Thursday, March 18, 2004

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A view from the other side

I'm starting to see why people hate us journalists. Just have the displeasure of reading a "interview" with me in a PR industry e-mail newsletter, which sexed up my quotes quite a bit. I allowed the interview against my better judgement. But I did it because I realized I had a double standard since I would have done an interview with CNN. I should have honored my inital feelings. Oh well. It's good to get a feeling for the otherside.

However, all the sentiments are mine.

And, I must say, the headline is funny!

When "Hacks" Attacks "Flacks"
L.A.-Based Columnist Slags Fleishman-Hillard - And Reveals What Really
Drives Such Media Attacks and PR Stereotypes

"As part of my civic duty, I hereby vow never to call anyone at the
public relations firm of Fleishman-Hillard ever again," asserted Los
Angeles Daily News editorial writer and columnist Mariel Garza in a
recent piece entitled "Glitzy Schmooze Campaigns Hard to Stomach." Her
primary gripe seemed to be that the Los Angeles Community College
District [LACCD] forked over $400,000 in fees and "taxpayer money" to
the PR giant for work she didn't think was necessary. In addition, Garza
seemed downright irked that one of the agency's senior execs bills
clients $425 an hour for his services.

"It would cost the district as much as $200 for even a brief interview,"
she complained. "The LACCD spends taxpayer money. I am a taxpayer.
Therefore, in a sense, I would be paying from my own pocket for the
privilege of an interview. I don't get paid enough to do that." Then
came the zinger: "But the flacks at Fleishman-Hillard do."

Surprised to see such a seemingly juvenile jab in a major daily? Don't
be. Countless journalists - newbies and vets alike - still see PR as a
profession packed with shills, gatekeepers and, yes, even "flacks."
"Some of it is deserved," Garza said when Journalists Speak Out
questioned her regarding her use of such a tired phrase. Here's how our
Q&A shaped up - as well how Garza thinks PR pros can avoid having such
pejoratives bandied about so freely by peeved journalists:

JSO: What does the word "flack" mean to reporters?
Garza: "It's a commonly used term for PR representatives," Garza
concedes, shrugging it off. "It's a colloquialism - slang, that's all. I
don't think it's to be taken so seriously."

JSO: What does the word mean to you?
Garza: "I think it means basically the same thing to me as it does to
everybody else," she replies. "It's a 'person who takes flak' from
someone else - you know, a hired gun or shield? At least, that's how I
use it."

JSO: That sounds almost complimentary, but isn't "flack" really a
derogatory term?
Garza: "It can be used that way," she concedes. "But I hear a lot of PR
people using the term themselves. It's like other slang that got picked
up by [the people] it was originally used [against]."

JSO: So your usage of the word in the story wasn't negative?
Garza: "First, my story was a column - not an article. It was an opinion
piece. The point of the story was to focus on the useless expenditures
of public funds - not PR people. I don't really have a lot of experience
with PR people, unless they represent public officials," she clarifies.
"But I do know plenty of journalists who have left my offices here and
gone to work for Fleishman Hillard - and they're making a lot of money,"
Garza says. "If they don't like the word flack, I think they're [being]
paid well enough not to let it bother them."

JSO: What do journalists think of being called "hacks" - isn't it the
same thing?
Garza: "The difference is that the word 'hack' is actually derogatory,"
she believes. "It's not the same. 'Hack' implies that you're a
non-perceptive, bad journalist. It also applies to old-timey journalists
who are sensationalists."

JSO: How can PR people avoid being called "flacks" by journalists?
Garza: "They can't. Again, it's just the slang for PR. You'd have to
revise the American lexicon or make up another word if you didn't want
it used. It's just a term - it doesn't define a particular type of PR
person, good or bad."
Even so, Garza offers these quick tips to help PR practitioners avoid
media usual PR stereotypes:

. Don't be a gatekeeper - the media craves access. "From my point of
view, PR people only get in the way - particularly when it comes to
covering politics," she admits. "Basically, they create another level of
bureaucracy between the people and the information they have a right to
know. PR people seem to exist to manage the media. Maybe there is more
media scrutiny these days, and people don't want to deal with the media
directly. I don't really have a problem with PR people at companies -
they're not as indebted to preserving the public trust. They're selling
something - it's accepted. Still, my advice is to be as open as possible
and to facilitate a flow of information. Stay out of our way and give us

Also: "Don't lie to the press," Garza exhorts. "If you don't know
something - tell us. Don't make it up. That just wastes everybody's time
and contributes to the [stereotype] that PR people are obstacles instead
of resources."

. Patronize or perish - know what motivates reporters. "I don't have an
issue with Fleishman's procedures - not really," she continues. "My
issue is the use of public funds to buy image making when they're
dealing with a public institution. Also, the LACCD has its own PR staff.
Why do they have to go outside for help when the in-house team is
already highly educated and well paid? Simply, it was a questionable
expense. You've got to wonder why you need a bottle of caviar when
you've already got the [basics]."

The lesson is clear: "Many of us [journalists] are motivated by
preserving the public trust - that's what this story was all about,"
Garza says. PR practitioners who fail to grasp what motivates reporters
on their beat lists will not only alienate those targets - but also
invite negative coverage.

. Don't take it personally-leave that to the press. "From a journalist's
perspective, I was surprised by the [itemized] dollar amounts. I don't
feel right knowing that every time I chat with one of the folks there
[at Fleishman], some public agency is likely to get a big fat bill,"
Garza vents, and understandably so. After all, reporters are rarely paid
on par with their PR counterparts.

But even more of an emotional hot button for reporters is being reminded
that their jobs often depend on collusion with PR practitioners. The
closing lines of Garza's column say more about what really drives much
of the media's use of the word "flack" and the age-old disconnect
between PR and the press than we ever could: "One invoice item in
particular helped me solidify my vow not to call the PR firm," she
wrote. "In November, Fleishman-Hillard billed the district $1,295 to
meet with Daily News higher-education reporter Lisa Sodders, as well as
discuss an article idea with Southern Sierran magazine. Ouch!"


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