PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Don't denigrate public relations by what you call it
© 2010 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home page About the author

Public relations practitioners are in an enterprise that depends on the power of words, and they ultimately use words to accomplish everything they achieve. Given that, how can experienced public relations people knowingly use words with strong negative connotations to describe their profession and claim it does no harm?


The labels attached to a profession affect how it's perceived.

Saying this may appear stodgy or old-fashioned to some, but I'd rather be seen in that light and be regarded as someone who respects his profession than be seen as someone who is disdainful of his own profession and has contempt for what it does. The latter, I regret, is the impression given by many public relations practitioners today.

Whether it's intentional or not, and even if they're trying to be sarcastic or humorous, I think public relations people who refer to themselves as "flacks, spinmeisters, truth-twisters" or other pejorative terms or who describe their work as "spinning stories, re-defining reality, shaping truth," or "making a silk purse out of a sow's ear" are reinforcing some of the most negative perceptions of their profession.

Such behavior is inexplicable to me. I don't understand how someone who is supposedly an expert in communication, who uses language as a professional tool, and who carefully deconstructs and worries over every word in the statements they attribute to their clients can be so oblivious to the impact the words they use to describe their profession can have.

Public relations has a history of problematic terms being applied to it.

Prior to and during World War I, "propaganda" was a popular and acceptable term that encompassed much of public relations, and it wasn't unusual for public relations practitioners in the early 20th century to call themselves propagandists. Even Edward L. Bernays, who is often called the father of public relations, titled his second major book about public relations Propaganda.

However, the propaganda generated during the war and the extensive use of propaganda by the emerging Nazi Party in Germany after the war created a tipping point that radically changed the connotations of that word. Within a few years, the word "propaganda" became so tainted with negativity that a backlash developed against anyone who admitted to practicing it. Reputable public relations people quickly dropped it and still shy away from it.

Today, no self-respecting public relations practitioner in the United States would ever publicly claim to be a "propagandist."

Why would a public relations professional call himself "a flack?"

In a 2009 blog posting that was picked up and re-posted on, Bob Geller, an SVP at Fusion Public Relations, explained why he named his public relations blog "Flack's Revenge". He wrote in part:

" was intended to be equal parts ironic, provocative and irreverent. ...

"Many in my targeted audience—PR and marketing people—found the term offensive. ...

"How has the meaning of flack evolved and what does it stand for today? In my experience, journalists sometimes use it in a disparaging way, to describe clueless PR people — a counterpart to the word "hack," the rhyming descriptor of similar meaning as applied to journalists.

"Is the term accepted, and OK to use? I am sure reasonable people can and will disagree on this. If it is any indication of the acceptance of the word flack in the PR field, I have seen quite a few blogs that use the term in their title. ...

"At times, groups use non-politically-correct names to describe themselves, and say it is OK to do this as long you are a member of the referenced group. I see nothing wrong in using the term if you are flack like me."

Is self-deprecating name calling really harmless?

I, for one, don't think so.

With all due respect to Bob Geller whose opinions I often concur with, I strongly disagree with this one. It may not be morally wrong to use such terms, but I think it is professionally wrong, especially for a public relations practitioner.

The practical reality is that if a person who is known to be a practitioner in any professional field uses a derogatory term to refer to it or describes what it does in a negative way, it undermines the entire profession and the reputation of all its practitioners. While it's unfortunate for this to happen to any profession, I find it particularly disheartening when public relations is involved. That's because public relations is essentially about maintaining and enhancing relationships. So, if a public relations professional intentionally or accidentally disparages the entire field by incautiously employing and appearing to approve of such terms as propagandist, flack, spinmeister, and any number of others, he or she is, in essence, acting contrary to the fundamental purpose of the profession and hurting it in the process.

For perspective, consider some other professions.

Let's move away from public relations for a minute and consider some other professions, perhaps some that you rely on. Do you routinely do business with professionals whose expertise you depend on who disparage their profession or their own credentials?

Just how much faith would you have in ...

The fact is: words matter.

And, when it comes to public relations and the impact that words can have, what matters most is how the audience sees, hears, and perceives the words, not how the writer or speaker intended them to be received. Those of us who urge our clients to think before they speak, need to heed our own advice when it comes to talking about our profession.

Remember the childish chant:
"Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but names will never hurt me?".

Don't believe it!

Table of contents The changing name of public relations What do you call yourself? Practicing Public Relations
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