Posts Tagged ‘public relations’

How to wage war on the government PR hacks

May 16, 2011 Comments off

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.

Categories: Columns, Ethics Tags:

Gators, pinball wizards, school boards and animal people

February 28, 2011 Comments off

Lotsa stuff from around the Lower Mainland last week. (Two more posts coming later today).

Superb story, in the Burnaby Now, by Jennifer Moreau on an autistic pinball genius and aspiring poker king.

Robert’s latest passion is poker. For the past three or four months, he’s been teaching himself how to play by watching YouTube videos and has already ranked No. 11 in one of B.C.’s amateur leagues. With his natural ability to handle numbers, statistics and probabilities, Robert seems cut out for the game.

“If you ask him, ‘What are the chances of getting royal flush?’ He’ll probably say, ‘One in 650,000,’ ” Maurizio says. “He tells me this stuff, and it goes over my head.”


The poker thing blows me away because it’s generally assumed that a large part of that game is the ability to read competitors’ intentions. And yet, a major symptom of autism is the inability to pick up such social cues.

Also in the Burnaby Now, Janaya Fuller-Evans reports on allegations of bullying, infighting and other alleged misdeeds that one normally expects to see in the arts community, rather than among animal lovers.

Arnold noted many instances of harassment, from board members directly confronting her over issues to moments where she felt threatened, including when her truck was vandalized while parked at the association’s barns.



The new Black Press front pages are improved, but the stories themselves badly need paragraph breaks. I imagine someone’s working on that. Meanwhile the WordPress Theme for Black Press blogs is truly horrible and gloomy and makes me not want to read on even when the content is quite good. Please change it.


The phrase “board of education” sounds stupid. They’re school boards, they should be called as such.


I just noticed the sleazy weekly editorials in the Delta Optimist. How do you get your editorial percentage when the copy is so obviously an advertisement? The Optimist is the only Postmedia paper with a business column down the right hand side of its news page. Why? Why? Why?


A crazy crime spree in the Chilliwack area included, as Robert Freeman of the Chilliwack Progress puts it, “one woman’s emergency 911 call, one vehicle burning under the Agassiz/Rosedale bridge, one dust-up with a Chilliwack car dealer, one startled shopper in the Chilliwack Safeway parking lot – and one alligator.” Oh, yeah, and there was a marijuana grow-op involved (although I guess the presence of drugs isn’t all that surprising).

In a similar vein comes this beauty of a headline from the North Shore Outlook: “Stinky thieves steal laundry loot.” And yes, the thieves were actually smelly.


Two stories — one in the Richmond News, the other in the Coquitlam Now — about stutterers are hooked on last night’s Oscars and The King’s Speech. I think a smart PR person is probably behind each, given that they both mention Columbia Speech and Language Services, but that’s OK; the stories are good.


The Richmond Review has published its 30 under 30 section. These features about all these high-flying young achievers always depress the hell out of me, but are fun to read anyways.


Your webinar of the day:

Be like Delta Leader photog Evan Seal and turn your camera on an angle.

This Tri-City News file photo of an ambulance at a hospital is awesome. File photos don’t have to be boring.

And for some reason community newspapers forget that the simple Q and A format can make for great reading and very easy writing. Marisa Babic of the Surrey Now puts questions to under-fire Vanoc head John Furlong.

(One thing, though: we Canadians don’t have a timid sense of patriotism. We just like to pretend we do. If we weren’t patriotic Molson’s I Am Canadian commercials wouldn’t be so successful. Hopefully the Olympics ends the charade.)


Nice story (and lede) by the Vancouver Courier’s Naoibh O’Connor on a First Nations school that has rebranded itself as an “Earth School.”

Rainwater drips like a broken tap off the corner of the First Nation long house roof into a concrete barrel. Droplets barely ripple the surface of six-inch deep water pooled above a bed of rocks, sand and debris. Fidgety Grade 2 and 3 students gather around Brent Mansfield on this cool late-January morning at Grandview/¿uuqinak’uuh elementary. Mansfield, the school’s garden project coordinator, hoped for more of a downpour for today’s lesson, but a drizzle will do.



Finally, in case you missed the Black Press shuffle, the North Shore Outlook and WestEnder have got new editors.

Photo by Ryan Somma via Flickr.


That was a pretty good post, eh? Or not? Either way keep them coming by helping me out. It’s easy, quick and the pay is shite. E-mail bclocalreporter (at) gmail (dot) com.

Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment and I’ll shamefully update the post.

We’re making inroads into our census of B.C. community newspapers, but there are still a lot of blanks in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. How many journalists work at your paper? How often do you come out? Who’s your publisher? Participation is free! The benefits unlimited! The exclamation points boundless!

PR peeves

December 22, 2010 Comments off

The public relations pet peeve of the week goes to Bill Phillips, who writes on his blog:

The new cancer care clinic in Prince George has hired its second oncologist. The press release writers go into full swing. The first quote in the press release is from MLA Shirley Bond, the second is from MLA Pat Bell, the third is from MLA John Rustad, the fourth from Dr. Ronald Chapman … finally someone who actually works in the field. The fourth quote is from someone from the B.C. Cancer Control Agency.

It’s a page-and-a-half press release and, lo and behold, there are no quotes from Dr. Suresh Kattakar, the new oncologist. Guess he’s not important.


It’s almost as if communication isn’t the main goal of these press release writers.

Here’s one rebellious idea that’s been floated to address the problem of the useless “our government has been working to blah blah blah” drivel: When you’re pressed into using a quote from a release, and when that quote is focused on self-promotion, use the word “bragged” rather than “said.”

Because that’s what the politicians who sign off on these releases are doing. And if, as a journalist, you’re going to use a government press release pretty much as is (which is sometimes necessary), adding that one word of truth is the least that can be done.

Does “bragged” connote something negative? Yes. It implies that the person is saying the words to further his or her political aims, rather than to tell the story behind how the project came to be built. If the quote is bragging, then say it.

Your thoughts?

Cher, Pamela Anderson and PR lackeys

December 15, 2010 Comments off

Can someone find me a photo of a broken version of this mug?

Kevin Rothbauer of the Cowichan Valley Citizen reports that “The Kerry Park Islanders and the rest of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League won’t have the Westshore Stingers to push around any longer.” Nice bit of sports reporting on a “hapless” franchise.

The Gulf Islands Driftwood’s Elizabeth Nolan reports on the rescue of a woman known to locals as “Cher” from a boat. The woman, who was likely having a stroke, is apparently musical and sings and plays the guitar. I’ll leave it at that, except to say the story is good.

Some funny/sad court reporting from Campbell River Mirror reporter Paul Rudan, who writes about a father-son drug dealing operation.

Franklin Lee was held in custody over the weekend and appeared in provincial court on Monday when he pleaded guilty to possession of a controlled substance. He had pleaded guilty to the same charge in October and was fined $250.

Corbett was about to elaborate on Lee’s past criminal record when Judge Peter Doherty quickly cut in, “Oh, I’m familiar with Mr. Lee.”

The judge agreed to the proposed sentence of time served and six months probation, and was certain that Lee could not abide by a no-drug order.

The judge, who normally sits in Courtenay provincial court, asked why Lee had moved to Campbell River when his intention was to get away from criminal activity.

Lee shrugged and said he’s “away from the violence” which the judge thought, “was a good start.”


Coast Reporter editor Ian Jacques, last seen ranting about the RCMP new French press release policy, has a new bunch of PR lackies in his sights. He’s mad that the Vancouver Coastal Health authority didn’t invite the media to a meeting at which they released plans for a new mental health facility. Jacques calls their approach to public relations “draconian.” VCH said they wanted to spare the public to feel that they could “express feel that they could express themselves freely and not be inhibited in any way with the media present or with a large public group present,” which is very clearly absolute bullshit.

As every facet of this new facility relates to the public interest and no part of this was done without public funds, there is no reason for this meeting to have been held behind closed doors. It begs the question: what is VCH hiding? We will never know because we weren’t allowed to be there.

This situation lacks the basic openness or accountability that is demanded by people in a free society, and interfering with transparency will, in the end, help no one.


In my experience with health authority PR folk, you could also probably label their PR approach “dragonian.” (Does that joke make sense?)

The Ladysmith Chronicle has a video of Pamela Anderson on their website. Yes, that Pamela Anderson. As with Cher, that is all I have to say.

Remember that Nanaimo Daily Bulletin series on healthy living and pre-New Year’s Resolutions? Here’s Krista Bryce‘s part four.

I missed this the first time, but this story in the North Island Gazette by Teresa Bird on a man who won’t have to face sexual assault charges because he was denied a speedy trial deserves to be read. Shockingly, no one else seems to have picked up this story. This exposes definite problems with the lack of court resourcs up in Port Hardy.

Perhaps somebody needs to give the classified person at the Peninsula News Review an express course in journalism news sense. This, four days after the fact, from today’s web edition:

North Saanich councillor Peter Chandler made a public apology to former Peninsula Recreation Commission member Don Hunter in the Dec. 10 issue of the Peninsula News Review.

Chandler apologized to Hunter in the classified section of the paper, after an out-of-court settlement reached before the case was to go back to court on Dec. 13.


The cops do a standup news conference in front of a grow-op house in Saanich. Why don’t they do these everywhere?

And finally, SwarmJam awkwardly invades the website of the Alberni Valley Times and other Canwest Island papers. Booooooo.

Photo by Jerry Sifwer via Flickr


Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment and I’ll duly update the post.

Seen something else I should know about? Want to write a post? Have better photos than the Creative Commons Flickr pool ones I use? E-mail bclocalreporter(at)

We’re making inroads into our census of B.C. community newspapers, but there are still a lot of blanks in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. How many journalists work at your paper? How often do you come out? Who’s your publisher? Participation is free! The benefits unlimited! The exclamation points boundless!

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