|In Defense of Flacks
By: Mike Bush
A reporter writes a story about how PR people suck, and usually, the Twitter-verse blows up with flacks pointing at each other saying, “Told you not to do it that way,” (or more accurately…the normal statement is "I would never do it that way"). In fact, there is a tech blog that I’m fairly sure looks at page views, and when they see three weeks straight of declines, they write about how PR people suck (I’m not going to link to them, but suffice it to say, I don’t expect an invite to next year’s Crunchies).*
Here’s a little fact I didn’t know when I got into PR…
There are times you can do everything right, get your brains beat out for it, and have absolutely no recourse for your troubles.
Two quick examples of what I mean:
Look, I’m not defending all flacks. Some of us suck (seriously, someone sent Zach a Nickelback video. That flack REALLY sucks). However, it isn’t true of everyone, and sometimes it’s tough to be on this side of the fence.
- Newsweek reporter Zach Shonfeld last week penned a story about how he answered every e-mail from PR people for a full week (he started on a three-day weekend, so just imagine if Zach did this for a full work week). Here’s the whole story. Look, we have to acknowledge that some of the pitches he refers to are pretty well off-base. Should PR folks have at least read some of Zach’s articles before pitching him? Of course. It goes without saying. However, I don’t mind telling you that I think Zach may have been a little harsher than necessary. Zach’s Cision (for any non-flacks, that’s a database of reporters) bio says something like “Zach covers culture, entertainment, and news.” He pummels Ira Glass for sending an email inviting him to the show. First off, Ira is a Radio God, hosts the highest-rated podcast on iTunes, and wrote to Zach directly (number of times reporters have said "I’d rather hear from founders/entrepreneurs/news makers directly"? Eleventy billion. Number of times a reporter said “Gosh, I hope their PR person gets in touch first”? Zero.). Second, Zach is in NY. Is it REALLY so farfetched that a culture reporter in NY might want to go see a live show put on in NY by a very well-known cultural icon?**
- There is a reporter at a major newspaper who burned me on an exclusive. The basics of the story are as follows. The town in question has more than one major newspaper, so assuming the story is both local and relevant (it was), it makes sense to reach out to one first, offer the story as an actual exclusive, offer an advance copy, and hopefully secure a story. I did, and the reporter I connected with said “Great, when are you doing the press release? I’d like to time my story with your release.” Sweet! Story secured. Now I do the PR Happy Dance! Also, I don’t pitch the other newspaper(s), because that’s the agreement with exclusives, right? Press release day comes, and…radio silence. I could see if there was some pressing story in the town that trumped my story and our agreement (there wasn’t). I followed up with the reporter, who never responded in any way (this person wasn’t fired or anything…they’re still writing for the paper). At this point, what does a flack do? Do you send a nasty note (ensuring you never get coverage in that paper again? Call the editor (the equivalent of an eight-year-old screaming ‘I’m telling!!!’ while on the playground)? Decide you’ll try to never work with that reporter again (again, kind of burns a bridge and hurts chances of coverage moving forward)? No right answer.
*This is obviously hyperbole. While TechCrunch has, in the past, written a few eye-opening pieces about their relationships with flacks (founder Michael Arrington’s famous rant about how he’ll never honor another embargo comes to mind), it is unfair to characterize them as abusive toward all PR folks.
**If you read Twitter and/or the comment in Zach’s piece, people applaud continuously. Zach even felt obligated to do a follow-up piece. Seriously? I’d love to see a breakdown of how many pitches were in Zach’s wheelhouse vs not. “I responded to 47 emails in one day, and 12 of them didn’t make any sense” seems a lot less miserable than 47 random responses. I don't know the ratio there, but it seems like maybe his piece is being a little too harsh.
Mike Bush is a PR and Marketing freelancer with more than a dozen years of experience in the field. Find him on and connect Twitter @mikebush or at www.mikebush.nyc.
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