Frankie Flack on bullying business reporters


A few weeks ago I was catching up with a reporter, who I have come to know well, over a few beers.

In the course of our conversation I asked him about his recent interactions with other PR people.  This is a question I ask all the reporters I know because the stories are all over the place.  Sometimes I learn good tips or pick up interesting intelligence, but most of the time I just like to hear about the antics that go on in our industry.  As I have said before, there are many strong, smart PR practitioners in this field, but there are also too many who put a bad name on the field.

It was no surprise then to hear that just a few days earlier this reporter had recently been berated by a PR person that questioned his IQ level and overall ability to read.  The altercation was over a column this reporter had written questioning the logic behind a company’s strategic decision.  He said the dispute came down to a disagreement over semantics, but that he did end up revising the column a bit.

I am sure few reporters are stunned to learn about this story and even less that can’t share a similar tale of PR abuse themselves.  What struck me as interesting about this particular altercation was that the antagonistic PR person was someone I knew and is well-respected in the industry.  This wasn’t a younger flack who doesn’t know better.   This was an experienced veteran and his actions are revealing of two distinct schools of thought in practicing media relations.

PR people, particularly those who work “in-house” at a company or manage corporate reputation, are first and foremost employed to protect a company’s image.  When a reporter is working on a story a helpful, if a bit extreme, analogy is to compare it to a hostage situation.  The reporter plays the role of the hostage taker, the PR person is the law enforcement official and a company’s public image is the scared prisoner of the reporter.

A PR person can approach this situation in one of two ways: work as a negotiator to gently coax the hostage taker to release their captive or bust in the door and forcefully take back the hostage.

A negotiator will work with the reporter to better understand key points, engage in a fact-based debate, concede points and work to get a fair conclusion for both sides.  The result may include a more nuanced story or a reporter re-evaluating the news value of the piece all together.  While this is a preferable way to engage with media, sometimes the situation calls for a more forceful approach.

The SWAT team approach focuses on using force and intimidation to convince a reporter to back off potentially damaging points.  Instead of engaging in a debate, the PR person engages in forceful declarations and threats of going to an editor, or cutting the outlet off from “access.”  There are entire agencies built on the belief that this is the only way to interact with reporters.

Believe it or not, many times, the result for both tactics can in fact be the same.  Force is not always the “feel good” way to go, but we are all humans and all have a response to conflict.  Conversely, this is the same reason why reporters employ a forceful approach, because it produces results.

However, a more forceful approach brings along substantial risk that 1) the reporter will only be further incentivized to write the piece negatively or, 2) take every opportunity to point out company failings moving forward and most risky of all, 3) publish a piece specifically focused on his interactions with the PR person.

As I mentioned in my first column, the relationship between PR and journalists is fundamentally built for conflict.  Smart PR is always cognizant of this conflict and understands the best way to engage with a reporter in every scenario.