Interview: Paul Pendergrass

Paul Pendergrass, a self-described "lifetime flack," had a career working for Coca-Cola in almost all facets of communications in the US, Europe, and South Africa before opening his own consultancy in Atlanta in 2001.

Paul Pendergrass, a self-described “lifetime flack,” had a career working for Coca-Cola in almost all facets of communications in the US, Europe, and South Africa before opening his own consultancy in Atlanta in 2001. He recently started blogging about “business spin” and PR issues for Portfolio, Conde Nast's new business magazine. He spoke to PRWeek about media intensity and savvy spin.

PRWeek: How did you land the Portfolio job?
Paul Pendergrass:
I've been longtime friends with [Washington reporter] Matt Cooper, who went there, and I had an idea and talked to several journalist friends in terms of ‘I think the time might be right for this,' doing something that was similar to what I was doing before [on my own earlier blogs], but under the banner of an established media name. Knowing that it was a fairly unorthodox thing, telling people that you want to write on business spin—there's nobody really doing this. You all write about the industry and what's going on there, but for the most part it's uncharted territory.

PRWeek: And Portfolio was receptive to the idea?
Yes. It's the kind of thing that you have to show some samples, to say ‘This is what I'm talking about.' I think when people saw the samples…they came back very enthusiastically.

PRWeek: Do you have a goal for your blog, or a guiding philosophy?
The philosophy is, how do you help create a smarter dialogue around the interaction between business and the news media? And some of my basic assumptions are: There's a game going on out there, and there are good players on both sides. There's good reporters and bad reporters, there's good flacks and bad flacks. And what I'd love to do is reward the good reporters and the good flacks, and provide some sort of harmless torture to the bad reporters and the bad flacks.

PRWeek: What do you think about PR coverage in the media in general, or the lack thereof?
Every year, the technology changes as people have access to more different kinds of media. And as society becomes much more media-savvy, there's an appetite developing for it. I think for 20 years now, it's grown into a huge amount of coverage of the spin game, or how the game is being played in terms of politics. So there's always a look at who the campaign managers are—it really picked up in Clinton's first campaign, when you had the War Room and all that. But there was this emphasis on, ‘How does this work? How do reporters report it, how do they spin it? Who's getting the scoops?'…It's hard for an industry trade publication to do that [coverage], whereas a columnist can pop off and do whatever he wants to do.

PRWeek: Do you think the business readership of Portfolio is interested in that type of coverage?
I think people in general are interested in becoming smarter consumers of news. And I think that's why shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are popular with so many people, because they're funny, they bring entertainment, but they also pull back the camera a little bit and you can actually see the newsmaking process as it happens. A lot of their humor comes from some of the absurdities in that process. They not only make fun of politicians, they make fun of politicians and the media that cover them. It illuminates a deeper point of, ‘Here's what's going on. Here's what's the truth.'

PRWeek: Has PR itself changed since you got into it, outside of the growth of the Internet?
I think there's a lot of focus on the bells and whistles of the technology, and you have that online strategy, and you have to be on blogs and all of that. So there's a lot of focus on the tools and the vehicles and the infrastructure, but I still think there's a reckoning to come about the fact that there's a much more able beast out there, if you look at the total system of news, that is all interconnected with itself. And thus it puts so much more pressure on the integrity of the story that you're trying to tell. Because the chances of you being able to say one thing to one constituency and have the facts be another to another constituency—the reckoning of that happens in ten seconds…The big shifts are, there is no internal and external any more. There are very few places now that actually function as the good old traditional fortresses where stonewalling can actually be an effective tactic.

PRWeek: What do you think about the ongoing changes business news landscape itself?
I think it's going through the same changes that the rest of the news is going through. You're going to see a bifurcation between immediate news—speed, fast as you can, and then turning the crank to the next thing, on one end—and then the other pole, which is great, in-depth, analytical, long-form journalism. So I continue to see a lot of change. It's going to keep changing for another 20 years. I don't think anybody's figured out the formula yet. But I also think a lot of the negativity that journalist have about their own industry is a little overwrought. The means of distribution are changing, and because of that there will be the classic sort of creative destruction. There are going to be good strong players that emerge that figure it out. People want news, people want analysis, people want to read stories.

Business, I think, has a better future. If you look at what's happened to business news in the last 30 years—half the people in America are shareholders of some kind. It's a huge change since the Seventies, and I think you're going to see more and more of that going on around the world, where business news just becomes more important. It's a small audience in the overall news audience, but it's a lucrative audience. Those that figure out how to do it best are going to do well.

PRWeek: Portfolio itself has come in for some criticism in its short life—does it seem like a stable enterprise to you?
I think it's a very strong idea. Obviously you've got to make it work, but everything I'm seeing is it's going to work. As an outsider to that world, I think the New York media world is one of the most intensely self-focused communities on the planet, and that the scrutiny that you undergo when you try to do anything of significance in that world is that you automatically gotta assume that you're going to take a few arrows in the back coming out of the gate. And I think everybody I've come across at Portfolio is fairly savvy to that dynamic.

PRWeek: What sort of feedback are you getting on the blog?
What's striking to me is, the difference between when I did this before as an independent [blogger] is how much more in tune people are to what's posted on the web. It's becoming clear to me that every reporter on their planet has their own name in the Google Alerts. Cause you can't write anything about anybody without hearing about them.

PRWeek: Now that you're a pundit, do you have any advice you would give to the PR industry?
I think in general, flacks need to have more conviction in what they do. And I think they need to be able to express that conviction internally, and advocate that there is a new day of scrutiny coming, when the integrity of your story is going to be essential, and the ability to tell it not just honestly, but in a compelling way, is going to be important. They have to be the outside ears of the organization in terms of sensitizing it to how the world is seeing it, and to the outside world they have to be the advocate that explains what this organization is going to accomplish. It's not a new role, but given the intensity of the media environment now, it's just going to get more intense. It puts a lot of pressure on them to be able to do most of those things well.

Name: Paul Pendergrass, a.k.a. “Jack Flack”
Title: Blogger
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