The Hack-Flack Relationship

January 23, 2014

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This week, an instructive article for those of us in the PR business titled “Dear Flacks… Love Hack” posted on The Economist‘s “Johnson” blog, written by Robert “Lane” Greene. Greene is currently The Economist’s Central Europe Business/Finance Correspondent, based in Berlin. Greene writes frequently about language as a blogger for The Economist‘s “Johnson” blog, which is dedicated to the use and abuse of language.

Lane’s latest is a missive on why there needs to be better “hack-flack communication,” citing the multiple errors that public relations folks make when reaching out to journalists.

His prescription for the PR professional in dealing with journalists is spot on, and worth internalizing:

“The language of e-mailed requests has unwritten rules, and many of them are just like the rules for meeting people in person when trying to make a deal to mutual advantage.  Make eye contact, shake hands and ask for a name. Remember the name. Ask questions; learn about the other person. This signals a willingness to take the next step in building trust. Don’t constantly push in a direction the other person clearly doesn’t want to go: that is conversational incompetence. Find out where the journalist wants to go, and see if you can get there together. And if it doesn’t work out, take no for an answer, and try again elsewhere.”

Greene concludes by writing that The Economist had reported two years ago that there were “six flacks for every hack in America.”  As he notes, while this ratio is bad enough for the journalist, it is perhaps worse for PR folks, battling so many colleagues for journalists’ limited attention. He ends by saying, “All the more reason to try a little old-fashioned subtlety and charm.”  What he really is saying is that before pitching, 1) do your homework and 2) remember that journalists are people too, with specific needs and interests that a publicist should understand prior to reaching out. Common sense you say? Yes, but this basic tenet of media relations is often violated.

This piece is a great reminder of what should be obvious to us all: We need to “think like a journalist” when engaging journalists. Unprofessional and/or naive pitches are increasingly cluttering journalist inboxes – with some even being called out in journalists’ Twitter and other social media posts, impacting both individual and company reputations. The philosophy should always be guided by the premise of “being as valuable to the media as the media are to our clients.” In other words, is what you are offering the journalist going to be perceived as being a valuable resource or service to reporters? To be successful in this cluttered media environment, we must provide content to journalists when, where, and how they need it – not when it is convenient for us.

Having media relationships built on trust, earned through successful prior engagements also matters. As Greene reported in his story, two years ago there were six PR people for every journalist. I’d say that it is likely a 10-1 ratio now. That means that unsolicited pitches to journalists from publicists that they don’t know or haven’t worked with have a far greater likelihood of never being opened/read than those coming from publicists that journalists have successfully worked with. In fact, many of us have journalists who proactively reach out to us because they know we have a history of delivering quality content for their stories. Does this imply that having a media relationship guarantees a placement in every instance? Absolutely not, but what it does guarantee is the ability to get a hearing or look, and learn when a client’s response is needed, thus increasing the likelihood of an eventual placement.

We have great media relations resources within FleishmanHillard. We have both a North American and a Global Media Council, established over a decade ago – many of whom hail from journalistic, editorial and other media backgrounds – with unusually deep media experience in every FleishmanHillard office around the world. In addition to keeping in touch with journalists regularly and generating results, Media Council members also are active in sharing best practices and opportunities throughout the network.

So, in the spirit of Lane Greene’s plea for all of us to be better at “Hack-Flack” communication, remember that your pitch is a reflection not only of your individual professionalism, but also the professionalism of the firm or company you represent. When in doubt, consult your colleagues who are specialists in this area. I trust that you’ll be glad you did!