Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A Word About Flacks

Some visitors to this blog claim ignorance of the term "flack" as applied to publicists, press agents, or public relations reps. Clearly they don't spend a lot of time trolling the Oxford English Dictionary. (I can't recall just now who said, "The only book I read is the dictionary--I figure all the other books are in there.") The second definition listed by the OED (after "A blow, slap, or stroke") is "A press agent; a publicity man." I consulted an older edition, so presumably they've cleaned up that bit of casual sexism.

Flack is a versatile word. It can be used as a noun to refer to those who practice the gentle arts cited above. (A good example can be found in this headline from yesterday's Toronto Star: "Ex-Bush Flack Got $24,500 Canadian," a reference to former White House spokesman--whoops, I mean spokesperson--Ari Fleischer.) Flack can also be used as a transitive verb--as in, "I used to flack books"--or an intransitive verb--as in, "I'm not flacking for that publisher anymore" (to cite two totally random examples).

The term "flack" is almost always used in a disparaging way. I chose it because I happen to be one, and by applying it to myself I somehow remove the firing pin, neutralize the warhead, and disarm the thing. Truth is, the term has never really bothered me.

There are some PR pros out there who get their backs up when they hear it. I call your attention to Gil Schwartz, executive VP of communications for CBS. Some months ago Gil gave a spirited defense of the public relations profession on "CBS Sunday Morning," in response to a commentary by legal analyst Andrew Cohen a few weeks earlier. Gil paid particular attention to Cohen's use of the word "flack."

If Gil seems familiar to you, it may be that you know him better as Stanley Bing, author of a regular column in Fortune Magazine and a number of outstanding books, among them Executricks...Or How to Retire While You're Still Working and Crazy Bosses.

In my former life, I spent a lot of time flacking Bing's books. I think it's a worthwhile experience for a flack to flack for a flack. Especially an executive VP ┼▒berflack. Especially one with two personalities. It was a pretty good gig.

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