Feb 17, 2012
Dear Gracie: Is ‘Flack’ a Four-Letter Word?
Each week, Dear Gracie answers questions from ProfNet Connect readers with advice from the network of nearly 50,000 ProfNet experts. Has there been a question burning in your mind lately, something you’ve been wondering that none of your colleagues can answer? Please send it to email@example.com
I’m a blogger, and I recently posted an article that touched on some PR issues. I referred to PR reps in the article as “flacks,” and got a lot of flak for it! I never knew before that “flack” could be considered a slur, and I don’t want to offend anyone — but after reading some blog posts on the topic, it seems like there’s no consensus even within the industry. How bad of a word is it really?
Dear Blushing Blogger,
15 ProfNet experts weigh in on this controversial word:
“Flack” Implies Moral Sacrifice
“When public relations or communications professionals are called a ‘flacks,’ it implies that we will say anything for a buck,” says Donna Maurillo, director of communications and tech transfer at Mineta Transportation Institute. “It says we will take a negative story and turn it into something positive despite all evidence to the contrary. It says we have no ethics or self-respect.”
“I don’t care what the actual history is regarding the term, I just know how it is perceived by the vast majority of colleagues and peers,” says Scott Sobel, president of Media & Communications Strategies. “It has always meant the ‘flack’ can’t be trusted and has an agenda that isn’t presented in a truthful manner.”
“‘Flack’ describes someone who lobbies another for money,” agrees Daniel Collins, senior director of media relations at Mercy Medical Center. Of course PR agents all like to be paid, but the term “flack” implies that ethics, morals and the greater good are forfeited for a paycheck.
Name-calling, even if it was intended to be used “respectfully,” does harm by downgrading the value of the profession, explains Ronald Hanser, president of Hanser & Associates. The word “flack” negatively affects the industry overall because it does not shed any light on the positive impact that PR professionals have on American society every day.
“There is no way to make ‘flack’ palatable, or pass for anything other than a hackneyed insult,” says Carey O’Donnell, owner of O’Donnell Agency. The remark is typically used by journalists tired of being hounded by PR agents with dim-witted pitches, or perhaps anyone in the news industry who is weary of comparing their salary to often higher-paid non-journalists in the PR industry, she says.
The term paints a PR person as a nuisance, rather than a serious professional, agrees Cheryl Sloofman of The Boreland Group.
“This term gives a black eye to our profession,” says Lisa Rinkus, president of LJPR. “Nothing makes my blood boil more than when I hear someone describe hardworking, knowledge public relations professionals as ‘flacks.'”
For example, says Maurillo, what comes to mind when you think of “attorney” vs. “ambulance chaser”? “Physician” vs. “quack”? “Accountant” vs. “bean counter”?
“Each of these terms has very strong connotations that bring to mind specific images: one positive, and the other negative,” says Maurillo. Derogatory names are purposely used to undercut, deride, disparage, scorn or ridicule someone or something, she says.
“Have we known some in our profession who are embarrassments? Of course we have,” admits Maurillo. “They are part of every industry. So why do we allow the public perception of our entire honorable profession — the communications profession — to be tainted by unethical practitioners?”
“Among ourselves, we may agree that we always try to do the right thing, that we would refuse to do anything unethical,” continues Maurillo. “But we cannot seem to translate that honor into a fine and respected reputation for our own industry.”
“My own son once asked, ‘How can you be in PR? All you do is make bad people look like saints,'” says Maurillo.
Why are PR agents marginalized in this way? The answer: “Words have power,” she says. “More than any others, we are the people who know that! So why do we continue to sit silently when we are called ‘flacks,’ ‘spin-meisters’ and other derogatory terms?”
“Like many in the profession, I have devoted my 40-year career to helping people understand public relations,” says Hanser. “For that reason, I find the word ‘flack’ to be inflammatory, condescending and offensive.”
[image from KnowYourMeme.com]
“Flack” Is Outdated
The term “flack” dates back to decades ago when publicists were agents who spun stories, whispered things in people’s ears, etc., mostly regarding celebrities,” says Filomena Fanelli of The Boreland Group. “This is hardly the same as someone who specializes in crisis management, thoughtful opinion pieces and serious newsworthy press releases.”
“This is a very limited definition of public relations,” agrees Hanser. “It’s almost a 1950s era understanding of the scope of public relations.”
“Flack” reinforces an old Hollywood depiction of PR people, concurs Collins. It brings to mind either a slimy sort of person who puts a positive spin on things like seal clubbing or strip mining, or an empty-headed bimbo who attends lots of parties and networks for no apparent reason.
Perhaps “flack” brings that old Hollywood image of PR people to mind because the word is frequently used specifically in the entertainment industry, says Hanser. He admits that he has never actually been present to hear anyone call a PR pro a “flack” — he’s only heard it used in movies or on TV.
For instance, “flack” reminds president of The Boreland Group, Jennefer Witter, of the movie “Sweet Smell of Success,” where Tony Curtis’ character played an unscrupulous, immoral press agent.
Very few people in media still use the word “flack,” agrees John Goodman, president of John Goodman PR. In the past, when there was a clear line between the media and PR industries, the word was degrading and derogatory. “But as the media business experienced contraction and layoffs, more and more ‘journalists’ sought jobs and began careers in public relations,” he says.
After many years of working at news outlets and constantly worrying about when the next wave of layoffs would come, Goodman switched his career track to PR. “I still have many friends and contacts who work in media,” he says. “Unless it’s in jest, no one is going to call me a ‘flack.'”
And that’s because these days, with so many PR pros as former reporters, editors, producers, etc., the differences between the media and PR industries are no longer black and white. Goodman earned respect as a journalist first, and now he earns respect from journalists by helping them with their stories. The dynamics have changed.
“Flack” vs. “Flak”: Origin of Negativity?
According to Google Dictionary, flack is a noun that means “publicity agent.”
Meanwhile, flak has two definitions: 1) antiaircraft fire, and 2) strong criticism.
Neil Gussman, strategic communications and media relations manager for Chemical Heritage Foundation, and former Army chemical engineer who served in Iraq (and who has experienced the first definition of flak firsthand), more clearly describes the antiaircraft-fire definition as the shrapnel and bullet shells that rain down on allies while firing at enemy aircraft.
Maybe the negative connotations of flack come from this connection with flak, Gussman hypothesizes.
As for the second definition of flak (like when someone says “don’t give me any flak”), this associated meaning is perhaps also why the flack reference to PR agents has negative undertones, speculates Fanelli.
“Some publicists may get offended by the term because they believe ‘flack’ denotes criticism,” says Todd Fraser, account director at INK Inc. Public Relations. “But they need to take a step back from that because that definition is spelled ‘flak.'”
Why Some Reps Don’t Care If You Call Them a “Flack”
“Flack” isn’t a bad word, but a silly one, says Henry Stimpson, principal of Stimpson Communications. “What me and 99 percent of other PR people do today is miles away from ‘flackery,'” he says. “You can call me a ‘flack’ if you want, but I’ll just chuckle at your ignorance.”
“‘Flack’ is slang, but I don’t think it’s something for us to get worked up over,” agrees Tim O’Brien, owner of O’Brien Communications. “In more formal usage, we call ourselves ‘public relations professionals’ or ‘communications practitioners,’ but in less formal settings, we can be called ‘flacks.'”
However, the word “spin” needs to be avoided at all costs — formally or informally, stresses O’Brien.
“Publicists have been called a lot of things, some of which aren’t appropriate for print,” says Fraser. “But I’ve always been on board with the term ‘flack.’ To me, it conjures up the idea of a club for all of us who smile and dial for a living,” he says. “It has an old-school feel, like calling a newspaper writer a ‘scribe.'”
But Fraser agrees with O’Brien that “spin doctor” implies dishonesty and should never be used.
“As a new public relations professional, I was advised of the term ‘flack,’ and the ensuing debate as to whether the term was derogatory or offensive,” says Suzan French, a seasoned PR professional. “Many years in the industry later, the argument is silly to me,” she says. “So when it came time to name my own PR firm, I had no reservations about my choice: FlackShack.”
“I don’t think of all slang terms as less credible,” explains French. “I associate many of them with respect and trust.”
For example, when French hears “doc,” she imagines a “big, gruff, older gentleman in a white lab coat — the same one who treated my poison ivy, delivered my babies and came to my elderly mother’s bedside during her final days.”
“‘Hack,’ ‘flack,’ ‘shrink’ all conjure up images of those experienced in their professions, who have been working at their trade for a long time, and are good at what they do,” continues French. “Words like ‘geek’ and ‘nerd,’ which were once considered derogatory, are suddenly cool,” she adds.
“Though public relations should be taken seriously, it does not have to be serious in nature all the time,” French continues. “Some of the most successful campaigns have been those that were tongue-in-cheek, playful and sometimes just plain silly.”
French concludes: “I don’t know who said it first, but I have to agree: ‘I don’t care what you call me, just call me.'”
Readers: What’s your take?
Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.