Why I Use the Word ‘Flack’

28 November 2012 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

I’m a science writer, but I’m also a public information officer (PIO). That means I work in public relations (or media relations, anyway), so I often refer to myself as a “flack.” This startles some people and annoys others, so I thought I’d explain why I use the term.

I never went to journalism school. My first interaction with the world of reporting was when I got a job after college in the production department of a news company. I enjoyed the work, but the reporters seemed to be having a much better time than I was. After a sustained campaign of wheedling and cajoling, they gave me a shot as a reporter. The rest is history.

My lack of formal training may be relevant here, because no one ever told me “flack” was a bad word. It was simply the catch-all term used to describe anyone with the words “public affairs,” “public information,” “public relations” or “media relations” in their job title. We used it to refer to folks who did a great job as well as folks who did an awful job. We used it to describe folks at nonprofit entities, on Capitol Hill and in the private sector. It did not denote a value judgment; it was simply a descriptor.

It was only after I left the Fourth Estate to become, well, a flack, that I realized some people view the term as a slur. With few exceptions, those who are offended when I use the word “flack” are in the public relations business. Most reporters don’t care if we call ourselves flacks, PIOs or press officers. And as a PIO, I don’t care that much what other public relations people think. I care what reporters think. Those are the relationships that affect my ability to do my job well.

Because I left journalism to become a flack, I think I should own the designation. I am not a reporter anymore. I’m a PR guy. And I try to be the type of PR guy I wanted to deal with when I was a reporter. I respond to media requests quickly. When I pitch stories to a reporter, I do my best to pitch only stories he or she is likely to be interested in. I don’t overhype the research news that it is my job to promote. I try to make supporting materials easily accessible. Those are all things that matter.

Some people will disagree with me on this issue, and that’s fine. But I don’t care if people call me a flack. As long as they call me a good one.


7 Responses to “Why I Use the Word ‘Flack’”

  1. Tom Breen Reply | Permalink

    I always avoided the term when I was a reporter, because I had friends who did public relations for various institutions, and it rubbed them the wrong way. Now that I'm doing PR work, though, I sort of embrace it the way I embraced "hack" or "pencil" as a mock-disparaging term for reporters. I think, like a lot of appellations, context is key.

  2. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I think we're on the same page, Tom. Also: "pencil"? That's a new one to me!

  3. Frank Vinluan Reply | Permalink

    From my perspective as a hack, I think you're a good one.

  4. Tom Breen Reply | Permalink

    That was always the (affectionate?) term of mild abuse photogs had for reporters at the AP. I never had a comeback for that other than, "I use a pen."

  5. Scott Huler Reply | Permalink

    Great post, Matt, and I agree completely. I never felt more like a reporter than the day I walked into an office at the Philadelphia Inquirer to talk to an editor and he looked up and said, "Huler! You brain-damaged hack!" It was like a welcome to the club. I have had other writers refuse to even acknowledge that i have SAID it when i have said a good flack can be a writer's best friend. But I think any good writer knows this.

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