Monday, August 07, 2006

Welcome to the world of hacks and flacks

Thanks to Philip Young of the University of Sunderland for giving Screaming Headlines a mention in his excellent Mediations blog.

Philip comments that I describe myself in my profile as a ‘PR lecturer and as a publicist’ and asks ‘Why publicist and not PR practitioner?’

I nearly did describe myself as a music PR practitioner, but stopped short when I reflected on what I actually do in this area. Apart from playing in a band that specialises in mainly Irish and Scottish traditional songs and tunes, I organise music events and promote them, i.e. let people know that they’re happening and try and encourage them to turn up.

Some might see this differently, but to my mind this isn’t quite what PR is meant to be about. In the Behind The Spin blog, Chris Taylor of the London Business School defines PR as “... the discipline that works to align what others think of you, with what you think of yourself, and seeks to elevate both”. In this sense, PR is in the business of managing public opinion, not at a superficial level, but seeking to get others to think well of you and to place you in a relatively high position in their view of what’s good about the world. If I were trying to boost the public reputation of mainly Irish and Scottish traditional songs and tunes, then I would probably describe my work as that of a PR specialist.

What I actually do falls closer to Taylor’s reference to ‘publicity’ which happens when a message is ‘received by the desired audience, who respond favourably’. But you may well argue that there is a very fine line between the definitions of publicity and PR. Indeed, students of PR will know that there are several competing definitions of the subject and that these reflect changes in society, culture, economic activity and the motivation of whoever is doing the defining.

For example, there are journalists who would define PR as a regular bombardment of information systematically designed to conceal the truth and would describe people who practise PR as 'flacks'.

Most of us are familiar with the derogatory term ‘hack’ when used to characterise reporters who write badly and often with little regard of the impact of their scribblings on the lives of those they write about. ‘Flack’ is a term that has become more popular in the last few years (especially in the US) to describe PR people who adopt a similar attitude in their own work. ‘Flacks’ are people who will say anything for and about their client with little regard to whether their statements are actually true or false – spin-doctors without the subtlety!

Here's one dramatic illustration of how a ‘flack’ allegedly invents news, or gives out ‘news’ that people want to hear. While many journalists see PROs as ‘flacks’, you could define ‘hacks’ as those journalists who are more likely to accept and reproduce the claims of ‘flacks’ in their columns or on the airwaves.

Ironically, the terms ‘hacks’ and ‘flacks’ reflect the universalising qualities of one of the primary tools of spin – the sound-bite. They are instant signifiers that deny any space for qualification by implying that all journalists are ‘hacks’ and all PR practitioners are ‘flacks’.

There may be scope for discussion on whether I should describe myself as a PR practitioner as opposed to a publicist, but would my music promotion come under the heading of ‘flack’? When describing headline acts, I often use terms such as ‘legendary’, ‘award-winning’, ‘spectacular’, ‘internationally acclaimed’ and so on, mainly because I’m not likely to convince people to come to their concerts if I described these artists as ‘everyday’, ‘picked up an obscure award from a little-known website,’ ‘wear gaudy clothes’ or ‘once did a gig in Belgium’.

That’s not so much ‘flackery’ as ‘hype’.

Filed under:
PR definitions    blogs    music journalism    music PR    publicity    hack    flack

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