Flack, Flak — Which Do You Prefer?

It’s time for another sad story. At first blush, you might think I’m talking about AIG, because it is irresistible to report that after getting egg-faced over the $400kexecutive retreat in the midst of being handed a $122.5 billion government lifeline, four executives from the insurance giant went on an $87,000 partridge hunt last week. You are probably not surprised — I was not either (though shooting down partridges is not my style). What caught my eye — and what’s in it for YOU the PR person — is the way The NY Post reported on this story.

The reporter Kate Sheehy asked for comment from AIG, and here’s what she reported: “An AIG flak defended the trip, saying it was previously planned.” There are three things wrong with that sentence — that the trip was defensible; that Sheehy referred to the PR person as a “flak” and that Kate apparently missed Spelling class, when what really meant to type was “flack.”  Oddly, the word flak could work well with this story too, but I won’t digress.

Technically, most dictionaries will refer to flack as a press agent/spokesperson. But we all know it’s not the preferred name for a spokesperson, for a communicator, for a PR executive.  Yet it’s used all the time.  Whether behind your back or to your face.  It’s used informally and often without malice. It’s akin to journalists being called hacks, which technically, is not incorrect for many writers who “work for hire.”

The term, as used in the NY Post story, connotes a certain condescension for the PR trade. Perhaps if the unnamed spokesperson had given a better response to the reporter’s question, the story would have referred to the flack as a spokesperson or by their formal PR title. But the response to the media was lame.

So I end where I began — it’s a sad story — or a sad state of affairs — any time bona fide PR professionals (and I am assuming the PR dept at AIG is legit) are referred to as “flacks.”  The industry should not have to take such flak.

What do you think? Are you OK with this nickname?

— Diane Schwartz

  • http://www.ckpr.biz Deborah Radman

    I think that the term Flack is disrespectful and I cringe every time someone uses it to describe public relations professionals. Now, I’ll admit, there are probably some in this business who deserve the term, but for the most part, I think it is a denigrating label. The thing I don’t completely understand is why even certain respected professionals in the PR business use the term loosely (I’m referring to a popular industry blog called “The Flack” and written by the highly regarded Peter Himler).

  • http://www.duanemorris.com Joshua Peck

    I frankly don’t care what reporters call me, as long as they return my calls on a good story. Why get upset about their simply using a word that’s a simple one syllable instead of inflated extra words?

  • L

    “and that Kate apparently missed Spelling class, when what really meant to type was “flack.” ”

    Don’t you mean to say, “…when what SHE really meant to type was ‘flack.'” ??

    Also, “Spelling” class would not be capitalized.

    Just saying. Doesn’t look good for us “flacks.”

  • Janet Davenport

    While it has a harsh ring, it is what people outside the p.r. industry call p.r. people all the time, including journalists. With the transparency of online communications, everything is now more in the open and in our faces. It’s impossible to control some things. What we can control is how we respond to them.

  • http://www.beaconstreetgirls.com Bobbie

    Long ago I participated in a softball game billed as the Hacks versus the Flacks (Journos v. PR pros.) Everyone had a good laugh and it was all very good-natured.

    I tend to think of the term “flack” the same way I think of the terms “nerd” and “geek.” What used to be a derogatory term is now carried with pride. It is a short hand term that still carries baggage for some but most people have moved on to worrying about more important issues.

  • http://www.punchcanada.com Jeff Lake

    I have called reporters every time I see flak used. As a former newspaper editor, I reminded them that if PR consultants are “flaks” than they must be “hacks”. They get the message.

  • http://www.larakretler.com Lara Kretler

    I think it’s all a matter of context and intention. If someone who generally respects PR professionals uses the term “flack” informally (as I myself have done in a recent blog post), then I’m fine with it. If someone else is using the term as a derogatory remark to show lack of respect for the profession, then it makes me mad.

  • Jim Proulx

    I pretty much believe that if we, in this business, are offended by being referred to as flacks, then we don’t have enough to be offended about.

    Of course, as a former copy editor, I AM offended by the “flak” spelling, which, as we all know is stuff sent up to shoot down airplanes.

  • Jim Proulx

    Follow-up — I also find that the people most likely to be offended by being called flacks are those who’ve spent their entire career on this side of the fence.

  • Janet Falk

    If I get called a flak, I consider it a typo.

  • http://q2marketing.com Becky Sheetz-Runkle

    I think Joshua is spot on. Who cares what they call me if they work with me to get my clients interviews and coverage? What matters to me is results.

  • http://proreportertips.com Steve Lunceford

    To quote Stripes, “Lighten up, Francis.” I agree with both Joshua’s and Bobbie’s comments above. I just don’t think “flack” is truly derogatory anymore — just an easy, descriptive shorthand.

    Heck, I don’t think “Spin doctor” should be looked at as a pejorative either (in fact, SPIN DR is my vanity license plate).

  • http://www.identitypr.com/blog Tom Nixon

    Do we need flak jackets to practice in this profession? Truth is, in nature, flacks and journalists are at odds, if not mortal enemies. It is our job to bridge that divide and make nice—not the reporters’. Those who act in the reporter’s interest while protecting and furthering the client’s will do well to eschew this moniker, if degrading. And taking umbrage at words used “often without malice” isn’t a good start. Great post, though…

  • http://www.une.no Don Radoli

    Watch out the “hacks” don’t do a hatchet job on your client or organisation. Much easier for both parties if you “spin” them into a frenzy doc.

  • http://www.flackrabbit.com Margie Newman

    Although I see your point, I don’t view the use of “flack” as derogatory. Honestly, I kind of like the term … so much in fact that my blog/website bares the name FlackRabbit.

    I did enjoy reading your thoughts on it though :)

  • http://www.flatironcomm.com Peter Himler

    It seems the industry is split on the use of the term “flack” (or flak) to describe PR industry professionals. It clearly is derogatory, especially when used by journalists.

    As I said in this post on the same subject (http://tinyurl.com/5dv47p), The Flack blog was so named “in a Gawker moment.”

    Would I have named it that today? Probably not, but then again Hillary Clinton’s senior communications strategist Howard Wolfson just debuted his new blog, “The Flack,” in The New Republic, while The New York Times’s Deal Book” section has picked up the industry musings of the pseudonymous “Jack Flack.”


  • Sylke

    I’m on the fence on the connotation of the word flack – it’s all in how it’s used rather than the word itself. I am just happy when people know what PR actually is, instead of mixing us up with sales, marketing and advertising folks.

  • A

    I entirely agree with an earlier comment– the level of offensiveness comes with context and intention. To be literal, flack is a term for someone who provides publicity. Now, if the writer’s tone and message content purely uses the term with that specific definition in tow, then so be it. However, as soon as it becomes a name-calling game, I believe [hacks] is up for grabs…

  • icanhazmail?


    Thanks for reading, and thanks for clearing up the difference between the words “flak” and “flack”. I actually Googled it, and this came up.

    -Joe Mama

  • http://www.beauprephoto.com/images/kara/ostxoo.asp www.beauprephoto.com

    What’s up, just wanted to tell you, I loved this article. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!