segmentation: Media lists for product launches, crisis communication, annual reports, etc
- Platform type: Differentiate between traditional journalists and modern digital influencers or content creators with platform tags like TikTokker, YouTuber, blogger
- Interest or niche: These become more useful the more specific they are – think “wearables” rather than just “tech”
- Media outlet size/reach: Differentiating between large mainstream media, mid-tier outlets, smaller niche publications
- Social engagement metrics: Categorizing media based on their audience engagement metrics, like comments, shares, average view duration, follower count
- Target audience: Understanding the primary audience of the media outlet, such as professionals, homemakers, students, entrepreneurs …
- Content type preference: Differentiating media based on their preferred content style – investigative, opinion pieces, reviews, interviews, news items
- Political or social stance: Segmenting media based on their political or social leanings
- Collaboration history: Categorizing media based on past collaborations, partnerships, joint ventures
- Exclusivity preference: Identifying media that prefer exclusive stories or content over widely distributed press releases
A dynamic segment is basically a list of contacts that updates itself based on whatever parameters you define. For example, you might create the segment "Pastry lovers in Belgium" and set it to automatically include any contacts you add to your database that are tagged "has a penchant for pastries" and whose country is set to "Belgium". A simple example that is perhaps a little too telling of whether or not I skipped breakfast this morning, but you get the idea.
Using segments allows you to target pitches to particular audiences based on a common angle. Needless to say, the more specific you can make your segments, the more personalized and targeted you can make your messaging to those contacts.
PR CRMs will often have this functionality built-in, but if you’re using a spreadsheet you’ll need to create dedicated views or filters to make this happen.
You can create evergreen segments as well as those specific to a given campaign, as well as things like "newsletter subscribers" and "crisis comms contacts" – but more on that below.
As always, it’s a good idea to regularly review your segments to make sure the parameters you set are still a good fit for what you want to achieve, and clear out any stale lists.
In the fast-paced realm of PR, being quick and collected in times of crisis can make or break a brand’s reputation. And while you can’t predict every flat tyre or wiki leak, there’s a lot you can do in advance to give yourself the best possible chance of dousing that fire fast.
One of those things is preparing segments of people you would need to contact in an emergency, both within and outside of the company. These can include:
- Internal crisis comms leadership – decision-makers, legal experts, spokespeople and other relevant individuals who play pivotal roles during a crisis
- Employees – not all crisis comms is external; you’ll have just as much of a responsibility to keep the team calm and aligned during a crisis
- Company stakeholders – customers, investors, the board; anyone who has a stake in what’s happening needs to know they can rely on you to communicate with them efficiently and honestly, rather than have to read about the crisis from a third party
- Industry commentators – this depends on your sector and may not be relevant to every business or agency; just know that whatever the crisis, it’s always better to be seen proactively sharing and owning up to the situation rather than appearing to shirk responsibility
Once your crisis comms contact lists are made, it can be easy to let them grow stale from disuse, so schedule in regular reviews to check that the details you have for these people are still relevant.
And as always, document in your crisis comms plan what these segments are and their intended use. The same doc should define clear communication protocols for reaching out to crisis contacts. Ensure that everyone involved understands the hierarchy of communication and knows how to access the most current information. Whether it's a designated point of contact or an established communication platform, having a structured approach can significantly expedite the process of disseminating information during a crisis.
It is also a good idea to test your crisis comms lists from time to time to weed out any outdated details or other problems. You can do this by sending a campaign to your lists and reviewing any error logs that come back; an advantage of using a PR CRM with an integrated campaigns tool is that it will tell you which emails were undelivered and give you a delivery status code for each address.
By proactively preparing for crisis scenarios and maintaining a well-organized and up-to-date crisis contact list, you're setting the stage for effective crisis communication. The ability to swiftly connect with the right individuals armed with accurate information can mitigate the impact of a crisis and safeguard your brand's reputation in even the most challenging times.
Or, what to do with all those lemons.
Yup, this is the tedious part.
People in general, and journalists in the very particular, move around a lot. So the need to update your contact database as you go is paramount if you don't want your media list going stale overnight.
PRs as a whole understand this balance well, with 51% of survey respondents saying they update as they go – often on a near daily basis, prompted by out-of-offices and bounced campaigns.
A further 19% update once a month or more, so, relatively frequently. And we can all relate to the "every 2–3 months" crowd who, coming in at a modest 13%, must be very similar to the monthly group only a tad less organized. Though one does wonder about the 5% yearly updaters, who it must be assumed append their contact lists on the basis of who does or does not send them a Christmas card that year.
No wonder “keeping the database current” was the most cited pain point among PRs – there’s simply no way around it.
And while a lot of the legwork remains manual, there are many tools on the market that can help you make the process a little bit easier, faster, and more automated.
Invest in a robust Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system tailored for PR. These magical tools offer more than just contact storage; they can track email opens, clicks, and bounces. When an email bounces back, your CRM can flag it, allowing you to promptly update or remove that contact. It's like having a digital butler whispering in your ear, "Sir/Madam, your email did not reach its destination."
Set aside time for regular contact database audits – think of it as spring cleaning for your PR empire. Identify contacts with outdated information, such as changed job titles, new email addresses, or abandoned Twitter accounts. Update these details promptly, and you'll always be ready to reach out when opportunity knocks. Bonus tip: shooting over a friendly hallo checks that an email is still valid and helps grow your relationship; even better, get in touch when you have something to offer your contact – even if that’s just a friendly word about their latest content – without asking for anything in return.
In my view, managing contacts can sometimes feel like herding cats. The biggest challenges I face are keeping track of the ever-changing landscape of journalists, bloggers, and influencers, and ensuring the information I have on them is up-to-date.
One moment you're chatting with a journalist at a top publication, the next they've switched beats or moved to a different outlet. It's like a game of musical chairs!
I'd say my team and I probably spend a good few hours each week just keeping things current. But it's time well spent.
Email bounce notifications are like little red flags waving in the digital wind. Configure your email marketing tools to alert you when an email bounces. Whether it's a hard bounce (permanently undeliverable) or a soft bounce (temporarily undeliverable), these notifications should trigger an investigation into the contact's status. Is their inbox full, or has their email changed? Update accordingly.
When you send out a pitch or press release, use email tracking tools to monitor engagement. These tools can tell you when your email was opened, which links were clicked, and when it was forwarded. If you notice a lack of engagement from certain contacts, it might be time to reassess their relevance and update their information or prune them from your list.
My team and I usually spend more than 5 hours a week on updating our contact lists. It's a significant chunk of time that could be better utilized for more strategic and value-added activities in our PR efforts.
The need for regular updates to keep our contact lists accurate and relevant is crucial, but finding a more efficient solution would greatly benefit our overall productivity.
Social media platforms are treasure troves of up-to-date information. Follow your media contacts on platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. They often update their professional profiles with current job titles, contact details, and interests. If they're no longer active, it might be a sign that they've moved on, and it's time to update your database.
As part of your database management strategy, establish a verification process. Periodically send out verification emails to your contacts to confirm their details and preferences. This not only helps maintain the accuracy of your list but also demonstrates your commitment to respecting their communication preferences.
Networking events and conferences aren't just for making new contacts; they're also excellent for updating existing ones. Meet face-to-face and confirm or update contact information. These encounters can also help you learn about changes in their roles or interests.
Learn how a solid PR CRM setup can make a heap of difference for your media relations.
Building your list is itself an ongoing process, but there's another big, big chunk to the equation: caring for that media list.
That means being thoughtful in how you approach people, mindful of their response (or lack thereof) and helpful in your communications. It's working to find out what that particular person is interested in and giving them only things that are relevant. It's about respect and building a mutually beneficial relationship.
One of the best ways to get your brand and your clients into media opportunities is to make friends with your contacts. (Business friends – no hair braiding or pillow fights required.)
A genuine and mutually beneficial relationship is not something any of us are going to have the time to nurture with hundreds of people, so be choosy about the people you work with. Figure out whose audience best matches your own; who is likely to benefit from sharing your stories.
Reciprocity is the key: you need to be sure that you’re both getting something out of working together.
One of the problems you run into when talking about whether or not someone has a "good relationship" with a contact is the simple fact that a "good relationship" can look different from person to person. At the same time, we wanted to find out what a good relationship looks like to most PRs – after all, there must be some common factors at play. So we asked them.
By and large, there seems to be a clear winner: 48% of respondents say that a media relationship has entered the friendzone when "they reach out to you for stories and updates", while coming in at a close second, 30% think it's when "they reply to your campaigns whether they're interested in the story or not". Surprisingly, only 6% saw staying in touch after moving jobs to be a sign of a good relationship.
But what’s perhaps even more noteworthy is that 61% of the PRs we spoke to seem to believe they’re doing below average at building relationships.
On average, respondents told us they have a “good relationship” with 14% of their contacts – not a bad proportion, considering many of those surveyed have media lists in the thousands. However, we also asked respondents how many “good relationships” they thought PR professionals have on average, and the answers show a startling pessimism.
Only 2/5 PRs feel that they are achieving a decent number of close contacts.
It's not surprising communicators feel they don't have great relationships with journalists. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, one where you have journalists publicly shaming communicators for pitching them incorrectly and blacklisting them in their inboxes.
Add on top that most executives don’t understand the earned media process and want communicators to send an ill-informed news release to the world, and it can feel like we've been set up for failure.
The good news is, with a little elbow grease, some time and some patience, we can get to a point that our media relationships are our secret sauce. There won't be thousands or hundreds of them, but you can build relationships with those that matter most to your organization.
Networking (more than just fancy name tags)
Picture this: a room full of strangers with name tags, awkwardly clutching drinks and trying to recall their own elevator pitches. This is your kingdom. Schmooze and mingle like it's your personal soirée. Engage in conversations that don't center around exchanging business cards like you're playing a frantic game of Bohnanza. Swap stories, share laughs, show genuine interest. You're not just collecting contacts, you're sowing the seeds for a relationship.
Keep in touch (not stalking, just staying in the loop)
So you've got a bunch of contacts. Congratulations! Now, don't ghost them like my last three Tindr dates. Send them an email once in a while that doesn't involve begging for a favor. Share some interesting industry tidbits, your latest success (or failure – I hear it’s humanizing), or maybe just a meme that made you snort your coffee out your nose. Remind them you exist in a helpful or interesting way that won't make them file a restraining order.
Engage with their content (if you genuinely like it)
This is a potential double whammy because you not only demonstrate that you genuinely appreciate their work by commenting on their articles, sharing their YouTube vids or yass queen-ing their latest TikTok, you also gain context of their interests and their audience. That’s excellent for relationship nurturing and spotting opportunities for better collaboration.
Coffee dates (because face-to-face is still A Thing)
It’s easy to think of work as being online nowadays, and that’s a glorious thing, particularly when it means you don’t really have to put pants on for the Monday standup. But that’s precisely what makes a human touch more memorable. So prove that you aren’t ChatGPT: schedule a coffee date. Use it to share insights, brainstorm ideas, or bond over the latest season of The Ultimatum. Remember, your contacts are people too, and it’s absolutely acceptable to invest a little time brightening each other’s day. After all, we’re all just trying to get by, one day at a time.
Remember the details (there’s a fine line between thoughtful and creepy)
Noting down a few details about your contacts isn't about becoming a walking Rolodex. It's about demonstrating that you see them as people, not just another stressed-out wrung on the career ladder. They return from a holiday out of office? Take a minute to ask where they went. They mention their dog? Make a note of its name (and ask to see a photo, because dog tax).
Give before you ask (because karma's a peach)
Before you go asking for favors like a kid calling their parents in term time, give. Offer your expertise, share updates that align with their interests, or simply lend an ear. Show them your value. People are more likely to help you if they know you're not just using them for a quick win.
Sometimes people don’t want to hear from us, and however much it makes us want to curl up into a ball in the corner and listen to Doja Cat on repeat so that we never have to interact with another human ever again, the reality is that there are bills to pay. Here’s what you can do instead: take a leaf out of Elsa’s book and let it go.
And what we mean by that is weed out unresponsive contacts.
There’s simply no point in continuing to reach out to people that never open your emails. It skews your audience numbers, and gives you an unrealistic view of your contacts. Worse still, if your emails keep landing in a person’s inbox when they don’t want to hear from you, it’s pretty likely that at some point, they’ll mark your message as spam, and that can have a knock-on effect for any future emails sent from your domain. That is not something you want.
On the other hand, if a person occasionally opens your emails, or maybe opens but never covers your story, it may be worth dropping them a direct message to ask why. Is there a particular type of story they are interested in? Is it that the format you use doesn’t work for them? Is it that they’ve moved beats and so the stories you do send them are no longer relevant for their audience? Whatever the case, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
A good way to get an idea of how much your contacts are engaging with your content is to use a tool that will give you analytics for any newsroom traffic and email campaigns sent. What does engagement info have to do with contact management? Rather a lot, it turns out.
You can use engagement data to understand which contacts best fit which tags and segments, as well as spot broken email addresses and opportunities for follow up.
Let’s look at an example of an email report for a campaign sent via Prezly to see what we mean.
Understanding your most engaged contacts should give you a leg up when planning your next email campaign.
Maybe you notice that a particular contact always opens your emails, but never replies or publishes coverage. Digging deeper, you can see that this person has even visited multiple stories in your newsroom, but when you check their latest posts, there’s no mention of you. Why could that be?
Well, you could ask. This would be the perfect opportunity to send a brief personal note to introduce yourself or say hello, and ask if there’s a particular niche or content type this person is interested in. Maybe they only publish expert commentary and not product launches; maybe they’ve moved exclusively to TikTok and need video content for their audience. So long as you’re polite and not creepy about the whole affair, there’s no harm in asking how you can better serve them.
There are several reasons an email may return an error marking it as undelivered. It may well be that the email no longer exists, but this is not always the same. It may simply be that their email inbox is full and unable to receive any more emails until they do a bit of spring cleaning. It could also be down to their entire email server being temporarily unresponsive. Without looking at the error report for why an email couldn’t be delivered, you’d never know.
Integrated PR CRM and campaign tools can help you with this by showing the error code and specifying the problem behind the non-delivery, so you can make an informed decision on how you want to proceed.
When the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) starting being enforced in late May 2018, there was a lot of confusion and doubt about how it would affect the PR industry. Would we be able to send email pitches to journalists? Do we have to ask for consent from everyone on our media lists? Do I have to start from scratch?!
But there is something built into the GDPR that lets us all have a bit of relief: legitimate interest.
The problem with it though is that as an industry, we’re likely to ruin a good thing.
What is legitimate interest?
This beautiful little loophole called "legitimate interest" is where a lot of PR agencies and database providers hang their hats when it comes to GDPR. For an explanation on what it is, the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) does a pretty decent job making it understandable:
Great, right? This basically gives the PR industry the green light to keep sending journalists and other contacts unsolicited emails because (to use the three-part test):
- Purpose: Journalists are interested in receiving your news* because they want material to write about
- Necessity: How else are you supposed to get this information to them? Fax?! Phone? And those still use their personal data, so… yep. Necessary.
- Balancing: You're not using their information in a malicious way to cause them unwarranted harm**
This "solution" could be a problem
Let's undo those asterisks for a moment. Because that is where things get tricky.
* Any reasonable person would argue that is this very shady ground. Are they actually interested? Are you sending them relevant news? You need to get this right and be confident about your intentions. You should know this person or enough about this person to know they are interested in what you are sending them.
** What if they are literally overwhelmed by the amount of unsolicited, irrelevant emails they get in their inbox? What if it impedes the ability for them to work effectively? They have every right to tell you to stop, and once they do, you no longer have grounds for legitimate interest. Remember, their interests override yours. And rightfully so.
Where PR should tread carefully
What is clear about legitimate interest is that it is a blurry, grey area. This is unlikely to stand the test of time if journalists continue to get the barrage of irrelevant pitches they currently get today.
– Daryl Willcox, ResponseSource
Legitimate interest rests on the fact that the people you are sending the information to want that information. As soon as you break that trust, your argument for it is no longer valid.
Being GDPR compliant is something everyone has to actively do. Just because you hire a database that claims to be GDPR compliant doesn't mean you are by default. And like I mentioned, legitimate interest is a good loophole for now, but if it gets abused there might be pushback. So the best things you can do is this:
- Build a media list of people that you know or know enough about and segment them based on their interests before sending information out
- If you do buy a media list, check the contacts inside of it and make sure they cover the areas you are pitching
- Actually provide interesting and relevant stories to journalists that care
- Take the time to build relationships with journalists so that there is no doubt you are doing the right thing
- Do not "spray and pray" by spamming journalists and bloggers you didn't take the time to learn about
- Opt-out options: Provide an easy way for contacts to opt out of your communications
- If someone complains or asks to be removed. Store that very carefully and respect it. Forever. Also after switching to a new tool. Forever!
To put it simply – try to respect the privacy of others the best you can and think twice before sending your pitch. The best practice in this case is the best practice for PR in general: build relationships and send good stories to the right people.
Hard as it may be to believe to anyone outside of Europe, the GDPR isn’t the be all end all of privacy considerations in public relations. There are significant other points worth taking into account particularly if you’re running a PR agency or working to establish a comms team that doesn’t have all its ducks in a row quite just yet.
Not only is running an ethical PR practice more effective in the long term, it will also help you sleep at night.
The following bullets are less a set of hard-and-fast rules as they are guidelines intended to help you assemble your own privacy and ethical standards.
Dealing with personal data
- Data collection: Only gather information that is relevant and necessary for your PR efforts. Avoid collecting excessive personal details without a clear purpose
- Data storage: Ensure that media contact information is stored securely, using encrypted data
- Data tools: Use databases or platforms with robust security measures
- Data sharing: Avoid sharing media lists with third parties without explicit consent from the contacts listed
- Permission-based outreach: Whenever possible, seek permission before adding media contacts to your list or sending them pitches
- Relevance: Ensure that the content you're sharing with media contacts is relevant to their beat, interests, or previous interactions
- Opt-out options: Always provide an easy and clear way for media contacts to opt-out or unsubscribe from future communications (if you use a PR tool for sending email campaigns, check what options it gives you around this)
- Disclosure: If a media contact inquires about how you obtained their information, be ready to provide a clear and honest explanation
- Purpose of outreach: Clearly state your reason for reaching out, whether it's to share a press release, send an event invitation, or ask for an interview
Respect their preferences
- Preferred communication channels: Some of your contacts might prefer email over phone calls, while others might have specific days or times when they're open to pitches. Create opportunities in your comms to find out about both, and make it easy for your team to respect their preferences (e.g. through using specific tags or contact segments)
- Frequency: Avoid bombarding your media contacts with frequent communications. Respect their time and space, and take advantage of campaign reports to see whether they’re opening your emails at all; if they aren’t, stop and try a different channel (or leave them alone)
Accuracy and honesty
- Fact-checking: Before sending out any information, ensure it’s accurate and verified
- Corrections: If an error is identified in a previously sent communication, promptly inform the relevant media contacts and provide the correct information