PR Flacks Then And Now

By Ray Schultz

When I started out in business journalism 30 some-odd years ago, PR flacks were viewed strictly as an annoyance. 

They called on the phone incessantly to tell you about some “news” or other, but there was no guarantee that the U.S. Postal Service would deliver the press release by the time they called. 

When it was a big story, they might messenger it over. But I once saw my boss at DM News, the legendary Joe Fitz-Morris, get red in the face and berate a PR person when Ad Age received an announcement before we did.

This was the same Fitz-Morris who reveled in breaking scoops on the World Of Advertising radio show and in DM News.

Another irritant was corrections. Usually, they were about context—we did tend to sensationalize things at times. 

The flacks would call to hector us and demand redress. I was intimidated by them, but not Fitz-Morris. 

He would tell them to write a letter to the editor, and in one instance snarled, “I disagree with what you’re saying, but I’ll defend to your death your right to say it.”

As for more minor errors, our policy was that if we spelled the name wrong, that was the way it should be spelled. 

Soon, I learned that PR people were obstacles to finding the news: The minute someone hired them, you lost direct access. 

One of my best sources sold his firm to a larger outfit. We were about to exchange a bear hug at a conference when one PR flack blocked him and another physically restrained me. 

Oh, you poor old fool. When I returned to the rigors of daily journalism a few years ago, things were different. 

Instead of the phone calls, I now receive dozens of PR emails a day. 

Many of them start with the daunting word EMBARGO in the subject line, alerting me that the news won’t be live for weeks, or even months, in some cases.  

These people are taking a big chance on my limited clerical skills. I suggest that Gmail set up a folder called “Embargo,” right  next to Promotions. 

Worse yet is when they offer you a report of some kind. To even access it, you have to first prove you’re not a robot, picking out the CAPCHA pictures that have stairs or motorcycles in them.

I’ve concluded that this is some kind of digital dementia test. 

Then you have to formally request the report, specifying your company size, number of employees and revenue, details I don’t know and wouldn’t share even if I did. 

Within minutes of the request, the phone rings—it’s a salesperson noting that I had downloaded the report. I always explain that I’m a reporter, not a candidate for a $600K software package. What a waste of his time and mine.

That said, it’s amazing how much of the work PR people try to do for you these days—it’s almost like the chef who does everything but chew the food. They provide easy-to-read synapses in cover emails, which are often easier to read than the actual press releases. 

They spot typos in real time. And they put in case studies from end users, something we were always after in more innocent days.  Not that they trust reporters–they often record interviews, in both audio and video forms.

I must be getting soft. It’s amazing that I’m so fond of many of the PR flacks I have known, then and now. 

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