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How to wage war on the government PR hacks

May 16, 2011

So here’s the problem: you’ve got a solid, hard-hitting story and want a response from the government, both for journalistic reasons and because you might actually be curious about what they have to say.  How naive you are. Anyways, you call a government PR flack to try and arrange an interview with a real live person.

The PR flack on the other end of the phone is always very, very nice. Yes, I can help you get the info you need. Yes, I will see if someone can speak about the issue. When’s your deadline? OK, we’ll have something for you. What type of questions would you have for the Minister?

You tell her what you’re looking for. You want to know what the plans for the future are to fix this government clusterfuck on which you are reporting (but you use different words). You know that the government would like to add its two cents for whatever story you’re running.

Sure, we’ll get you something. When’s your deadline.

Fast forward a day, a week, or a month. You get an email full of government numbers and gov-speak that very much does not answer your question. In fact, while the info the flack has sent you contains thousands of words, only five, maybe six if you’re lucky, are of any relevancy to the story you’re working on. It looks like it took a long time to put together this package for you, which it probably did, since PR flacks have to do something to justify their pay. But it takes you about 30 seconds to realize that, No, this isn’t what you wanted.

So you call up the flack. You thank him for all the information, which might be of some use, but you really need to speak to the minister.

The minister’s really busy but we’ll see what we can do.

OK, good, you say. You really want to get the government’s side on this. People have questions. They want answers. Real answers. You’re doing the government a favour by being so accommodating.

The next day you receive an email.

The minister is not available. Someone from the ministry can give you some information. But it would be on background, of course. You couldn’t quote anybody, certainly not by name.

This is your casus belli, your justified reason for war.

You say that you know the minister is busy but that you can make yourself available to fit his tight schedule and, besides, you only need a couple minutes (this can always be dragged out, it’s not like he’s going to hang up on you). Given your open schedule, you know that the minister must be available for five minutes sometime in there.

You say you need someone to go on the record, that a quote or information from an anonymous government flack isn’t worth the cheap newsprint your paper is printed on. And you don’t back down.

Part of a media relation person’s job is to “build relationships with the media.” When dealing with a flack, you have the upper hand. If he or she works for a provincial or federal ministry, you likely won’t be speaking to them again. So you’re as forceful as possible to get something out of them, and you tell them that their policy is fucking ridiculous, that you have done your utmost to accommodate them and that you’ve got a story to print one way or the other. After all you’re in the right, they’re in the wrong, and you also are standing above them with a sledgehammer aimed at their gonads.

Also, you make clear that you’re not going to let them off the hook by writing a six-word sentence that says “Minister So-and-So wasn’t able to comment.” No, you’re going to write that despite repeated attempts throughout the past week/month, the Minister refused to explain the government’s stance. Because that’s what happened. You also may threaten to do worse than you actually would, knowing that the PR flack will cave.

If you’re speaking to a local PR flack, you might be a little more tactful, but you know that the PR person has even more to lose. You use that fact to, in no uncertain terms, describe what you really think about whatever local media policies piss you off. You might get those changed, you might not, but this is like bartering; even if you don’t get everything you want, you’ll likely at least get the information you seek for the story in question.

This is important.

Without push back from media, local, provincial and federal governments will always stray toward insular media policies that allow government workers and ministries to dodge accountability while giving up a minimum of information. I’ve heard of, and experienced, many such examples of useless PR hackery in the last year and I’m fed up with it. But nothing will change without more journalists loudly and vehemently pushing back against government.

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