The Art Of Fake Familiarity

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Pitches are getting worse.

I recently got an email pitch from a public relations specialist that read something like this: “Hey Mitch, I work with Lame Corp. I’m a big fan of your blog and your newspaper articles. I know that you have written about our research before, so I’m attaching some new findings that I know you will find interesting. Our President, Mr. Lame-O, would love to spend some time with you on the phone to discuss our latest research, so please let me know if we can arrange some time in the next few days for you two to connect. I also saw on Twitter that you were at the Google offices in Mountain View recently. I have never been, but I hope to get the chance to go at some point in the near future.” If you, your company or the communications agency that represents you has ever sent an email pitch like this before, you may be wondering what the issue is?

The problem with PR pitching is a topic that is constantly (and hotly) debated in the online channels.

While the general onslaught of non-personalized and near-offensive pitches continues to deluge the inbox of anyone who blogs and tweets (regardless of audience size and relevance), there’s no doubt that some public relations firms have spent a significant amount of time, money and resources as they inch away from the “spray and pray” model of blasting their self-involved news updates to anyone with a publish button over to one where they spend time training their media relations professionals to get better at knowing their target market that much more.

Hence, the problem with the pitch above… it’s stuck in the middle.

It’s definitely not a non-personalized pitch, but it’s also an individual (and a company that they represent) that I simply don’t know (or don’t remember). And so, it turns out that faking familiarity has an air of creepiness that is somewhat more disturbing than the spam that came before it. In the age of social media, networked people and a world where we publish everything (including our comings and goings and pictures of our kids) in places like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, it should come as no surprise that the smarter businesses are going to leverage this social data in some form of manipulative way (at least, the more dubious ones will). My first reaction to the pitch was to do a quick search on my blog for their company, name and research to see, if in fact, I had previously mentioned them. Guess what? Zero. Nada. Never. So now, they’re not only trying to fake familiarity, but they’re lying in the process.

Public relations is human relations.

…regardless of whether you’re hiding behind a keyboard or standing in front of someone at a local chamber of commerce networking event. That’s the biggest part of social media that the majority of companies still fail to accept and embrace. The companies that have made strides are the one that made changes to their corporate culture (both internally and externally) by using social media. The over-arching spirit of this shift it to create more powerful and real connections. It’s not easy to do this and it takes a significant amount of corporate restructuring, top-down desire from the c-suite and a general impetus to change how the general public deals and interacts with a business. The above scenario isn’t about a bad PR pitch. It’s about a company that thinks it’s leveraging social media to better connect with a constituency, when in reality they’re using the channel to manipulate.

The real question is this: in a world of spammers and those trying to create a sense of familiarity, how do you – as a business – truly connect with customers and media in a more powerful and profound way?

The answer is simple (and not all that technical): how would you approach someone you really wanted to meet if you ran into them at an airport lounge? The art of social networking doesn’t come from the “social” part of the equation… it comes from the “networking” part. The brands and individuals who build up significant audiences that are both engaged in their messages and helpful in terms of amplifying them are the ones who take the time to be the best networkers. They introduce themselves in a kind, simple and short way. They do their best to understand the people they’re connecting to. They provide value first and are, ultimately, respectful of the other individual’s time and temperament.

It’s sad to see how often those media relations professionals push words around without taking the time to do their homework first.

They say that they have so many clients who are demanding that as many people as possible see their messages and news. They simply do not have the time to get to know each and every individual that they’re sending out messaging to. That those they’re sending brand messaging out to are not all that kind and treat them with disdain. What these media relations professionals and the brands that hire them have to understand is that social media is an ecosystem where great ideas do spread (look no further that how videos go viral on YouTube or how new business ventures get significant funding on Kickstarter). The real trick is in doing the work in the upfront phases of your business development to win friends and influence people in a digital world.

It may be easier to just blast anyone and everyone with your messaging, but odds are you will reap much greater rewards if you take the time to truly – and authentically – connect in a world where we’re all connected.

The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business – Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:


  1. Great post! Before we hit the utopian example of actually trying to make a connection I think companies will still try to cheat the system. It seems to me that inevitably PR Brokers (or master networkers) who’s sole purpose is to curate and groom a trusted network are about to pop up who then leverage their network for cash to PR Firms seeking attention. It would be up to the PR Broker who they disseminate the pitch/data to and they would be the ones responsible for protecting their network.

  2. I continually see people expecting immediate results, with no focus on the idea of planting seeds and growing relationships. The irony of social media is that this instant access is making “playing the long game” more and more important.

  3. If I had 1/10th my fee for every time I had prospective client tell me after I explained how this type of behavior hurts them I would be a rich woman.
    Instead like Mark says, folks use the urgency of “It has to get quick results for us to justify even participating” AND instead it comes down to client’s expectations. Please do not tell me it is my job to better educate them – chuckle – it is like talking to two year old in the Me stage.
    How many times will our sharing why this is not effective will it take for behaviors to shift?

  4. Mitch – I hear you on this.
    Last April, I did a rare personal blog post in remembrance of my late-dad. Shortly thereafter, I received an email via my blog from someone who wrote about what the post meant to them as it related to their mom. But THEN their email took a sudden turn with, “…that being said, we are also in the same industry and I would love the opportunity to meet with you sometime in the upcoming weeks! I’ll be coming to town with our VP of Sales on June 6th. Are you available anytime on the 6th?”
    My jaw pretty much hit the floor. On one-hand I guess I kinda respected the time they took to make their pitch personal but on the other hand, its was not the right topic to do it on.
    There is a fine line as you pointed out. And I recently did another post about a direct mail piece that I got that I felt was pretty much the best pitch I’ve ever gotten because it really was personal…and didn’t feel “fake familiar” what-so-ever. Instead of re-hashing it here, for those interested, here’s the link to the post:

  5. Fake familiarity is worse than a non-personal unsolicited pitch. The latter is at least honest. Fake Familiars are at the bottom of my list and get an immediate “junk”, “block” and other nearly impotent by somehow satisfying responses.

  6. I remember a line, I think it was from Morey Amsterdam on the Dick van Dyke Show, telling Rob: If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made!
    Maybe in the old days.

  7. Building and maintaining long lasting relationships with your online community with whom you are sharing and providing value content, takes time and requires patience. Once a community of avid brand ambassadors is established, it is then when organisations will witness the benefits of social media and networking in its purest form.

  8. Sometimes creepy is the whole point. For example, the nigerian email spam counts on a sucker being taken in by the unbelievable email. If they are taken in, they will be a good prospect.
    But if you honor the dignity of the recipient, it seems to me that this fake creepy approach is very wrong.

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