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.