What do you get when you pack a room full of PR folk and journalists – with the former outnumbering the latter 4 to 1? The result is less a confident face-off and more a joint session in existential angst interspersed by the occasional bout of mutual backslapping.
Such was ‘Hacks V Flacks’, an event organised by PR Moment earlier this week. The gathering was eye-opening to us insiders – and, I suspect, eye-closing to anybody else. Rather than reflecting on the big issues pulling at the contours of our mediascape – the sucking up of old media by the new through Twitter’s Lightening and Facebook News, the application of virtual reality to new broadcast possibilities, the imminent conquest of radio by a certain fruit -branded app – we talked about whether it’s better to email contacts or catch them on the phone.
No one cares about history. But if more PR folk did they wouldn’t keep coming back to the same old discussions about the value of cultivating relationships. This shouldn’t be a newsflash for anyone. The story is in the name. Hack, derived from hackneyed, goes back to the 18th century and describes someone tasked with drudge work ranging from cab driving to prostitution. Flack has no documented origin but appears in circulation in the 1940s around the time that the press junket came into being. Publicists – usually ex-journos – inaugurated a practice, now routine, of luring the press to some confined locale where they would be offered celebrity audiences in exchange for flattering puff pieces. This was PR as it professionalised; emerging out of journalism it took from its drudging forbearers the craft of finding a compelling story and the (soft) graft of leveraging relationships.
Since then PR has grown in the sense that a potato grows in the back of a cupboard. The story – the core, the relationships – remains but specialisms have sprouted out that are becoming increasingly removed from the fundamentals. Social media – a brilliant channel and amplifier, no doubting – has in some cases had the perverse effect of bringing PR backwards to the days of broadcast and be damned. Just connecting through a tweet or a snap replaces the humanity in communications with analytics.
Both sides of the hacks and flacks divide are going through a period of soul-searching. Traditional journalism is being eviscerated by divestment in print in favour of online. PR ostensibly tells another story: recent reports show an increasingly confident industry, recruiting more and upskilling. Why then do the books on PR’s demise chime so well with the zeitgeist? Could it be that as the industry encroaches on new spaces across the marketing and campaigns sector it is losing touch with what it does best?
What is missing from all this introspection is audience. Journalists have readers and PRs have public in their job titles. Quality journalism continues to hold out against click-breath; its practitioners are hard-pressed toilers and need to be provided with engaging, relevant stories ready packaged for them to run with. To be more focused on creating something meaningful, PRs need to have trusting relationships. These connections are more than just door-openers; they help to stress test ideas. Being built on a confidence that the story is not going to be fatuous fluff the publicist is beholden to higher standards of quality control than a run-of the-mill idea pornographer. This makes for better campaigns and greater resonance with the audiences. To abuse a famous axiom, relationships without ideas are pointless, but ideas without relationships are mere intellectual play.