Monday, May 23, 2011

Hacks vs. Flacks: when the pot calls the kettle black

Publicists have their flacks. Journalists have their hacks. Yet neither profession seems to smell their own stink.

What public relation giant Burson-Marsteller did for Facebook, trying to plant negative stories on Google's stand on privacy, was really business as usual in some corners of the profession. Facebook could have taken out an advertisement pointing out Google's flaws, but score one for public relations, in winning over advertising yet again with its credibility factor. That these two BM publicists found journalists who were not only not buying the Google ploy but willing to spill the beans publicly, well, that's the risk you take.

In every profession, not just public relations, competitive moves -- even ones that may be called "underhanded" -- are done every day. These guys had the bad luck to get caught.

In an un-bylined article this week, The Economist decided to drag down the whole public relations profession, based on this Facebook/Google incident by citing research from Jamil Jonna of the University of Oregon with this juicy nugget: "for each American journalist there are now, on average, six flacks hassling him to run crummy stories."

To which I respond: For every athlete, politician & celebrity (real or not), there are six reporters & TV crew hassling them for crummy stories.

The New York Times detailed the insane stalking done by web sites and magazines.

Entertainment Tonight boasted 77 staffers covering the Royal Wedding. There are countless people who stalk the Yankees' A-Rod every day. How many reporters are tracking every move of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York City, yet all that's happened to him is an accusation?

Bad judgment and inept practitioners exist in every profession, and one is no better than the other. I can tell you stories of journalists who asked me to hold a story for them and then conveniently disappeared when it was time to do it. Yet, I also get spammed by people in my own profession, sending me irrelevant press releases, clearly who have not read my blog nor my warning in Cision's databases.

Should a publicist give up his client, as the Burson-Marsteller people were asked to do when their Google pitch seemed fishy, as much as a journalist should give up their source when they call and tell you they heard a rumor about your client?

I've had to deal with a couple of questionable reporters in my career who called me with rumors of discord and declining sales of my clients, but won't give up who said them, even if they were terminated employees? Then when we refute them point by point, they still print the story and put the rumor right in the headline with a question mark, as if that little punctuation trick will get them off the hook in case the truth doesn't pan out.

Yes, it all works both ways, including the dirty tricks.

As Wired's Sam Gustin pointed out to me over the weekend: "When PR takes a hit, the industry as a whole takes a hit. Reporters take a hit, the industry as a whole takes a hit. Neither good."

Instead of bashing the "hacks" and "flacks," it would be a more productive use of everybody's time to uphold standards, keep true to their word and understand what the other guy wants.

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