Friday, September 17, 2004

Of course I’m a PR flack

Technoflak recently received an email from the Infocom Group offering tips on how to avoid the reputation of a PR Flack. Truthfully, Technoflak only cares about what the public thinks of her clients and is unconcerned with any reporter’s opinion of her.

Reporters will always think we are pitching them because that is how we get paid. We should only be concerned with what reporters think of our clients.

Having said that, there is some commonsense advice here that bears repeating. Technoflak never forgets that the client is the newsmaker, reporters should talk directly to the newsmaker, it makes better copy.

Veteran Journalist Reveals Why the Press Calls PR Pros “Flacks” — And Shares How to Avoid Similar Media Barbs

A recent story filed by John Rebchook, real estate reporter with the Rocky Mountain News, calls out Gerry Freeman as “one of Denver’s most colorful flacks,” and goes on to reveal that the longtime PR pro sold his public relations firms to his partners. Kudos to Freeman for cashing out after a long and venerable career. But JSO couldn’t help but wonder why Rebchook saddled the PR vet with what many see as a dated and derogatory label typically reserved for communicators who are seen as little more than gatekeepers, spinmeisters or even con artists by newsroom hardcases.

So we asked him: “Gerry Freeman is a special case — he’s an old-style reporter who worked for the New York Daily News in the 1950s,” ventures Rebchook, who has covered everything from politics to real estate in his 20 years as a business reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. “This is an old school PR guy who wears an ascot — and who calls himself a flack,” he says. “He’s a real colorful character who is stepping down — that’s all I meant. Plus, I didn’t want to use the word ‘publications’ twice in two sentences.”

His point? “The tenor of the article was not derogatory — actually, it’s pretty flattering. No one called in to complain — they realized it was a term of endearment and not disparaging.” Even so, Rebchook concedes that most in the media use the term disparagingly. “It generally means a person who will say anything for the client — whether it’s true or not,” he explains. “PR people lie to us about stuff all the time. This upsets reporters and feeds into the perception of PR people not caring about the veracity of their [communications] efforts.”

That said, Rebchook offers this advice to PR practitioners who want to improve their media relations — and avoid being called “flacks” (in the negative sense, of course):

1. Don’t drink your client’s Kool-Aid. Rebchook says that PR pros who “make our jobs harder, who practice gatekeeper-ism and who lie — they’re considered ‘flacks’ in the negative usage. Those practices damage your credibility and earn you this sort of [dubious] distinction with reporters. The bottom line is that these kinds of ‘flacks’ have short careers in PR because they alienate the media they’re trying to reach.”
His point: “Basically, I think PR people can avoid being called ‘flacks’ if they don’t pass along the lies their clients push,” says Rebchook. His advice? “Do your homework on clients. Don’t pass information to us that you know has faults or that seems inaccurate or incomplete. You can avoid a lot of negative media feedback by doing this one thing — [vetting] unethical clients and practices. If it doesn’t sit right with you or seem like it will strengthen your media relations — then don’t do it,” he suggests.

2. Come clean — being candid goes a long way toward establishing credibility. “The first thing a PR person can do to avoid being looked at as a flack or spinmeister is tell the truth,” says Rebchook, underscoring his earlier point. “Reporters and PR people alike need to have a high degree of ethics and candor — otherwise people don’t trust the information they provide. For example, it’s much better to tell a reporter that you can’t give an answer to a particular question than to lie to him. If you can’t speak to rumors, then tell us so — don’t give us the run-around or fudge. Following the PRSA’s [guidelines for ethical conduct] is a minimum requirement for ensuring you don’t burn bridges with the press,” he believes.

3. Prove that you value the media’s time — corral clients who push lame stories. “Don’t waste a reporter’s time,” advises Rebchook. “For example, stop sending out crap stories that you know won’t make the [cut]. Again, a lot of those get sent out [in press releases] because the client is pushing them. As a PR person, your job should be to stand up and tell the client that sending that kind of material will only hurt future chances at coverage,” he says. “Sending material that isn’t worth coverage or that isn’t a good fit is like crying wolf — you lose your credibility. It turns us off and we decide we won’t waste our time with your calls or emails in the future.”

4. Tell it like it is — don’t oversell your story. “Hyping or overselling a story is a sure way to be viewed as a ‘flack,’” warns Rebchook. “For example, we get a lot of press releases packed with jargon and hype. That’s a sign that there’s no real story there.”
His advice: “Cut adjectives like ‘best,’ ‘most’ and ‘unique’ from your releases or pitches. Remember, too, that many reporters prefer fact sheets to press releases precisely because the copy is more straightforward — there’s just no room for flowery adjectives.” In addition, Rebchook advises taking a red pen to your release prior to distribution and “crossing out as many adjectives as you can. Editors do that [to our stories] — so it’s a good practice for PR people to follow.”

5. Provide access — don’t tie reporters up in red tape. “There are a lot of PR people out there who get it right,” concedes Rebchook. “The best of them are able to act as mediators, facilitators and brokers of quality information. They bring two parties together and refuse to act as gatekeepers.” For example: “Wendy Aiello is a great facilitator. [She doesn’t] get involved unless we ask for more information. She’s there to make the story happen — not get in the way.”

6. Exhibit good news sense — show you understand the newsroom mindset. “News sense is an important trait of a great PR person,” believes Rebchook. “For example, former reporter Tom Schilling [Intermountain Corporate Affairs] knows what goes on in the newsroom. He’s a great resource and never wastes our time because he knows what kinds of stories we’re covering and what kind of news hooks we’re looking for.”

7. Develop thick skin — don’t take media barbs personally. Does Rebchook think the term PR “flack” is comparable to terms like media “flack” or worse? “I’ve heard PR people call themselves ‘flacks’ more than journalists calling each other ‘hacks,’” he says. “I think the word ‘flack’ has lost its sting because PR people have embraced it. They’ve taken it on as their own,” believes Rebchook.

“On the other hand, never call a journalist a ‘hack,’” he warns. “That word directly attacks the credibility and character of a reporter — it implies that the writing is sloppy and perhaps even calls into question its veracity.”

What lesson is a PR pro to take from this? Rebchook offers this perspective: “As a former journalist and now as a PR pro, Schilling has learned the importance of having thick skin,” he says. “For example, if I called him a ‘flack’, he’d laugh and agree that he’s now ‘flacking for so-and-so.’ He wouldn’t be offended by the term — but nobody would ever consider him a ‘flack’ in the negative sense,” Rebchook assures. “Great PR people are like that — they don’t take things personally.”


Andrew said...

What's a flack? I've been working in PR in the UK for fifteen years, and I don't know the term. Is is USA-specific?
Andrew Denny

Alice said...

It is a term of derision for PR pros, but some of us embrace it because we believe hyping our clients is honorable work.

flak catcher, flak, flack catcher, flack -- (a slick spokesperson who can turn any criticism to the advantage of their employer)