From all sides, it’s time for attack-a-flack

A few weeks ago a public relations man pitched me a story heralding the work of his client, who it turned out was also a PR man. I was a bit irked until I realized, wait a minute, if I were a PR man I’d probably need PR help as well.

Most PR practitioners these days are under siege. They’re positioned to take the heat, never the credit. How would you like to be the PR genius responsible for those wooden corporate apologies by the presidents of Ford Motor Co., Bridgestone-Firestone and United Airlines? Sure, I destroyed your summer travel, but I’m sorry about it, says the geek from United. Thanks a lot. Your tires may kill you, but at least you died in a cool car, says the guy from Ford. That’s reassuring.

For that matter, it must feel great to be the flack for George W. Bush. “If the governor thinks reporters are assholes, why shouldn’t he be free to say it?” runs the line of defense.

The PR fraternity universally seems to find itself in the opposite of a win-win situation. Remember the guy from Time Warner explaining why his company dropped the Disney Channel from New York cable?

Imagine how uniquely uncomfortable it must be to be the designated front man for companies like Vivendi-Canal Plus-Universal or AOL-Time Warner that are trying to instantly re-invent themselves. One company flack admitted to me that his official job description has been changed six times in the past four months. “In thinking about my future,” he says. “I’m going to follow Yogi Berra’s advice: ‘When you come to a fork in the road, take it.’

“The modus operandi of corporate PR men is to hide their senior “suits” from the press, only to drag them out in moments of crisis — a policy that has never worked. Things aren’t any better in the celebrity area.

The ever-observant Los Angeles Times writer Brian Lowry reminds us that celebrity flacks are having a nervous breakdown because they are no longer allowed to escort their clients up the red carpet and into the Shrine Auditorium at the Emmy show. It seems the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences wants to clean up the human traffic jam in the area, not realizing that this will cause major separation anxieties in the flack community.

There was actually a time when Hollywood’s PR fraternity had some fun. I remember the late Howard Strickling, MGM’s top flack in the studio’s heyday, reciting his war stories with great relish. He would blithely re-invent the biographies of young stars complete with new names and often new sexual orientation. He was able to move with lightning speed to suppress news stories about the indiscretions of his stars — arrests for pot possession or assignations with underage girls.

And he loved to concoct elaborately bogus “exclusives” for Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons to keep them at each other’s throats, not at the studio’s.

Much of the work may have been a bit sleazy, but he took great pride in it. He was a true PR pro.

But the old studio flacks were working for relatively small companies and were answerable to one man. The studio mogul was usually coarse and mean-spirited, but at least he was the only one to placate.

Not anymore. Today there are layers upon layers in every PR department dealing with investor relations, lobbying and corporate PR as well as the basic grunt work of selling the movies. The pay is a lot better, but the headaches have multiplied. PR types more and more are thrown into situations where they know they’ll lose.

It surely was no fun serving as Disney’s PR man during the Eisner-Katzenberg trial, going up against the silver-tongued Bert Fields. Or representing Fox during the making of “Titanic” insisting that “our budget overage is only slightly above that of ‘The Full Monty.’ ”

What do you tell the senior suits at Phillip Morris when they come up with those numbing ads recounting that company’s charitable contributions? “People still know we sell ciggies,” you can tell them as you collect your severance check.

The result of all this is that the press and the PR community have grown to hate one another. To reporters, PR men are no longer facilitators; they simply stand in the way of a story. Unlike the press agents of old, they don’t even have any juicy gossip to trade — they have even less access to stars or top executives than does the press.

The upshot: A curious balance of terror, with each side offering up threats and random invective, knowing that it’s all a futile game.

That’s why, if I were a press agent, I think I’d also take that fork in the road.

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