by Franco Veltri
When I started dealing with Public Relations as a press officer of a military organization I was lucky enough to meet a senior journalist who felt obliged to give me some advice. The one thing he often repeated was: “Find the news angle. Do not send a news release, do not call me if you have not found yourself what – in your story – will be newsworthy.”
According to Dr. Joseph Basso:
“Public relations professionals practice publicity–the press agentry model of public relations. However, publicists cannot consider themselves public relations professionals if they only repackage information and distribute it to the mass media. Most reporters/editors view media releases created by public relations professionals with an eye of caution Since the information did not generate from the desk of a member of the journalistic community than how can it be accurate? The majority of media releases get tossed into the garbage by reporters; however, the majority of the story ideas generated come from a media release.”
After many years the best advice I can give when I train new PR personnel still is:
Think like a reporter, write as a reporter and reporters will be your partners in business, not your unwilling customers.
It was much later that I learned that many reporters, when I contacted them first to ‘pitch’ a story, were likely to consider me as a ‘flak’, and that I was expected to consider most of them as ‘hacks’.
Flaks versus Hacks
For the younger colleagues, flack (with a c) is a slang term for a press agent or publicist. It was coined to recall Gene Flack, a well-known US movie press agent from the 1930s. While ‘flack’ does not necessarily carry a negative connotation, PR practitioners are also referred to as ‘flaks’. Where flak – originally a short name for an anti-aircraft gun – implies a negative attitude or even abuse.
Andrew S. Edson wrote in in the summer 2006 issue of Cheklist magazine “The term flak as an adjective also refers to a person generally employed in the political or business sphere, as opposed to the entertainment industry, where assumedly press agents and flacks proliferate, but to deflect adverse publicity — a job that transgresses mere public relations.”
A flack (publicist) creates flack (publicity) for his or her employer. A flak does what nowadays would be defined ‘spin doctoring’. Something close to being a professional liar.
Hack (literally, equivalent to cut or chop) is a term that directly responded to reporters using the term ‘flack’ with disdain. A hack is a newspaper columnist who ‘hacks’ stories and distorts the truth. A negative connotation that was inherited by those who are able to gain illegal or unauthorized access to a file or network and are called hackers.
Why am I recalling this old American jargon? A few days ago it reappeared in an article in The Economist, titled: “Johnson: Dear Flacks… Love Hack “
This story was focused on when and how to send an email to a reporter to pitch a story, listing five things PR pros get wrong when “reaching out to journalists.” It prompted negative reactions from well-known PR experts, like Gini Dietrich .
But this aspect of relationships between flacks and hacks is only the tip of the iceberg. Last summer a panel of journalists and public relations experts gathered at the National Press Club in Washington DC to discuss the role of federal public affairs offices. Here is a short excerpt from the Columbia Journalism Review . The post was obviously titled ‘Hacks vs. flacks’:
“While communications officers see themselves as useful intermediaries between the public and its government, many reporters regard them as obstructive bureaucrats stemming the flow of information. Carolyn Carlson, a former Associated Press reporter, shared the results of two surveys she conducted on the relationship between public affairs staff and the press. Ninety-eight percent of public affairs officers believe they have a better idea of who journalists should interview than reporters themselves, and three-quarters of journalists stated that they had to get a PAO’s approval before interviewing agency employees. Nearly 40 percent of PAOs admitted to banning specific reporters because of problems with their stories in the past. And while 85 percent of journalists said the public is not receiving the information it needs, 98 percent of PAOs feel their job is to ensure people get positive, accurate information about individual agencies.”
Journalists and PAOs as partners in business? It does not look so. Is it today enough, to properly pitch a story, to think as a reporter and write as a reporter? Mathematicians would say it is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
Pitching, Spamming or Phishing?
Browsing the net we can see an increasing number of comments and tips about ‘pitching’ techniques in the era of digital media. The weapons have changed but the battle appears the same: hacks versus flaks.
For instance, Steve O’Hear noted about Twitter:
“Twitter has become a boon to journalists wanting to break news. It’s also great for surfacing content relevant to niche topics or specific industries if you follow the right users. However, the realtime and unfiltered nature of those constant updates means that if you follow too many sources it soon becomes impossible for relevant information not to get lost in the noise. In fact, I’d argue that Twitter doesn’t really scale from a user point of view, once you follow more than a few hundred people.”
Similar considerations may apply to any social media and to massive e-mail pitching. Whatever means we use to try to convince a reporter to run our story, to be effective the process requires to build first relationships, to pitch the story only when it is worth being published, and to do it in a personal way, taking the time – as The Economist recommends – to personalize the pitch to the catcher. When we use massive digital distribution of our pitches we are, or appear, just spamming, if not phishing. That’s why the apparently naive tips in The Economist are relevant.
Will Mrs Obama be dancing?
Once relationships with news media are established, the question to ask ourselves is whether our story is worth pitching. What criteria should apply in making this decision? I found a very good example in this quite humoristic flowchart by Colehour+Cohen. It seems to demonstrate that – at least in the US – it is worth to pitch a story about an upcoming event only if Mrs Obama will be dancing.