Thursday, June 18, 2009

Hack and Flack: Still Adversarial

The Odd Couple (TV series)Image via Wikipedia

From Andra Bennett, APR - Chapter President

My journalist husband and I have considered starting a blog called Hack and Flack, taking off on NPR’s Click and Clack but more like Mary Matalin and James Carville. Remember TV’s “Odd Couple” intro: “Can two divorced men {hack and flack} share an apartment without driving each other crazy?” Neil Hefti music up now.

Those sentiments were all in play at last week’s GFW PRSA luncheon when four publishers/editors of local weeklies [Lucie Allen, publisher/editor of the Spanish-language Panorama News; Lee Newquist, publisher of the Fort Worth Weekly; Blake Ovard, managing editor of The Star Group Newspapers, and Kay Pirtle, editor of the Wedgwood News] and an ex-ombuddy were corralled in a room of PR practitioners.

The weeklies were invited because Greater Fort Worth PRSA members wanted to hear how they were doing financially and how we could work together on news stories.

Oscar, meet Felix.

During the Q&A, Lee Newquist, publisher of Fort Worth Weekly, was asked how PR practitioners could be of the most value to the weeklies. As part of a longer response, Newquist answered, “PR companies, at least on the journalism side of what we do, are problematic because they’re in between (us and) the person with the real answer. I don’t want to talk to a PR person whose sole role in their career is to spin it and make it sound good." There was nervous laughter from the audience, and several Tweets.

Blake Ovard, managing editor of The Star Group weeklies, echoed: “All of the cities have a PIO, and their job is to keep you from getting the story, so they don’t understand why I don’t want to talk to them. They say, ‘Well, I have all your information.’”

At this point, neck hairs began to bristle. Marc Flake, Tarrant County PIO, took umbrage with those statements and stepped forward. He related how he had facilitated the Weekly’s requests for a recent cover story by Peter Gorman that examined issues related to the medical examiner’s office.

“I was very helpful with Mr. Gorman,” Flake said, “and told him who he needed to talk to, gave him background, gave him all the documents (and) contract information he needed. I don’t stay between you guys (and county sources). I help you get the information you need.”

Spontaneous applause erupted from PR crowd.

I found the exchange refreshingly candid -- and disturbingly enlightening. It brought home to me that the adversarial relationship between hacks and flacks is still alive and well.

Some may dismiss weeklies (and indeed all newspapers now) as non-influencers or think their constituents don’t read those papers, so who cares what they think? But with the market share of dailies falling and weeklies currently increasing, we need to have this honest dialogue to bridge the gap of misperceptions.

Maybe the panelists didn’t realize they were in a room with cream of the crop PRSA practitioners, who hold to a PRSA Code of Ethics,which state in part:

HONESTY - We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests ofthose we represent and in communicating with the public.

We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.

We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and thegeneral public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.

PR practitioners are obligated to our organizations / clients and their stakeholders as well as to the public interest. Journalists are obligated to the public’s right to know, their readers and advertisers. (Yes, advertisers were mentioned several times by the panelists as being quite an important audience.)

Here’s the rub: being honest and ethical doesn’t always translate (in the private sector, anyway) to being as “open” as some of us would like. This is due to a number of reasons, including proprietary information, SEC regs, security concerns and political sensitivities.

As PR practitioners, we have to weigh the benefit vs. risk of responding to certain media inquiries. Brave responders will answer even a hostile reporter in order to provide balance. But cautious ones will favor silence if media objectivity is questionable and they are mischaracterized or taken out of context repeatedly.

In our changing media landscape and diminishing dailies’ prowess, it would behoove PR practitioners to eschew derogatory terms for alternative or community weeklies (punk rags, podunk papers) and appreciate their financial strength and scope of influence among many constituencies.

By the same token, journalists should re-examine their broad-brush generalizations about PR practitioners as spinners and blockers. In light of shrinking news staff and resources, ethical PR pros provide information, assistance and access to high-level sources that will only become more critical for journalists who want to report the truth.

Read about the financial status of the dailies and the hack’s take on it here.


  1. Andra ~ Outstanding! Very well-written. You captured the exchanges accurately and you gave all readers a wonderful reminder of the importance of the PR code of ethics. Thank you for emphasizing the valuable and good work going on by true communications professionals in our region and across the country.

  2. I wasn’t able to attend the luncheon, but I thought your blog was insightful, well-written, and entirely accurate!

    Having started out as a reporter for a suburban weekly, I remember the flack I got when I announced I was “crossing over to the dark side” (as my editor phrased it) to enter PR.

    I always try to remind reporters that my job is to make their job easier, not harder, by being a one-stop source for information. Why call five different people in my organization looking for various pieces of information, when one call to me and I can gather all, and more, than you need!

  3. PR people are advocates. We are paid to promote. We aren't paid to help a reporter make our clients or companies look bad. No big secret there, so I don't know why it would be a surprise that journalists whose primary focus is to embarrass or otherwise denigrate the companies we represent (alternative weeklies are not exactly the Wall Street Journal) complain about our role in the exchange of information. I love reading the alternative weeklies but I am very careful when working with them because as Andy Grove (Intel founder) said: it isn't paranoia if they really are out to get you.

  4. That last comment was from me, but it wouldn't let me put my name on it for some reason.

  5. Andra,
    Good for pointing out what appears to be an adversarial relationship and opening the dialogue. There really are companies out there that DO spin and contort facts, and, unfortunately, PR folks who are behind this and who are willing to go along with unethical marketers. I think those in the room at this particular meeting were probably, as you pointed out, an elite group who work diligently to forge true two-way relationships to foster transparency. Having these conversations allows both sides to better understand mindsets - and prejudices.

  6. Andra Bennett, APRJune 20, 2009 at 12:12 PM

    Another anecdote in the exchange was that American Airlines, which has a number of corporate PR pros, referred Weekly to an agency. Weekly obviously preferred to talk to a corporate source.
    Also, discussion included the public's right to know if the information is re: public sector / elected officials vs. a privately-held company.