Why do we talk to PR flacks?

Whenever I’m working on a story that requires me to get information from any kind of institution—whether a public office, a private corporation, a political party, or a nonprofit—I’m faced with an unpleasant task: navigating my way around their PR flack.

Also known as ‘spokesperson,’ ‘director of communications,’ and ‘public information officer,’ the PR flack would be most accurately described as ‘head of propaganda’ or ‘public information control officer,’ since their whole job is to manipulate public perception of the entity they work for. And usually they’re good at it. (So good, in fact, that some even manage to present themselves as disinterested information gatherers in the mold of a librarian.)

At the same time, PR flacks tend to be largely ignorant of the nuts-and-bolts specifics of their own organization. They can tell me what it is they want me to believe, but they often have no idea whether they’re telling the truth (making them, in Harry Frankfurt’s terminology, bullshitters). Which makes sense, since they deal with the press all the time and the actual business of their organization none of the time. If you wanted to know what kind of disinfectant the city uses to clean public toilets, would you ask the custodians who actually apply the disinfectant or the person the city hired to make themselves look good? The custodians, obviously. Your only choice is whether you get your answers straight out of their mouths, or via the city’s spin doctor.

What’s infuriating, at least to me, is that every time I identify myself as a reporter to someone in an institution who actually knows what they’re talking about, they immediately interrupt me and say, “You need to talk to our PIO about that.” It’s fine for institutional employees to talk to the public, apparently, but the public’s watchdogs must be cycled through the funhouse of public relations.

How is this not transparently corrupt?

Private citizens have the right to tell me to buzz off, or to refer me to their sophist attorney. But why do we allow public institutions to employ professional spin doctors with public funds? I do not understand how this is consistent with the democratic goal of a self-governing society.

PS: I should add that many of the PR people I’ve worked with have been super nice and super helpful—but that doesn’t change the fundamental problem of institutions, especially public ones, actively trying to control public perception.

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