A PR guy calls out the flacks and the hacks

By Marco Greenberg , written on April 1, 2013

From The News Desk

No kid dreams of being a PR person. And trust me, no PR practitioner wants his kids to follow in his footsteps either.

Instead, most of us, I suspect, discover the field by accident. You graduate college, then what? Apply to graduate or law school and take on more debt? Or get a job. Then it might come down to taking that part-time barista gig or working at a PR firm. If you don’t quit within the first year, you might actually fall in love with what has long been the ugly stepchild of advertising. Or in the case of an increasing number of journalists today, fleeing to PR to seek refuge from a sinking ship.

“Don’t be over educated and under employed,” my father warned me. So I left PhD courses in political science at Columbia University after barely a semester, and, Master’s degree in hand, a knack for promoting, and a passion for writing and media, cold-called the co-founder of the then largest PR firm in the world, Burson-Marsteller. I ended up working there not once, twice, but three times, including from ’08 to ‘09 as a managing director. And while I first tinkered with tech PR during my first stint there (does anyone remember the Apple Newton or the SkyTel pager?) my crash course occurred when I opened my own shop and Danny Lewin, then a grad student, asked me to help him and his Professor Tom Leighton with their entry in the MIT 50k entrepreneurship competition. We lost, but the contest gave birth to what is now Akamai Technologies, and a year and half later one of the biggest IPOs of all time.

I got lucky during the heyday of Internet 1.0 (founders shares, most of which I didn’t sell at the right time), but soon it all came crashing down, and less than two years later Danny was the first person murdered on 9/11 fighting back terrorists on Flight 11. (The book is coming out this summer). But his influence and the initial intoxication with tech PR was enough to keep me hooked. Over the years, I’ve been hired by scores of startups, mostly venture backed but others by angels from Carlos Slim to Peter Thiel, all trying to be the next Akamai.

Enough of my history. Here’s the point, or, more like the paradox. Tech PR has never been both less important and more important than it is today.

It’s seen as a commodity business, retainers are frozen or have actually decreased, with some clients asking for success fees (kind of like going to a contingency lawyer). It has been overtaken by social, search, and Google analytics. In its insecurity, PR tries to act more like a science than the art it really is, and comes up with KPIs (key performance indicators) to prove its value and keep away the dreaded 30-day termination notice. The PR training courses (from writing to client management) at Burson are now a relic, as the bean counters, squeezing all the billable hours, have no time to educate the young generation and instead throw them straight into the fire.

Is it any wonder that 20-somethings in PR often see their role as “stalking” and “spamming” reporters, viewing themselves one level above telemarketers? Oh, yeah, I hear all about journalists complaining over Twitter and elsewhere about the idiotic pitches they get from some publicists – usually junior publicists. The bitching about the “just following up on my last voicemail message” messages. The follow-up emails about pitches they didn’t read about products they don’t care about or services that suck for companies or individuals who don’t have news worth writing about. The publicist who for $1,000 will write “a comprehensive, industry-relevant article about your business or product,” which he promises to “place” in a mass media outlet. He then emails newspaper editors with an offer to supply “fully developed stories (completed articles) that you can publish under your byline, with or without editing, at no fee.”

There’s a lot of incompetence and shady behavior in my profession. But look at journalism. You have Jayson Blair (he wrote very favorably about a client of mine and always read our pitches) and a tech press that in some quarters – I won’t mention names but they know who they are – has become one giant press release copy machine.

Here’s the thing: Many view publicists and PR people as interchangeable. They’re not. All good PR people can be publicists (pure pitching and earned media placement) but not all publicists are PR people, e.g. the ones CEOs turn to in a crisis or for help in formulating a launch strategy.

When done right, PR can be like a good editor’s pen, transforming jargon-heavy, boring technical language into a simple yet compelling story. Then, and only then, can a previously unknown company with a technology that could change the world – or at least have a shot in a crowded marketplace – attract the attention it needs to survive. Good PR doesn’t make a bad product good, but it helps a good company spread its message and a good product reach consumers, the first steps to a sustainable business.

Journalists often refer to us as “flacks,” a term some of us, like Peter Himler, purveyor of a popular PR blog called “The Flack,” wear as a badge of honor. But let me tell you about the other side of the fence, the hacks – and there are plenty of them.

These are the lazy or overworked journalists who take press releases, change a few words, slap their bylines on, and call them stories. Frankly, we “flacks” love that, and will never accuse you of plagiarism. Or the reporters you can seduce by handing them a story angle and interview subjects, so all they have to do is make a few calls or send a few brief emails and a few minutes later they can cross another post off their day’s quota.

I get how journalism as a profession has changed. Budgets are tight, and publishers are squeezing every iota of productivity out of reporters. In some case they have to post 10 pieces a day, and each one has to withstand unbearable scrutiny, ever vulnerable to being decimated by irate readers, who want nothing more than to post obscenity-laden gotchas. Or they troll Twitter, know-nothings with 37 followers who mess with journalists just for the chance to be recognized by people who appear to have more “influence” than they do.

They’re subject to the "post now-edit later maybe" syndrome. They start falling for the trivial stuff they come across on Twitter and blogs, or combing Reddit for an idea that has already ridden to the first couple of pages, just so they can be first with some inane piece of information. There’s no time for fact checking, let alone additional reporting, or any semblance of getting “both sides” of a story.

Here’s another fact. Journalists are becoming less important to PR by the day. There are so many outlets, so many different and new marketing and social channels, that we can often reach your audience without your help anymore.

No wonder there is a diaspora of journalists turning in their press passes to join PR firms. In just the last month several have become marketers – most notably Fake Steve Jobs. They have gone over "to the dark side," as you journalists call it (others in my industry might say "seeing the light") for better salaries and perceived job security, both of which are sorely lacking in journalism today. The workload is also more manageable, or so you think.

It’s like driving, but you’re now driving on the other side of the road, and transition to PR can be a rough ride, and what felt like an automatic transition, now feels like grinding it into gear in a stick shift being tossed from one client to the next. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of journalists make the transition, some smoothly, more who don’t make the cut. They lack the promotional gene in their DNA, and the sheer energy and authentic passion that clients want to see. While pitching your editor on a story idea was cool, pitching a company with marginal news value to a former client makes you cringe.

In business, people work with people they like, and being a good writer and investigative reporter doesn’t mean you’ll master client service. In fact, the critical thinking and cynical nature that made you a good reporter, can sometimes help, but if you bring too much with you to PR, you’ll be unable to be that rah-rah guy that clients want. What happens the first time Dan Lyons has to bite his tongue when a client wants him to promote a genuinely silly idea? I’d love to be the fly on the wall for that conversation.

Some journalists may find the grass just a shade greener on our side of the fence. Others, at a closer glance, will end up viewing it as artificial turf.

One aspect of PR I’ve always liked is the banter and give-and-take with smart reporters. It remains part of why I stay at it. More reason than ever to call it like it is for the sake of hacks and flacks alike.

[Image courtesy Jurgen Appelo]