Monday, February 22, 2010

How Spam Affects PR and the Future of Email

Public relations is predicated on relationships, and in most cases, PR professionals try to make contact with reporters, producers and editors on a one-on-one personal level. A pitch is much more effective when you actually try to form a relationship with a contact, and find out what types of news they’re interested in.

Occasionally though, we have to get news out to a large group of contacts. We may have news that is pertinent to an entire city, state or region, and when this is the case, it can be inefficient to reach out to each particular contact personally.

This is where the terms “mass email” and “blast email” come in. Sometimes when we have one press release or media advisory that is going out to numerous different contacts, we’ll send out one or two emails with many of the contacts addressed on the same email. This is a practice we try to do as infrequently as possible, but sometimes it’s the only necessary means of distributing news, and is done by just about every PR firm.

The obvious problem with doing this is it takes away that personal contact, which public relations professionals thrive on. But a problem that many forget is that blast emails can also have issues being delivered to their intended recipients. There’s always a possibility that these emails will get filtered to a contact’s “spam” or “quarantine” folder, with the contact never even getting a chance to read our email.

I spoke with Toby Musser, the CEO of MNS Group, about the problems that arise with emails going into spam, and the future of sending out emails in general. Below is our Q & A. MNS Group provides managed IT services to small businesses with five to 2,500 computers. Musser has been a top-level executive at the company since 1997.


What are some of the dangers of sending out “blast emails” to contacts?

TM - Well the first thing you should understand is that two things happen when spam email comes in. Some go to a person’s spam folder, and the others the server throws away; the user never sees it. It’s just deleted.

If you had to ballpark it, how much email being sent out can be considered spam?

TM - It’s a pretty large number. 85% or more of all email sent on the internet is spam.

Occasionally in our business we have to send out blast emails. How many people do you recommend Cc’ing or Bcc’ing when we have to do this?

TM - If you want to be safe, never do more than 10 people at a time. Many companies turn up email sensitivity for more than 10 people.

How exactly does the spam process work? What makes servers put emails into spam folders in the first place?

TM - Each email inspected by your spam filter is given a score, and different aspects of the email give it more points. The lower the points count the better chance of it going to your inbox. The higher the score, the better chance it goes in spam and your server can just discard it.

Images in your email raise your point value, (for instance, your signature). Mentioning anything inappropriate in the subject line also greatly increases your score. The number of recipients that an email is sent to also increases your score. The spam engines actually read the text in your email as well. You don’t want to have things like “discount,” “special offer,” “buy now,” “limited time,” and several other thousand variations on phrases like that. Each time the server sees those, it adds point values - some have more than others. For example, the word “Viagra,” has a very high point value. As you might expect, if your server sees that the message is pretty much doomed.

Each spam vendor has different systems of assigning points but basically the system administrator or anti-spam vendor sets a threshold. For example, our point threshold is 12 points. Anything above 12 points, the email will be arbitrarily deleted and you’ll never see it. Anything between six to 12 points goes in your spam folder and you can review it. The spam folder could be called the quarantine or junk mail folder as well.

With the spam issues, and with servers having the ability to just delete e-mail without it even getting to the spam folder, do you see email as even a reliable way of reaching contacts anymore?

TM - When people ask us about email being a reliable form of communication, we tell them, not for critical business matters. A general rule of thumb is to always follow-up with a phone call, and don’t consider that your email was read unless you get a read receipt or some sort of follow-up from them. Spam folders often will catch important communication.

Where do you see the future of email going? Will it be the way it is today, five years from now? 10 years from now?

TM - Email is not going away and will be the primarily form of communication in the business world. The reliability of email between organizations will continue to fluctuate since it’s such a lucrative business for people that send spam.

If people need to send large groups of email we suggest the use of an email vendor, someone like a Constant Contact. Many of the email servers know the legitimate vendors. There’s a greater chance of email going through this way and you don’t risk inadvertently blacklisting your organization. Blacklisting means your server being blocked from sending email. If someone has a spam program and they mark your email as spam and it happens a certain amount of times, your email may get blocked and go to a blacklist. When that happens, your email will not go through and you may receive a message that it was blocked. Then your IT staff or email hosting company must contact the organization that blacklisted your server and tell them that it is in fact a legitimate server. It could take up to a week to get it off the some of the blacklists, and this can really hurt your business.

Stefen Lovelace is an Associate Account Executive. You can contact him at

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