So many PR tactics are shrouded in secrecy: off-the-record briefings, front groups, "file sharing." And lots of things that PR firms get paid a lot of money to do—devise corny slogans, make pretty marketing materials that get ignored, or think up new and creative ways to say "no comment"—are really big wastes of money. There is only one real live PR tactic that consistently works. It is maddeningly effective at getting reporters to like flacks, and by extension, their awful clients. Even the ones who know better! It preys on human instinct. It's called lunch.
PR that involves a faceless corporate entity reaching out in a formal way to a disgruntled reporter will only make that reporter laugh, and redouble his efforts to screw that company into oblivion. But most people find it very hard to act like coldhearted bastards on a face-to-face personal level. It's easy to tell somebody to fuck off on a blog, or (phrased more respectfully) in a feature story. If that person has taken you out to lunch, though, it suddenly becomes almost impossible. Because now, that flack is not just some jerk bothering you on behalf of somebody you don't like to do something you don't want to do; that flack is the guy who you sat down with and talked about the Yankees and what neighborhood you live in and where you went to school and how stupid so and so is. He's an actual person.
In the week and a half since Gawker got into a little tiff with the Wal-Mart touting PR firm Edelman, my invitations to lunch (well, after-work drinks, but same principle) have gone WAY up. Many people decided they would like to be on Gawker's good side. The invitations are mostly from PR people that I knew before I got here, and most of those PR people are among the few (I can count on my fingers) that I actually like on a personal level. Why do I like them? Because I had lunch with them before, and they're nice guys.
It's inescapable. Lunch works. To go out to lunch with somebody, laugh and talk, and then go back to work and write an article that plunges a knife in their back is an exceedingly hard thing to do. It can be done; sometimes, it must be done; but it takes a lot of the fun out of it. Most good PR people are, by nature, personable and friendly. And while some of them are transparent assholes who want nothing more than to shill and shill some more, others come off like regular people who have a job to do, but would rather talk shit and joke around like a normal human being. I guarantee that if you could construct a chart of positive vs. negative news coverage, the positives would jump immediately following lunch meetings with PR people representing the stories' subjects. And stay that way for a long time. The effect is lasting. It's scary.
It does make it even sweeter, however, on those occasions when you have lunch with a flack and come back with your previous suspicions of them being an asshole confirmed. Then you can just fire away at will in good conscience.
Luckily, there's an easy way out of this conundrum, so we don't all get stuck just easing off every evil company in the world just because their PR person happens to be a halfway decent human being. The real test of a good flack is one who can accept criticism and carry on without hating you. Those people are much rarer than the broad class of those who can act nice at lunch. So reporters, bloggers, and commenters everywhere: Don't be afraid to say Wal-Mart sucks, just because one of their mouthpieces lives in Brooklyn just like you and also likes your favorite band. If he's really cool, he already knows his client sucks, and he won't hold it against you; if not, he was never that cool in the first place.