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February 26, 2001

Compressed Data: Services Try to Link Reporters and Publicists


Journalists and public relations people have long endured a relationship of mutually unsatisfying symbiosis. Tenacious publicists harass editors and reporters, who ignore them for months only suddenly to demand immediate access and answers when news breaks.

"There are still reporters and editors who will not have a single civil thing to say about P.R. people," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a Columbia University journalism professor.

For a time, the Internet only made things worse, with only the wiliest journalists able to remove their names from aggressive publicists' e-mail lists. Mr. Sreenivasan gives out what he calls a "walk away" e- mail address to avoid such encounters. "Never use your best address," he advised.

But now various online services are inverting the chaser-and-chased dynamic of traditional public relations.

One of the newest is, a mailing list service that promotes itself as "dedicated to connecting journalists and P.R. folks, directly, at the journalist's urging and not before." The service, which forwards reporter queries to more than 4,000 publicists, was set up last year by Richard Santalesa, a longtime technology writer. "I knew other writers could benefit from my list of contacts," he said in an interview.

Mr. Santalesa says he bans publicists who reply to queries with off-topic responses or use them as occasions to pitch their own stories. "No one wants P.R. dabblers or dilettantes," he says on his site.

Some other services try to protect journalists with so-called "cloaked e-mail" that does not reveal the reporter's identity. "We've tried to eliminate spam," said Peter Granat, senior vice president at SourceNet, an e-mail service run by MediaMap. Its clients are public relations agencies.

Perhaps the oldest of the group is ProfNet, set up 1992. A journalist-directed "expert network" that aims to put reporters in touch with professors and other specialists in a variety of fields, ProfNet receives more than 150 reporter inquiries each weekday. PR Newswire, which owns ProfNet, plans to add real-time interaction via instant messaging in the near future. PR Newswire, in turn, is owned by United Business Media.

Have these services reduced the P.R. spam?

"Unfortunately, no," Mr. Santalesa said. "The goal was to try to cut down on that clutter. But the only way you can really avoid it is by not giving out your name at all."  

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