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PR managers beware: Are your employees using the “fake reply” gimmick?

by | Jan 14, 2016 | Business, Public Relations, Writing

One of my biggest pet peeves about PR is the “fake reply.” This is a tactic wherein a PR person sends a follow-up email with “Re:” in the subject line, making it appear that we have an existing relationship and that they’re replying to an email from me. I first noticed the practice two or three years ago, and I’ve spoken with other journalists who have seen it as well.

I’ve long wondered how this gimmick came about. I pictured an oily Gollum-like creature crawling out from under a rock somewhere, slithering up to a keyboard and sending this: “SECRET REVEALED! SIMPLE EMAIL TRICK GUARANTEED TO BOOST YOUR OPEN RATES!!!” Followed up, of course, with: “Re: SECRET REVEALED! SIMPLE EMAIL TRICK GUARANTEED TO BOOST YOUR OPEN RATES!!!”

However, on the few occasions when I’ve complained to senders about the tactic, no one mentioned this mythical creature. Instead, here are some typical responses:

  • “Thanks Steve, it’s an artifact of my replying to my own message to keep them joined. I apologize if it was misleading, thanks for the tip. There’s certainly a better way to achieve the same end.”
  • “I really appreciate this feedback, Steve. I never knew that was a journalist pet peeve. I’ll pass that along to my colleagues.”
  • “Apologies for this incident and thank you for the feedback. I have not had too much experience in dealing with new media contacts as I’m fairly new in the field, and your feedback is very helpful. It’s always great to learn new things and I have noted this down for future references.”

The most interesting response came when I received one too many “fake replies” from an agency that seemed to employ the tactic with particular zeal. The original email came from a staffer named “Laura,” and my genuine reply was as follows: “Using ‘Re:’ in a subject line when it’s not actually a reply is a deceptive marketing practice aimed at fooling recipients into thinking that they have a previous relationship with the sender . . .  In the past year or two, [your agency] seems to have adopted this as standard operating procedure.”

I cc’d the agency’s CEO, and it appears I got their attention. Here’s the response from the agency’s general manager: “I saw this chain and just wanted to apologize. You are right. The ‘RE’ in the subject line is deceiving and I will address this with Laura.”

Ah-ha! So “Laura” was a rogue employee who came up with the devious tactic entirely on her own, and SHE WILL BE DEALT WITH. Was I happy? Not exactly. . .

“Thanks for your note,” I wrote back. “The use of ‘Re:’ in subject lines seems to be a systematic practice at your agency, not just one staff person. In recent months, I have received at least eight from Candace Xxxxx, five from Whitney Xxxxx, three from Fiona Xxxxx and one each from Jackie Xxxxx and Michael Xxxxx. I’ve only received a couple of them from Laura.”

Poor Laura sent just two of these, and here she was taking a hit for the entire team.

Apparently, this is an age-old tactic among email spammers, but I’m still no closer to learning how it became so widespread within the PR business. Based on my limited inquiries, it seems to have arisen spontaneously through some sort of mysterious neurological phenomenon as young PR practitioners meditated on the question of how to construct a good subject line. But I’m also open to other theories, up to and including the possibility of extraterrestrial origin.

However it originated, it’s another practice that makes the entire profession look bad. “It’s actually hilarious, because you look at it and think, ‘I’ve never talked to this person in my life,'” remarked Los Angeles Times deputy business editor Joel Bel Bruno. “And then it’s kind of insulting that you’d put in ‘Re:’ as if it’s an actual reply.”

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Steve Beale
Stephen Beale is the editor of Bulldog Reporter’s Inside Health Media, a publication for PR people in health and medicine. He covers media news and interviews health journalists about their preferences for dealing with PR people. Based in the San Francisco area, he previously worked as a technology journalist.

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