PR people and internet etiquette

In September 2007, I received — as part of that never-ending, never-even-ebbing stream of emails from public-relations people that all journalists used to get — a message from one of the better known PR women in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At the time, I tried to reply to all emails for the simple reason that I was raised to be polite. If somebody sends you a message, it behooves you to answer.

That day’s email chain put an end to that gentilesse. I will reproduce it below, with all the names XXX-ed out to protect the individual.

It started on September 11, 2007. This PR woman emailed me (Subject: “Quick Q”) to ask whether I covered a certain industry segment in which she had a client she was hoping to introduce me to.

On September 12 at 10:58 PDT I replied:

Sure. But I’m not planning an article right this second

At 11:02 PDT — in other words, four minutes later — her reply showed up in my inbox, except that it was addressed to her client. She must have accidentally hit Reply instead of Forward.

In any case, I now saw my email (the one she thought she was forwarding), which she had edited:

[Client’s first name],

With your permission, I am going to set up a lunch with you and Andreas – in early October.

XXX

From: Andreas Kluth [mailto:andreaskluth @ economist.com]

Sent: Wednesday, September 12, 2007 10:58 AM

To: XXX

Subject: Re: Quick Q

Sure. But I’m not planning an article right this second. Let’s plan a lunch in October?

AK

This was strange, and I thought it appropriate to point it out. So I sent one more email to her:

Er, XXX, there is something highly bizarre going on. Today I replied to your email with the first and second sentence in the email trail that allegedly comes from me below. I did not write the third sentence and i don’t sign with AK.

I don’t recall asking for a lunch in October

A

And, not entirely to my surprise, I never got another peep from this lady (who had been firing off emails at a rapid clip).

***

What was I to make of this?

On one hand, I like to consider myself, whenever possible, a Cavalier, not a Roundhead. Basically, that means smirking at life, not frowning.

On the other hand, I was somewhat puzzled and miffed.

If the exchange had not been so utterly trivial and boring, one might have called this fraud. But it was simply too petty. Did this woman really think that her client would be impressed if he saw an email from me to her with (as opposed to without) my initials? Did she really think that she could somehow insinuate me into a lunch in October that I had never suggested?

***

So I took a look at my inbox as it was at that time. In 2007, I received more than 500 emails a day — 90% from PR people — on a weekday. This robbed me of a lot of time and thus made me less productive. PR people were interfering with my work and life.

Worse: they were also calling. My phone (at the time I had an actual — as opposed to virtual — phone) was constantly ringing, and it was usually an intern at a PR company, announcing that she was updating their database and asking me whether I was so-and-so at this-and-this address and so forth.

I realized, of course, that my habit of replying was part of the problem: Whenever I answered an email or phone call, I confirmed my presence to them, and they would put me on their automatic distribution lists of press releases. (These emails then as now did not necessarily have a one-click unsubscribe button).

Seriously: When was the last time anybody read a press release?

So I decided to interrupt the vicious cycle.

Genuine (meaning bespoke) emails and emails from people I personally knew, I still answered. The rest I ignored.

That did not restore my inbox to health, but it arrested its deterioration.

Then, a month later, Chris Anderson wrote a blog post that got quite a lot of attention. (Chris had been a colleague at The Economist — in fact, I replaced him as Hong Kong correspondent in 2000 — but by this time he was editor-in-chief of Wired)

Chris took a two-pronged approach:

  1. He whacked any unsolicited and inappropriate email into his Spam filter, and
  2. he published a blacklist of prime offenders.

I decided that the blacklisting was too harsh — the modern equivalent of a pillory — but that the spam-filtering was a great idea.

So I have been doing the same: If I get an automatically distributed press release, or even just a really inappropriate email, it goes straight into our corporate Postini. (And Postini, of course, “learns” this way which emails to consider spam, so that my click indirectly helps other journalists.)

***

Over time, this solved the problem. My inbox now often looks like this:

And I have become productive again.

Not only that, but I have learned to love email again! It has actually become useful to me.

Those people, including PR people, who ought to be able to reach me can now do so more easily than ever. The others no longer bother me as much.

And etiquette is making a comeback. Every new technology causes a change in social protocols. Our grandparents used to have to learn when and how to call people — and simultaneously how to be called — without being rude. Now PR people and the rest of us are figuring out how to be civil in the Internet era.

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9 thoughts on “PR people and internet etiquette

  1. Is this the so-called Sept. 11 I keep hearing about on the news? When the world changed?

    My public exposure in the past week has taken me from airport lounge to metro to campus. If I may generalize, Baby Boomers (in the lounge) either don’t care or have no f’ing clue how to have a discrete phone conversation. College students on the other hand seem to have silent conversations on their phones. Those darn kids seem more polite in this way. Either that or they’re doing something sneaky.

    That said, I would like to see more data with respect to etiquette making a come back. In fact, I’ll disagree with your claim. Of course, I’m pretty sensitive. For example, I’m offended when a man-boy (or ‘guy’) wears his baseball cap in a restaurant.

    • Not all etiquette. But email etiquette, slowly, no? I mean, aren’t you getting fewer chain mails and obvious crap (endless CC trails, etc) than you used to?

    • E-mail, yes, though I know that the chain mails are still out there. Every now and then I get a “please forward this to five friends” e-mail, which I forward directly into the trash. Funny how I don’t recall seeing them in the days of CompuServe and Prodigy, when we paid by the minute for our access time. (You know, back in the good old days of modems…)

  2. You were quite gracious to XXX, I’d say.

    Five hundred e-mails a day? Makes me dizzy.

    Hooray for spam filters, even for kind Cavaliers. We appreciate this Postini-type service at my business e-mail box, too.

    Mr. C, with you totally regarding people who share their phone calls in airport lounges. Last weekend in Phoenix all the jocks and sons coming home from Spring Training all seemed to be connected to their significant others simultaneously.

    The guy from Utah sitting next to me got into an argument with his wife about a Visa charge on their joint account. At that moment, I took out my iPhone and turned up the volume.

    Will it please you to know that all students in my classes must take their hats off before we begin? Doing so does expose some hat-head sculptures of curious origin.

    • My students take off their hats too. Some of them, as you say, probably should leave them on.

      And Mr. C., as far as the silence of the students’ phone conversations relative to the boomers, it’s probably because they’re texting. I’m honestly surprised these days when I see anyone under 25 actually speaking into a telephone. They’re probably calling someone like me, who doesn’t text.

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