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The Strategy Room

Flacks vs. Hacks -Taking the High Road Instead of the Road to Nowhere

By: Lori Russo

It seems there is no end to the pleasure journalists and PR people experience when sparring with each other, particularly now that social media so swiftly expands and extends the reach of every gripe, complaint and criticism.  This trend began in earnest, I believe, in 2007 when Chris Anderson outed public relations professionals – by name – for their lazy pitching tactics in his online PR “blacklist.” Others, including Gina Tripani of Lifehacker, quickly followed suit by publishing their own blacklists and using blogs and social media platforms to shame PR “spammers.”

Last week, the ongoing conflict between journalists and PR professionals carried out in a different way when former Financial Times reporter Tom Foremski, now a blogger at siliconvalleywatcher.com, informed the world that Sean Garrett, Twitter’s Chief of Communications, had the audacity to unfollow him after a series of critical blog posts. This is the first example I can recall of a reporter calling out a communications professional for an unfollow, or what PR Daily blogger Kevin Allen calls a “social media equivalent of a nose-thumbing.”  In response to Foremski’s post, Garrett immediately re-followed him and declared that the “long national nightmare is over.”

But is it? Will PR people and journalists ever walk the high road together? Or is this public sparring just too much fun?

PR people will tell you that we don’t have the freedom to criticize journalists for their bad behavior the way they criticize us for ours. But rather than continuing to focus on “us” and “them,” we should really take a hard look at the collective “we.” While the age of new and social media has rendered the journalism and public relations landscapes nearly unrecognizable compared to 5 years ago, the fact remains that our livelihoods still largely depend on our ability to work together. Despite all the tension that naturally exists between communications professionals and journalists, we really do rely on each other to do our jobs well. While there will always be outliers on both sides who give their respective professions a bad name, the noisy online battles paint an inaccurate picture of reality.

Over a dozen years in the public relations field (before which I worked in journalism), I have developed strong and lasting relationships with reporters and editors, some of whom I pitch and some of whom I don’t. I also spend a lot of time at the National Press Club and participate in an ongoing collaboration between “hacks” and “flacks” that is valuable to professionals on both sides. What I see in real life is far different from what is playing out on the computer screen. And it gives me hope. There are even examples of PR people and journalists getting along online. In public. For all to see.  #journchat, a weekly Twitter discussion created by Sarah Evans, brings together PR folks, journalists and bloggers to share tips and exchange ideas. The spirited and healthy discussion fostered by #journchat is a powerful testament to what we can do if we work together.

If we focus on our common ground, and deal with our differences in a more respectful way by letting bygones be bygones (and unfollows be unfollows) rather than duking it out over social media, we can move forward together to elevate the discourse rather than continuing to regress through finger-pointing and nose-thumbing.  What do you think? Can we do it?




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