The Difference Between Flacks & Spin Doctors

I honestly hadn’t heard much hubbub about the August 21 New York Times feature on the year’s biggest PR fiascoes (“In Case of Emergency: What Not to Do”), until I read last week’s editorial in PRWeek, “NYT falls short again in its portrayal of PR” (sub reqd).

(The) article seemed to suggest that the “PR missteps” were what led to the problems at BP, Toyota, and Goldman Sachs, and this is simply a naive way of thinking.

In each of these cases, the true problem was caused by a fundamental business—or safety—issue. Ask any crisis communications or reputation management expert and they will tell you BP could not even think about working on its reputation until it stopped the oil leak.

The two most-frequently used sobriquets to describe PR pros are “spin doctors” and “flacks.”  For all the mainstream media get wrong about their understanding of Public Relations, its remarkable that these two nicknames aptly describe the best and worst of the profession.

FlackIt’s true that there are far too many FLACKS in the PR trade.  My definition of a flack is a PR spammer: someone who pitches indiscriminately, with no regard for the media’s expertise, interests or contact preferences.

“The flack” is how 99% of PR professionals are viewed.  The reality IMHO is that it’s closer to 50% — still too many, by about 49%.  The good news is that PR pros ARE getting better at this whole “media relations” thing, since it’s now, thankfully, so easy for genuine flacks to be outed by their frustrated “targets.”

A SPIN DOCTOR is a PR pro who can presumably make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.  And while it’s true that there are some exceptional examples of this in the history of communications, the NYT piece demonstrates that sometimes the “doctor” will lose their patient, if they’re too far gone for succor.

The PR pro can only EVER be as good as their client. An evil and/or dysfunctional and/or walled-off client can’t rely on a “spin doctor” to save them.

In my experience, PR pros facing a communications crisis often shine brightest when they convince their anxious clients to simply DO THE RIGHT THING.  “Get in front of this, tell the truth, and work your ass off to fix the problem.”

That “truth” strategy only works when the truth is that the problem was unintentional and has not been purposefully hidden to-date.  As one PR pro noted in the NYT piece:

(Swift) disclosure (does not) provide inoculation against all ugly realities. When the facts are horrible … the best P.R. fix may simply be to absorb the pounding and get back to business, while eschewing the sort of foolish communications gimmicks that can make things worse.

A good spin doctor can’t work miracles, but they can surmise the right approach, i.e., whether to open-up or bunker-down. In all cases it’s still up to the client to take their medicine, to revive their reputation.

And that’s the fundamental disconnect in the NYT article.  As my Twitter friend @kurt_foeller noted, “where the NYT fell short was in understanding how BP (and Toyota and Goldman Sach’s) top management made solid PR strategy and execution impossible.”

Posted on: September 2, 2010 at 12:30 pm By Todd Defren
15 Responses to “The Difference Between Flacks & Spin Doctors”


  • I am not a “Spin Doctor.” I am a “Revolving Physician.”

  • Marilyn casey says:

    Love this post. The media love to hate PR professionals (I sense some competitive jealousy here; always have). IMHO — the “client” often mimics the media, and disses or dismisses sound PR judgment on the grounds that “I, the client, know better.” My response, “Then why call me in the first place?”

    However, when we are confronted with a client who gets it and works in partnership to preclude or diffuse a situation, PR is a wonderful profession, developed by professionals truly interested — and brilliantly trained — to help people solve sticky communications situations.

  • fERG dEVINS says:

    spin is sin…you live and die by the truth and the facts…especially in the world today…cheers to a great Labor Day weekend from Canada @MolsonFerg

    • Edith says:

      My favorite Pepperdine peosrsfor – Chris Worley puts it : “The only thing in business that is constant is change” and one of this books are appropriately titled “Build to Change”. A great read I highly recommend.I think it would be great if you could share anecdotal stories/examples about when extended customer info was able to close the deal or get closer to the goal.For CRM tools having market segment and competitor info available is usefull. Also when developing CRM tools, it is essential that they are not just leveraged with pure sales information, but also have an element of the(your) company\’s KPI metrics for products/services delivered to the targeted client(Needless to say this goes for repeat customers) making the sales approach intelligent based on past performance and identified needs/flaws/successes.

  • Doyle Albee says:

    I had a boss once who used to routinely ask me to “go make up a true story.” Please note this relationship is referred to in the past tense.

    The basis of PR is communication. Timely, effective, well-thought-out communication. Good communication has an end-game in mind: to inform or persuade or educate. If your client is asking you to “go make up a true story” he/she doesn’t get it, and your chances of having a successful communication campaign will be limited, at best.

    Great post, Todd. You nailed it!

  • Couldn’t agree with you more. My take on the NYT article was featured in my business journalism blog on August 23 – here:

    While my comments vigorously disagree, I thought BP’s communications were exemplary during the crisis. They were transparent, walked away from legal caps on their liability in order to do the right thing, clearly communicated every step they were taking to fix the problem, etc. It was just before that when they sold out solid operations in pursuit of a “Beyond Petroleum” brand that they created their problems.

  • I’ve written extensively about this, and could not agree more that we’re only as good as our clients. I’ve flat-out told clients that if they insist on doing the wrong thing (read: not illegal, but unethical or won’t pass the smell test) then I can’t do much to help them. My job isn’t to scrape up the load of shite the elephant dropped in the street–my job is to keep the elephant out of the street. If they continue riding the pachyderm out of the big top and on the street, then I’m wasting my time and their money.

  • Todd, Not sure either term is used to describe the “best” of the profession. I’ve heard them both used derisively, fairly interchangeably. But that’s me.

    That said I agree with your points: that a PR PRO can only be as good as the client, which is to say what the client is willing to do per the recommendations of their experts. Truth will not always set you free, either. There are times it’s best to keep in the house, shut up and take your medicine, then get back to business. FWIW.

  • “The PR pro can only EVER be as good as their client. An evil and/or dysfunctional and/or walled-off client can’t rely on a “spin doctor” to save them.”

    SWOON. In love. This should be a part of every initial discussion with a prospective client – it’s so Jerry Maguire, but seriously: help me help you.

    Thanks for a brilliant post, Todd.

    • Victoria says:

      I am currently Public Relations student at Georgia Southern University. I have actually been warned about both of these terms. I applaud you for putting the term “Spin Doctor” into a different category. Clearly, most PR practitioners serve as some kind of doctor to clients. Usually, clients call on us most when they are in trouble. So thinking about it…. Yes, we are all doctors, but that doesn’t mean that we manipulate the truth or don’t do the right thing. Just because we doctor a situation doesn’t mean that we are spinning the audience’s opinions or beliefs in a certain situation.

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