The Difference Between Flacks & Spin Doctors

Posted on: September 2, 2010 at 12:30 pm By Todd Defren

I honestly hadn’t heard much hubbub about the August 21 New York Times feature on the year’s biggest PR fiascoes (“In Case of Emergency: What Not to Do”), until I read last week’s editorial in PRWeek, “NYT falls short again in its portrayal of PR” (sub reqd).

(The) article seemed to suggest that the “PR missteps” were what led to the problems at BP, Toyota, and Goldman Sachs, and this is simply a naive way of thinking.

In each of these cases, the true problem was caused by a fundamental business—or safety—issue. Ask any crisis communications or reputation management expert and they will tell you BP could not even think about working on its reputation until it stopped the oil leak.

The two most-frequently used sobriquets to describe PR pros are “spin doctors” and “flacks.”  For all the mainstream media get wrong about their understanding of Public Relations, its remarkable that these two nicknames aptly describe the best and worst of the profession.

FlackIt’s true that there are far too many FLACKS in the PR trade.  My definition of a flack is a PR spammer: someone who pitches indiscriminately, with no regard for the media’s expertise, interests or contact preferences.

“The flack” is how 99% of PR professionals are viewed.  The reality IMHO is that it’s closer to 50% — still too many, by about 49%.  The good news is that PR pros ARE getting better at this whole “media relations” thing, since it’s now, thankfully, so easy for genuine flacks to be outed by their frustrated “targets.”

A SPIN DOCTOR is a PR pro who can presumably make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.  And while it’s true that there are some exceptional examples of this in the history of communications, the NYT piece demonstrates that sometimes the “doctor” will lose their patient, if they’re too far gone for succor.

The PR pro can only EVER be as good as their client. An evil and/or dysfunctional and/or walled-off client can’t rely on a “spin doctor” to save them.

In my experience, PR pros facing a communications crisis often shine brightest when they convince their anxious clients to simply DO THE RIGHT THING.  “Get in front of this, tell the truth, and work your ass off to fix the problem.”

That “truth” strategy only works when the truth is that the problem was unintentional and has not been purposefully hidden to-date.  As one PR pro noted in the NYT piece:

(Swift) disclosure (does not) provide inoculation against all ugly realities. When the facts are horrible … the best P.R. fix may simply be to absorb the pounding and get back to business, while eschewing the sort of foolish communications gimmicks that can make things worse.

A good spin doctor can’t work miracles, but they can surmise the right approach, i.e., whether to open-up or bunker-down. In all cases it’s still up to the client to take their medicine, to revive their reputation.

And that’s the fundamental disconnect in the NYT article.  As my Twitter friend @kurt_foeller noted, “where the NYT fell short was in understanding how BP (and Toyota and Goldman Sach’s) top management made solid PR strategy and execution impossible.”

Source: pr-squared


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. publicrelationswriter
    Sep 17, 2010 @ 23:28:15

    Somehow “spin doctor” has a negative connotation for me. I do not like the idea that a public relations person can take a negative situation and with a play on words “spin” it around to sound like it’s a good thing. I prefer honesty–communicating truth–not leaving out things that need to be said, or covering up things that need to be exposed, because guess what–sooner or later it all comes out anyway and then you’ve lost credibility. And by the way, “flack” doesn’t sound much better either. As for me, I do not want to be a flack or a spin doctor. I choose to be a communicator with integrity, tactfulness, wisdom and compassion. If that isn’t good enough–so be it.



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