Whack-a-Flack: Kicking a Dead Cow

Joseph Mitchell, writing in The New Yorker, tells a story of butchering a cow with his father.

The cow was off the ground “when something went wrong with the block and tackle and when I came to I was out in the barnyard running around in circles.” He asked his father what happened. His father replied, “Son, you were hit in the head with a cow.” For a few days after that, everything that happened to Mitchell “…seemed illogical or disconnected, every conversation ending in confusion…”

That’s about our response to Whack-a-Flack, the latest display of PR self-loathing, a particularly nasty little video game that surfaced a couple of weeks ago. Flak, or flack, comes from the German “FliegerAbwehrKanonen,” coined in 1938 to describe the product of continual 88 mm cannon fire aimed at incoming aircraft. The abbreviated term slipped into civilian life to mean something negative — as in “taking flak,” like a reporter so peppered with news releases and pesky press agents as to feel under attack. Describing the publicist as a flack is thus both dismissive and degrading.

We learned of Whack-a-Flack — ostensibly designed to give media the opportunity to release stress by pelting publicists — through Michael Tchong’s ICONOCAST: “And speaking about ‘cretinous parasites,’ here’s a site that should warm the cockles of all those poor, hardworking editorial types who hate PR people: http://www.whackaflack.com.”

The idea is turn a press release into a paper airplane and try to hit a PR person popping up out of a cubicle… or crawling along the floor. You get to choose the agency you’re whacking. The game is primitive enough, graphically, but it makes you wonder. It would be bad enough if this game was designed and fielded by video geeks, but the truth actually reveals the depths to which the PR business has sunk.

Whack-a-Flack is the brainchild of e-tractions and its PR agency, Boston’s Sterling Hager Inc. Looking for some press, AE Parry Headrick and cofounder Kim Shah tried to figure how they could get some media attention while demonstrating e-traction’s sticky game products. “If we lump all of these folks together in one group, it became clear,” said Headrick, “that these guys hate us agency folks. We bug them. We send them flak.” From there to Whack-a-Flack took just a few weeks.

Whack-a-Flack is just a dumb game that has some minimal cruelty and savage characterization of various PR types attached to it. At first glance, it’s a creative promo fielded for the usual venal purposes. At a more profound level, it manages to demean both media and PR people by the implication that this is a representative sample of a PR agency, and an acceptable media response is to shoot the bastards down, virtually.

ICONOCAST suggests “…PR flaks return the favor by setting up a site that lets them choose their favorite nose-picking, slovenly dressed, sweaty, never-return-a-phone-call know-it-all, freeloading writer/reporter/editor! That would be a hoot, too!” (Since we’ve never seen a reporter pick his nose, sweat, or dress any differently than anyone else, Michael and his crew must have some specific associate in mind.)

We were curious as to how this particular variation on the “Terminator” theme might work. Kim Shah says he can adapt Whack-a-Flack to Whack-a-Hack for $5,000. If you want to chip in a buck, you can be a stockholder in a revolution, earn new status in the media, and be feared instead of despised. Let them know you have the power to retaliate. No more cringing, no more polite “Sorry to bother you’s”… You’re a shareholder in Whack-a-Hack, and if you don’t get your calls answered, ker-blam… right in the kisser!

Sheesh… Have we gotten reduced to this, working our tails off in an area where our most serious efforts are fodder for a video-game paintball fight? As writers or PR people, our work is hard and significant. It takes digging, analysis, creative thinking, and getting it all written and out into the world. As a writer, I call on PR people all the time for help and pretty much always get good, solid material. And as a publicist, while I don’t much like getting brushed off by editors’ voicemail systems, I don’t imagine they’re just sitting around playing video games.

Too much has happened to degrade the public relations profession in recent years for Whack-a-Flack to be funny. From shameful PRSA accreditation practices to the industry’s failure to uphold any reasonable standard of ethics, public relations as a profession has shown itself incapable of self-monitoring. Add to it the well-documented influx of the green and untrained into the front lines of the dot-com publicity wars and, yes, there is indeed a crisis in PR.

What to do? First, get that damn cow out of the way. We need leaders to step forward and restore professional pride in work that is too often compromised by greed, ignorance, distraught clients, and cynical media. We need ethics moved to the forefront of PR agency work. And we need some mechanism to ensure the business public knows which agencies can be trusted. A web site with client reviews and media ratings of PR people and agencies might be a first step.

And we need Whack-a-Flack like a cow in the head.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.