Do Journos Really Want Honesty from Flacks?

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Traditionally, PR people have been trained — and have taught their clients or employers — to be careful about what they say to the media. “Controlling the message” has been a central tenet of the public relations business.

This approach ensures a jackhammer consistency in public statements and protects against media bloopers. But it is also the single biggest complaint that journos have against flacks.

Like the cop who thinks a suspect must be guilty because he’s hired a lawyer, many journalists wonder, “Why does a company even need a PR person if it has nothing to hide?” And of the PR person, the journo asks, “Why can’t you just be candid and spontaneous, and not be so guarded in what you say to me?”

It’s a nice thought; but is that really what journalists want?

On Tuesday, Jim Louderback, the editor in chief of PC Magazine, blogged about a comment made by Steve Rubel, the prominent blogger for Edelman PR. Rubel had Twitter-ed that his free subscription to PC Magazine “goes in the trash.”

Louderback’s response to this candid, spontaneous remark was less than forgiving.

Should I instruct the staff to avoid covering Edelman’s clients? Ignore their requests for meetings, reviews and news stories? Blacklist the “Edelman.com” email domain in our exchange servers, effectively turning their requests into spam? If we’re not relevant to Edelman’s employees, then how could we be relevant to their clients?

He concluded that “in the future, if I’m on the fence, I’ll probably be somewhat less inclined to take a meeting with one of Edelman’s clients.”

Louderback’s comments are flawed logically. Why assume that if one Edelman employee doesn’t read PC Magazine, others don’t, either?

The truth is, Louderback was simply offended by Rubel’s offhand jab — and, as payback, threatened to use his organizational power as a cudgel against Rubel’s employer and clients.

That’s a real argument in favor of honesty, isn’t it?

As you would expect, Rubel quickly assumed the position and apologized to Louderback, explaining that he only meant to say that he reads the online version of PC Magazine instead.

Is that the truth? It doesn’t matter, does it? It was the response demanded by Louderback, if Rubel and Edelman knew what was good for them.

In other words, be careful what you say in the media, guys. Watch your language and control your messages, or pay the price.

One final point. Even if you believe that Louderback is justified in wielding his power in this way, does this best serve his readers?

Essentially, the editor is saying that he’ll decide what his staff writes about, and what his magazine publishes, based on the standing of his personal relationship with a particular PR person or agency.

Hmmm. Shouldn’t Louderback be pursuing the best story ideas that come his way — without prejudice, no matter the source?

Candidly, yes.

(Other thoughts on Rubel v. Louderback here, here, here and here.)

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About the author

Scott Baradell
Scott, president of Idea Grove, oversees one of the fastest-growing and most forward-looking public relations and inbound marketing agencies in the southwestern United States. Idea Grove focuses on helping technology companies reach media and buyers; and its clients range from venture-backed startups to Fortune 200 companies. Scott launched Idea Grove in 2005 along with his groundbreaking blog, Media Orchard. He has been a consistent innovator in the public relations and marketing space. Scott was among the first to understand the role of blogging in audience building. He was quick to recognize the vital importance of content quality and the power of social sharing. Most significantly, he developed a system that integrates public relations, content creation, social and search marketing, and conversion rate optimization into a program that produces hard-dollar results for clients.

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4 thoughts on “Do Journos Really Want Honesty from Flacks?

  1. Bob

    Very funny — and thoughtful — series of posts here. Thanks for doing them. We could all use a chuckle or two in the wake of what happened in Virginia, and the situation you have been blogging on is worthy of a few chuckles, if not outright sniggers.

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  2. Peter Himler

    Thoughtful post, Scott. Many eons ago, at the tender ago of 23, I let slip some of my misgivings about the journalistic quality of one certain NYC tabloid. Unforunately, it was to a features reporter at the paper who proceeded to show his out-of-joint nose to my boss. The pain that ensued taught me a valuable lesson: don’t bite the hand that feeds you, unless you want the hand to disappear. I’m sure Steve wishes he could retract his off-the-cuff, dead tree comments. Fortunately he has an authoritative pulpit from which to explain, i.e., “assume the position.”

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