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‘Can you change it online?’ Six things a flack should never say to a hack

Journalists and PRs are on the same side, kind of – but there are red lines

PRs and journalists generally work well together, but there are some small irritations ... Pexels/George Milton
PRs and journalists generally work well together, but there are some small irritations ...

I’ve never subscribed to the idea that journalists and public relations people are engaged in some sort of perpetual war in the media space, as some journalists obviously do.

Our interests are different, of course, to the extent that the “flacks” are getting paid to promote the interest of their clients, while the “hack” is trying to reveal the truth about those same clients in order to “inform, educate and entertain” the world, as the BBC mission statement has it.

In theory, in a perfectly ethical world, those two aims should not conflict.

So rather than hacks and flacks being in opposing trenches in the battle for truth, I’d like to think we’re on the same side of the front line – albeit with the PRs many miles away from the actual fighting, directing operations from the relative safety of the GHQ chateau.

But the PRs do have their annoying little habits, which I’ve been studying over many decades and which are even more noticeable – and annoying – here in the Gulf.

The following are the top six irritating things PR people have said to me over the years in the region, and some suggested responses should any other hacks out there get the same.

1 Did you get the press release?
“Well, that would depend on how you sent it. As you know, surface mail can be problematic in the UAE – I haven’t checked my PO box in a while, can’t find the keys actually. And the courier pigeons have been very unreliable of late, must be the sandstorms we’ve had recently. If, on the other hand, you sent the PR by email or WhatsApp, my failure to ‘get back to you’ probably means I’ve absolutely no interest in your pathetic little story. Bye.”

2 Can you send me a link?
“In the good old days of print, you and others from your profession would be down at the newsstands at midnight clutching a few pennies desperate for the first edition to see what I’d written about your client. Now, you not only expect me to puff them up for you, but also perform the job of printer, distributor and newsagent to deliver you the copy. Two words of advice, ‘stratcoms expert’: Internet and Google. Bye.”

3 Can you change it online?
“I hate to go on about the ‘good old days’, but 20 years ago you wouldn’t, couldn’t ask me that. The most we would offer back then would be a begrudged two-line correction on page 27 several weeks later. In extremis, for a really serious error or libel, we might have spent hundreds of thousands of the proprietor’s millions to consult lawyers and fight a multi-year court action. Even now, though, the principle is the same: if you want it changed, you have to initiate a lengthy formal approval process. I’m happy to guide you through that. Or just forget it. Bye.”     

4 He/she doesn’t like the picture.
“Well, it was a photo found on your client’s website, an official mugshot. Maybe it was a few years old, and maybe the lighting was bad at that photoshoot, or your client was having a bad hair day, or maybe in relative youth he/she did not quite look the leadership icon he/she has since become. But the mugshot ticked all the boxes for us – shape, size, scowl etc – so I suggest you take it up with the editor. Or tell the client to grow up, figuratively speaking. Bye.” 

5 He/she never said that.
“But we have a tape recording of him/her saying it. In fact, the whole interview was on video and was transcribed faultlessly by our very expensive new AI transcription bot. I can let you see that if you want. I think you’ll find he/she did say that, unless he/she was being impersonated by a very effective doppelganger on that occasion. Oh, I see … he/she didn’t mean to say it? Well, in that case can I suggest a course of media training? There are some very good ones out there and I’d be happy so share some contacts. Bye.”

6 Can we see the article before it’s published?
“Bye”.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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