Spam has been getting a lot of play in tech and social media news circles this week, whether the PR variety or traditional. I was actually going to refrain from adding to the echo-chamber on the Gina Trapani Lifehacker Blacklist meme, as others have covered it quite well and from all angles (see our special edition of the PR Blog Jots on the subject here). Then today I read about the historic MySpace settlement against the professional spamming company plaguing its users, and I couldn’t resist.
Spam stories interest me because I don’t get as up in arms about spam in general the way so many do. Is spam annoying, intrusive, and sometimes downright offensive? Absolutely. Am I interested in the myriad press releases informing me of things like a new guitar camp for girls in the Poconos that I get at the Media Bullseye address, or the latest “male enhancement” products that arrive in my personal inbox daily? Of course not.
Gina Trapani had every right to be annoyed by the PR pitches deluging her personal email address, anyone would be upset by that situation. But I do have to join the cacophony of voices indicating that her chosen tactic of dealing with it was not the best idea. Blacklists have zero history of effectiveness, and the have the unfortunate side effect of turning the “victim” into the “villain.” Stomping our feet, taking our ball and heading home is not going to stop the spam. Because nothing will stop the spam. Spam is inevitable. Spam makes people money. If all PR agencies in the U.S. instituted a strict “do not email” press release policy, new companies would spring up in their place offering the same services to clients hungry to get their press releases into as many inboxes as possible. Sure, we’d have a new entity to blame, but the situation wouldn’t be any different.
A blacklist, or other public complaints about spam in PR will ultimately be about as effective as MySpace’s courtroom victory over the “Spam King” Sanford Wallace. Will Wallace’s company be forced to retreat form MySpace and might the spam there decrease slightly? Maybe. Will companies just like Wallace’s find a way in anyway? Of course. Spam happens.
There doesn’t seem to be a workable solution at this point, and lashing out at one another, pointing fingers, and painting an entire industry with the same spammy brush does nothing to help the situation. Spam finds a way. It’s like “Field of Dreams,” if you build a blog, spam will come.
Now that we accept that the spam is entirely unavoidable, how can we best try to deal with it? Some extremely smart bloggers are attempting to figure out how best to address the situation, but no one really has a solution, their posts are ending with more questions than answers, probably because there is no easy way out of this. Kami Huyse sums up the grim nature of this conflict by pointing out that initiatives against other much-maligned aspects of PR have done little to stem the tide:
I think that a credo of things to do before pitching a blogger is a nice idea, but we did that for astroturfing and there is still plenty of that going on (heck, I even wrote that code of ethics personally).
So what to do then? I like the idea set forth by Jason Falls and John Cass, perhaps a good place to start is for the media and PR agencies to work together with companies responsible for creating media contact databases. Active discussion is a step in the right direction, and to that end there will be a special podcast on the subject hosted by Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson. But will that just lead to more questions than answers?
Here’s my bottom line: tearing out our hair in spam’s general direction isn’t going to help. Tearing each other down isn’t going to help. Even, sadly, educating and evangelizing as much as possible isn’t going to help–spam has become like a mythical creature, cut off one head and another springs up its place. So perhaps the best thing to do is address the technology we have available. Filtering tools, blocking domains, outright deleting, for now, and until the government comes up with that “do not email” list, this will have to do.
And can we all try a bit of civility?