Just to prove we’re not blinkered about journalistic ethics, check out this shocking litany of hack rorting by an honest PR flak out there. And at the bottom is the first of many responses plus a response again from Spike Spinner.

Your tone regarding Flacks (PR practitioners, for the un-jargoned) portrays us as evil seducers of poor innocent Hacks (journos). Perhaps it’s time for a little reflection on the scaly standards of some members of the media for a moment.

Having “Flacked” around the country and in Europe, I have a wealth of stories (I can feel a few nervous shudders already). Here are a few “lowlights”.

Let’s just think about the ethics of one of the editors of a major daily financial paper demanding details which were sub-judice, and offering to write a favourable article in return for their delivery – but threatening if the details weren’t delivered, the story would be very, very bad, he said. (Sounds like blackmail to me – but no, argues his colleague, a legitimate journalistic technique.)

Now that happened very recently, as did the demand from a senior editor at another publication for a donation to her child’s school – again with the inference that good news would occur if the donation went ahead, but bad news if not (shades of cash for comment, or what!) Haven’t we learnt anything?

Sadly, this sort of poor behaviour is not, in my experience, new. Going back to the start, as a tender 21-year-old I was amazed that “advertorials” were paid in cash to the finance editor of a now defunct afternoon paper. Each time a client appeared in print the phone would ring and “Carl” the finance editor would say: “Let “Bill” know that I will be in the office at 2.00pm”. The ubiquitous brown envelope containing a crisp new $50 note was duly dispatched by the boss – often in my tender hands. (Out damn spot, out!)

I vividly recall my best ever attended media launch – a new beer brand in Sydney which attracted 26 journalists all from that well known daily financial publication (and I am serious) and about two from every other major publication. Yes, the presser started at 8.00pm and offered free grog, so it was aimed at dragging out journos, but 26 snouts in the trough is excessive by any standard!

Overseas I was similarly surprised to have a journalist ring and ask to be included on a junket to Sweden not because it was relevant to his round, but because his mate had told him he was going – and it sounded like fun.

It wasn’t until returning to Oz that I experienced junketeering journos adding the cost of “escorts” or “massages” to their hotel room bills – as well as the de-rigeur clearing of the mini bar. Oh, and there is the other great gag while overseas – choosing the wine – and waiting until the bill arrives for the Flack to realise that the cost per bottle equalled the average annual wage of the population of the host country.

Now media releases appearing under by lines word-for-word are old hat. My favourite is the phantom interview which appeared in one major daily – half a page with a photo, no less. The interview was glowing, and the publicity outstanding, the editor had the space filled and the journo was “out of jail.” If only he had not been so hung over from the night before’s activity at a King St flesh club that he slept through and missed the interview – and subsequently made up the quotes! (Relying on the talent not complaining because it made him look and sound so good.)

Which reminds me, Melbourne Cup time is always fun for Victorian Flacks – that’s when interstate journos ring on the “Owyagoingmate?” routine. The best one I recall offered a favourable interview for a business class flight, or a straight interview for economy. The other fun thing around the Cup is the week after when you get the calls, “Get your diary out, will ya mate – note this down, we had dinner on Friday and lunch on Saturday – if anybody from our accounts department rings, OK?” Then there is the old double bill trick – the Flack pays and the journo takes the tax invoice and claims the cost against his expenses – it helps make up for the losses at the track, you see

We also get regular requests from journos about to head off overseas on hols who want to visit international operations – just so Mr Carmody doesn’t get too agitated at tax time, you understand. So we organise a Patsy to meet the visiting “Great Man from Oz,” only to have the ignorant bastard not turn up, or worse, expecting a local travel guide, a free meal – and someone to pay for their grog.

My all-time favourite for hypocrisy was the presenter of a very high rating current affairs television show – well, it was high rating before OzTam buggered everything – you might even know it for the amount of time it spends bank bashing – the presenter called giving the impression it was a journalistic approach – wanting to know about his nephew’s car loan – who cares about the Privacy Act when you are from TV?

Well Crikey, I’ll finish here, but on a happier note, by far and away the majority of journos I have dealt with are honest and ethical. Like every profession, there are a few snakes slithering around.

(By the way, all but one of the incidents flagged in this piece have been committed by journos who are still in the industry!)


Sun Herald columnist Candace Sutton hits back

“Spike Spinner” tells rollicking tales of rorting journos which propose to depict the less ethical side of our profession. Yes, Spike, in my years as a working journalist I’ve been on the receiving end of freebies, cleaned out minibars and supped happily on free booze at dozens of launches.

And then gone on to make fun of the promoters. Perhaps that’s why you’re hurt, because you can never rely on buying us, no matter what you spend. Nevertheless, you can criticise journalists’ ethics, because ours is a profession with ethics. How could you besmirch a PR person? The industry has no visible standards. Every journalist has a story about the incompetence or exploitive tactics of public relations persons, but we’ve no-one to complain to except each other. The Press Council may have no punitive powers, other than outing a hack’s transgressions, but as far as I know there’s no PR council.

Unfortunately the ratio of good to bad in journalism is reversed in PR, which is why the good ones do so well. Next to the numerous overpaid, underliterate flaks I’ve ever dealt with stands a very small band of professional PRs, many of whom are ex-journos.

As my father used to say, in medicine ‘PR’ stands for per rectum.

Regards, Candy Sutton

And the flak responds in kind

Dear Mayne,

I have no qualms about Candace’s comments at all – and I’m stoked she bothered to key a reply.

What I was attempting to do was to point out that while there are Flaks with glaring faults (a point agreed to very emotionally), there are also Hacks who have their faults – I think Candy underlines this, although I think she is being far too defensive (the media are by far and away the thinnest skinned people in town, in my experience.)

I’m not hurt; I am happy to have at least been read. I also point out, that this article was not intended to defend PR practices. Personally, I include myself in the “very small band of professional PR’s” – but that is for others to judge.

Perhaps it would be advisable for Candy to have a chat with a few ex journos now Flaking for some of their own stories about the weaknesses, the inability to take down a quote, the misunderstanding of some journos. I personally could fill Crikey many times over with my own yarns.

For the record, there is a professional association, the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) which I have been a member of for years. There is an ethics committee and they can revoke membership etc. You might consider asking them to contribute a piece on what they do to rogue Haks – and how many they have done it to. (PRIA.com.au)

And by the way, four of the journos highlighted in the original article work, or did work, for Candice’s employer Fairfax.

Cheers, Sid


That’s a great idea Sid, could someone from the PRIA please submit a piece about the ethics procedures you have in place. It’s about time Australia had a good debate about the PR industry and journalistic ethics so send in those emails.