When Flacks Attack, We Bite Back

The Center for Media and Democracy has never been shy about criticizing the public relations industry. That's what we do, and we're proud of it. You'd think that this would give PR people second thoughts before sending us their drivel. Unfortunately, they can't seem to help themselves -- even when that means that they end up tipping us off to their own efforts at sneaking product placements into TV shows such as American Idol.

A few months ago my email address was apparently "discovered" by a bunch of PR flacks. On an almost daily basis now, I receive emails -- often with a large picture file that slows down my email download -- excitedly heralding the latest two-bit client contract won by some PR firm in which I have no interest, and whose information I have certainly never requested. At first I just deleted them, but since they have become more frequent -- and therefore, more annoying -- I have started responding to them with a request to be taken off their list.

The irony of PR firms sending us news releases hit a new high, or low, this week. I received an unsolicited, but also "embargoed" news release, containing more than five megabytes of photo attachments, from Jennifer Windrum of the Swanson Russell Associates PR firm. An embargoed press release is one that is sent out to media outlets before the sender actually wants it to be released to the public. The purpose is to generate media interest and solicit pre-interviews so that when the story is ready to break, reporters are lined up to cover the story. Of course, the premise relies on the recipient having an interest in honoring the embargo. Reporters will honor these sorts of requests if they want to avoid getting on the bad side of the sender so that they can keep receiving additional news releases in the future.

Unfortunately for Ms. Windrum, this incentive means nothing to us. I emphatically do not want to keep getting her emails, and neither I nor CMD has ever promised to honor an "embargo" on what is essentially unsolicited spam.

In the news release, which I am reproducing in its entirety below (minus Windrum's contact details), she boasts of her company's success in getting American Idol to feature a product placement involving a client, Claas LEXION, which manufactures combines that harvest agricultural crops.

Here are the details:

Try to look surprised when you see this during Tuesday night's episodeOn Tuesday, January 29th during the American Idol Omaha auditions show, you will see a crop circle stretched across 5 acres that says, "Welcome to Omaha American Idol." Swanson Russell Associates created it and now it's American Idol's "Big Reveal."

Swanson Russell Associates Crop Circle: Swanson Russell Associates (our PR Team) pitched the idea of our agency creating a "Welcome to Omaha American Idol" crop circle to American Idol and they bit on it. They are now using it as the "cold open" (shot Miami-Vice style) for the Omaha audition show on January 29th. The senior producer for American Idol calls the crop circle his "big reveal."

The client, Claas LEXIONClaas LEXION Combine: We were able to get the attention of American Idol by leveraging a quote the senior producer made in the Omaha World-Herald about the show coming to Omaha and how, "Sure it would be fun to see Ryan Seacrest on a combine, but I want this to be about more than a bunch of combines." Our client, Claas LEXION, makes the world's largest combine. We came up with several creative ways to get the senior producer's attention and told him, if he wanted to get Ryan Seacrest on a combine, we could make it happen. He bit on that idea too. That's how our relationship with American Idol began. (Ryan is now not going to be on the combine, but we did get them to shoot b-roll of the combine, and chances are great it will make the show.)

SRA Escorts AI B-roll Crew Around Omaha: In addition, we were able to create the itinerary and escort the American Idol b-roll crew around Omaha to get their "Taste of the City" b-roll they needed for the Omaha show. American Idol's MO is usually to get in and out of town as quickly and quietly as possible. We brought good ideas to American Idol and offered to help in any way, so, as a result, we walked away with this wonderful and rare experience of getting to work with them in many aspects.

We chronicled everything on video and still photos and were able to interview the b-roll crew as well. The crop circle was actually going to be a project we executed on our own -- as an agency. We mentioned it to the senior producer during one of our phone calls and he said, "You've got to be kidding me. I'm a crop circle freak. If you guys can pull this off, I want it in my show." We pulled it off in two weeks.

Since all of this is embargoed until AFTER the show airs on January 29th (otherwise I'd send you photos, video clips, etc. now), I'm more than happy to do an interview beforehand or give you more information this week for your next issue. Thanks a bunch. Jen

Jennifer Windrum
Public Relations Manager
Swanson Russell Associates

Now, I know this is far from an earthshaking story. To be honest, I just got annoyed past the point of politeness. And hopefully, PR "pros" will learn to not send unsolicited emails -- especially embargoed information -- to PR industry watchdogs.


As a former reporter, I take my job as a PR professional very seriously. This includes honoring an embargo for the people I work with, whether it be a client or American Idol. Just to inform you, people aren't just "discovering" your email. You are listed as a media contact in professional media databases that nearly all PR agencies subscribe to that compiles media contact information so PR people DO NOT send unsolicited information. So if you want removed from the lists, it's probably a very easy to do so. This would prevent people from sending information to you altogether. I do NOT intentionally send emails to recipients who do not want to be contacted. If I did, not only would this be very bad PR practice, but it can have very negative consequences for my agency regarding becoming blacklisted by someone who does NOT want to be contacted. Again, an issue taken very seriously. While the email I sent regarding the EMBARGOED information may not be of interest to you, it is a legitmate news story that I sent with explicit instructions to honor the embargo. If anything, it shows that I truly do follow the rules. I don't think the Nebraska Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America would name me "Professional of the Year" if I didn't follow PR ethics and protocol. (Not boasting, merely making a point). My advice to you - get off those media lists so you can't be bothered by PR people's "drivel" any longer. I hope you share this email with your readers with the enthusiasm you posted my EMBARGOED email. And, rest assured, you will NOT be contacted by me in the future. Respectfully, Jennifer Windrum

Dear Ms. Windrum, Your response brings up several points, but doesn't actually disprove my point that I am barraged by unsolicited media releases. Just because someone else put my name and email on a list or in a database doesn't mean I am soliciting your press releases, or anyone else's. Since these are not lists and databases that I actually asked to be in, or even know that names of, it isn't "very easy" to get removed from them. Plus, even if I <i>am</i> listed in these directories, a small amount of research would show who we are, and that we are not an appropriate recipient of this "news." What I was pointing to was sloppiness in sending out embargoed information, not necessarily unethical practices. I would add though, that an embargo relies on an agreement between two parties, which was certainly not the case in this instance. You say that you "sent with explicit instructions to honor the embargo." I don't understand how you are in a position to "instruct" me what to do with information that ends up in my in box. However, since you brought up the issue of ethics, readers might be interested to know that the [[Public Relations Society of America]]'s "new" code of ethics [http://www.prsa.org/aboutUs/ethics/preamble_en.html is quite telling]. For example: "Emphasis on enforcement of the Code has been eliminated. But, the PRSA Board of Directors retains the right to bar from membership or expel from the Society any individual who has been or is sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that is in violation of this Code." So basically, the PRSA probably won't bother holding its members accountable for anything unless they are actually caught breaking the law. It's also interesting that you are a former journalist. CMD has often reported on the unhealthy relationship between [[PR and Journalism]], and how it often does a disservice to media consumers. One large area is that of fake news and [[video news releases]], which the PR industry has defended even in the face of [[Federal Communications Commission]] fines, which were inspired by [https://www.prwatch.org/fakenews/execsummary CMD research] and joint complaints with Free Press. Finally, I am happy to hear that you won't send me anymore unsolicited media releases. And as you can see, your comment is available to all our readers.

Judith, thank you for your reply. An honest and humble response from me....I failed to mention in my previous response one of the most important points I wanted to emphasize. The email I sent to you was truly sent in error. I am aware of PR Watch and its mission. A case in point, I have never sent you an email before and, as stated earlier, will not contact you in the future. As a former reporter turned PR person, I agree with you whole-heartedly on the points you make regarding sloppiness on the part of PR professionals in pitching story ideas to the appropriate outlets, as well as fakery in the news. I work very hard not to be one of "those PR people," and fakery in news is one of the main reasons I left the business, so we really have more in common than you may think. In all honesty, I was stunned to see your post along with the picture of the circle I have spent months trying to keep under wraps for the show to reveal on the 29th. My first reaction was to think how my error may cause great and undesirable consequences for our story, but that's my problem and this dialogue about the state of affairs between the media and PR professionals is an important one. In fact,I share a lot of the same concerns PR Watch reports. Only with your permission, of course, I would love to contact you with examples I run across that may be of interest to you and your colleagues. If not, no problem. Respectfully, Jennifer Windrum

<blockquote>"I agree with you whole-heartedly...I work very hard not to be one of 'those PR people,' and fakery in news is one of the main reasons I left the business...."</blockquote> So...you dealt with your concerns by leaving the ranks of the spun to join the ranks of the spinners? Yet more proof that PR bears the same relationship to journalism as lobbying does to having served in Congress. <blockquote>"...if he wanted to get Ryan Seacrest on a combine, we could make it happen. He bit on that idea too."</blockquote> <blockquote>"Only with your permission, of course, I would love to contact you with examples I run across that may be of interest to you and your colleagues."</blockquote> How CMD responds to that offer is of course their choice, but as a longtime fan of theirs I hope they won't bite. I believe the journalism/PR dynamic is one that could do with more polarization, not less.

This is awesome. So funny. Kind of like if President Woodrow Wilson sent the Taxpayers for Common Sense a "heads up" email that he was signing the estate tax into law in three days... Oops. Rich

I am referring to your use of the word "unsolicited." As a PR professional by day and journalist by night, I hear you loud and clear on getting spammed into frustration (it happens to me at both jobs), but to go the full route that you did with your frustration is a bit overzealous if you ask me. My reaction to your opening graph: self-righteous. I know in the blogosphere the ethics passionate journalists like yourself practice at their day jobs goes out the window, and this slanderous piece you've submitted to the World Wide Web is a prime example. Let's compare apples to apples. You tirelessly complain about receiving "unsolicited" e-mails from Ms. Windrum in the text above. Stop and think about that for a minute. As a reporter, have you ever knocked on someone's door to get a quote from someone not seeking your presence on his/her doorstep? If you're any kind of reporter, you most certainly have. That individual may not have been appreciative of your unannounced visit, but I'll bet what made you knock is that you've got a job to do. So, too, does Ms. Windrum. She has a duty to her clients, she sends their information on to media outlets and the media outlets make a decision on whether to use the contents of that information in their publication. But, I'll bet when Ms. Windrum gets denied by the media, she doesn't go home at the end of the day and write a whiny blog about the journalist that shot her idea down and try to pick apart that individual's professionalism and make it harder for them to make a living. You call yourself a watchdog, and I've worked in newsrooms with plenty of dreamers like you, but if you want to provide a real service to the American public, why don't you be a watchdog for the slop that's littering today's newspapers. How many stories has your publication run on Heath Ledger's death the past week and how many articles did it publish on the genocide going in across Africa in all of 2007? If you think this blog is going to make one bit of difference in the amount of Inbox spam you receive, I'm afraid you'll have plenty more opportunity to blog on this topic. While I agree that Ms. Windrum made an error in sending you this information, it did not warrant this sort of personal attack from you and I think you're the one that looks less ethical here.

Bricub1908: Both a journalist and a PR flack? You might want to look at our article on the [[PR and Journalism|inherent dangers of that combo for a strong democracy]]. For someone willing to label me self-righteous, you are quick to write condescendingly about "dreamers like me." Not sure how I even qualify for that title -- if I was a dreamer, I would see all those unsolicited emails -- and yes, they are, no matter how you choose to parse the word -- as worthwhile news. You want to compare apples to apples about what constitutes unsolicited. Instead, let's compare oranges to oranges and look at how my email has ended up on these lists. Apparently it is in some PR databases, which some PR people use to send unsolicited emails to. (Ms. Windrum, and other PR people here and on other sites, have all said that is not a good practice, by the way.) So let's say you're out with friends, and someone comes up and gropes you. When you protest, they say that your name is on the bathroom wall, so you're fair game. Further, they say that if you <i>really</i> don't want to be groped, you should go to the bathroom walls and erase your name. Doesn't matter that you don't know how many walls you might be on or who wrote your name. Good dating practice? No. Good PR work? No again. And finally, for a journalist, you certainly didn't do your homework. You don't seem to have any sense of who CMD is or what we do if you have to ask how many storied we've run about Heath Ledger's death (0) or African genocide in 2007 (5). As for focusing our attention on "the slop that's littering today's newspapers," would you be satisfied with cleaning up TV news? Our research into [[video news releases]] as fake news created by your day job compatriots in PR has led to the first ever FCC fines levied for their use. But unfortunately, your PR colleagues are fighting disclosure tooth and nail.

Thanks for the unsolicited link to your publication's article on the "inherent dangers of that combo for a strong democracy." I don't think that's too far off what you just got done complaining about with Ms. Windrum. Didn't know you were a career counselor, too. I'm sure you wouldn't give unsolicited career advice without some sort of background in career guidance. While I didn't do any research on CDM as I was merely responding to your blog and citing an example off the top of my head about the state of journalism, if you think you've done some great service by publishing five stories on genocide in Africa in one year, you're sadly mistaken. Hitler, dead for more than 60 years, gets more ink than that every year. My previous reply agreed with you and Ms. Windrum and the other PR professionals on this site that she should not have sent you that embargoed press release. You deem what was sent to you as not worthwhile news. I agree with your position here, but that might be newsworthy to some publications. The bottom line is it's up to you to use the news judgment skills you acquired in college to use or not use what was sent to you. It's an important part of your job and you are being paid to do that every day. Ms. Windrum's job is to get media placements for her clients. You're both doing your job. But you went a step further. You could have simply written this blog about this bad PR practice and even used Ms. Windrum's example, and I would have taken no issue with you. But you used her name. Why did you decide to do that, and what did it add to the story to include it? I think you had malicious intent, and that's bad journalism, just like fake video news releases is bad PR. And while I agree with your gripe on fake TV news releases, where's the outrage in the print industry, or from your watchdog group about advertising in print publications that appears as a news story? While you're sitting here complaining about the horrors of the Internet age (unsolicited spam from PR flacks), you are benefiting from it at the same time by using a blog to vent about bad days at work. PR professionals have a right to use the forms of communication that are available to them, and e-mail is one of them. I have no idea how your name was acquired, but I do know that there is no way to stop that from happening. Go to Zoom Info's Web site and key in your name. I'll bet a business profile for you shows up. It freaked me out when I did it myself. That's a reality of the information age, and Ms. Windrum isn't your problem. You're her problem. When someone makes a mistake these days, look at the extent it can be magnified by someone with a keyboard and an Internet connection. She made a mistake, and instead of you simply clicking delete and moving on to delete the rest of your spam mail, you cried bloody murder and damaged an individual's ability to make a living. I'm sure your employer was thrilled to find you spent so much time replying to spam mail when there might have been something newsworthy to cover.