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A quarter of PR flacks admit lying to journos – survey

Deliver us, O Lord, from the Spin Doctors

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One in four public relations flacks 'fessed up to lying on the job, and forty percent admitted that they had "exaggerated" in the course of shellacking the facts for journalistic consumption, according to a recent PRWeek ethics survey, which sampled the opinions of 1700 public relations, em, 'professionals'. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they had passed along corporate hear-say without confirming the accuracy of the information. Sixty percent said they felt "compromised" in their work, either because they suspected they were being lied to by corporate execs or because they had been denied complete information, the survey found. "Pros are happy to practice PR without a qualification. But the issue of ethics continues to make the industry uneasy and many pros are even willing to embrace a drastic ethical certification process in order to salvage the credibility and reputation of their profession," PRWeek says. One of our favourite industry documents is a primer called "How to Control a Media Interview" by heavyweight PR firm APCO Associates, which affords rare insight into the bare-knuckled Art of Spin typically urged upon so-called communications 'professionals'. The PR Prime Directive is to use journalists as unwitting agents of free advertising. "The interview is an opportunity for you to deliver a specific message to the reporter's audience. Take responsibility for the content of the interview, and guide the reporter to your story," the primer recommends. "Decide what you want the reporter to say about you and your company. It is your story; no one is able to tell it better than you....[The reporter] is your connection to the public." "When you feel the content of the interview digressing from your key points, use a transition to get back on track....example, 'That's a good point, but i really think...' [or] 'What's most important is...'" In other words, become a living, breathing press release. The Register has scant sympathy for the thousands of well-scrubbed, cooperative journos turned out by university programmes where the communications department director is more likely than not bonking the journalism department director, and which therefore emphasise the PR flack's role as a legitimate news source. However, we're not without compassion for those whose only sin is ignorance, rather than cowardice. Thus a few tips of our own, or, "The Register's guide to controlling PR flacks." Ground rules First, understand that the 25 percent of flacks who admit lying are the honest ones. The remaining 75 percent are so hopelessly debauched that they're no longer ashamed to deny it. Those are the ones to watch out for. A flack is a dissimulating pimp, and you are a scabby whore. Never forget this. They exist for the sole purpose of using you as a mechanism of free advertising. Of course, advertising is a valuable commodity; therefore, always demand fair compensation for spreading your scabby thighs. At a minimum, insist on interviewing them in your favourite restaurants, clubs and pubs; and under no circumstances spring for a tab, even jokingly. Anyone who tries to place conditions on your use of the information they offer doesn't get it; and any journalist who permits a flack to place conditions on information is a spineless disgrace. Remember, you have the power of the pen and access to a readership. What you have is monumentally more valuable than any bollocky scrap of sanitised, market-tested corporate propaganda they might hope to peddle. Never let a flack forget this. Quid pro quo There is no quid pro quo; you hold all the cards. Therefore, never -- never ever -- thank a flack for anything. Flacks try to cultivate a fraudulent dynamic implying that you need them and that they supply you with something valuable (we mean other than free meals and booze), in order to bind you with the shackles of their illusory largesse. Never let them manoeuvre you into this perverse role reversal. You are the one communicating directly with the public; you are the one supplying the valuable service. You are the one on whose largesse their tenuous existence depends. Therefore, expect them to thank you, and lavishly, for condescending to listen to their self-serving drivel. If a flack seems insufficiently grateful for your time, simply omit to cover the company he represents for a few weeks. He'll come around quickly enough. If a flack ever dares to say, "May I ask you a favour?" you should laugh heartily and reply, "Of course not, you ridiculous creature." Remember, flacks are obligated to talk to you. You, on the other hand, are free to ignore them. Facts are cheap If, under extraordinary circumstances, it should behove you to wrestle the actual truth out of a flack, your most productive tactic is always to consult the representative of a direct competitor of the company you're curious about. Flacks love to slag the competition and often have heaps more dirt on competing companies than legitimate information on their own, which tend to keep them as far out of the loop as possible (lest, in a drunken stupor, they should accidentally tell a journalist something he might wish to know). Thus you get the straight dope on Intel from AMD's flack, the low-down about Ford from Chrysler's flack, the dirt on Trimble from Adams' flack, and so on. To test the accuracy of such scuttlebutt, you must next ring the flack representing the subject-company, with a wildly-exaggerated version of the dirt you got from his competitor. For example, let's imagine that an AMD rep tells you that Intel screwed its distributors by secretly drop-shipping ten thousand CPUs to retailers last quarter. You then ring the Intel flack and say, "I understand that you drop-shipped upwards of two-hundred-thousand CPUs to retailers last quarter." The appalled rep will almost certainly blurt out, "Rubbish! It was barely five thousand!" Bingo.... Since the AMD rep is motivated to overstate the claim, and the Intel rep is motivated to understate it, The Register recommends splitting the difference and going to press with 7,500. Lying on background Whenever a flack is about to distort your perceptions with a particularly worthless, or egregiously misleading, bit of corporate propaganda, he will invariably preface it by lowering his voice and saying, "Can I trust you with something....strictly off the record?" This is one of the oldest rub-jobs in the book. The Great Cardinal Rule of flackdom is "Never tell a journalist anything you don't want to see in print or on television." They know perfectly well that everything they say is fair game; thus they bait you with such phoney forbidden fruits to ensure publication of whatever rotten titbit they're peddling. Understand that whatever a flack offers 'off the record' is precisely what he is most eager to see in print. With that in mind, the journalist may decide whether or not to publish it, depending on his assessment of the relative advantages of either accommodating or frustrating the flack. Tough talk Once in a while you'll get some hotshot flack who imagines he can push you around. He might even try to show his widdle, and actually threaten to 'cut you off' from his stream of worthless lies. This is pure smoke. A journalist who gets so much as a whiff of this treatment should ring off immediately, and then conspicuously omit to cover the flack's employer until, after a few days or weeks, he inevitably rings back ready to crawl. It's advisable not to take or return his first few calls whenever this happens. And do keep your hands clean. Never condescend to throw blows with a combative flack. Just cut him off, silently and certainly, and let him sweat. His supervisor will do your dirty work for you. Remember, his boss wants to see the company name in print, and will ride his ass mercilessly if they're not getting enough media coverage. You are the gatekeeper - nay, the Saint Peter - of the great Publicity Paradise beyond, and every day is Judgment Day. Don't waste time scrupling over negative stories, no matter how much a flack might whinge. They're all secretly delighted to be in print under any circumstances. Never complain, never explain, and never apologise. Remember the immortal words of Brendan Behan: "The only bad publicity is an obituary." So go forth, rejoice, and abuse your power relentlessly. ®

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