How Should Reporters Refer To You In News Stories?

Stephanie McCurdy, a communication specialist with Idaho Power, recently wrote in with a question I’ve never addressed on the blog.

“I love your blog and always enjoy/value your perspective on all things media-related. Which is why I want to ask your opinion on something that crossed my mind after a recent interview. When a PR pro is quoted, is it more credible/beneficial to use an actual title, i.e. ‘communication specialist,’ or the more generic ‘spokesperson?’ Would love to know your thoughts on this one.”

Thank you for your kind words and for reading the blog, Stephanie!

The only term I know I wouldn’t want applied to me is “PR flack,” a pejorative term for public relations professionals. (By the way, did you know that term originated in the 1930s and was named as an homage to an “energetic” movie publicity agent named Gene Flack? A 1999 New York Times article tells me that’s the case.)

Identity Theft

The first question I’d ask is whether or not it matters how a PR person is described. Is there really an important distinction between “spokesperson” and the different titles PR people go by, such as media relations manager, public relations manager, or corporate communications manager?

My view is that there’s not a vast difference among those terms — but that they all communicate something slightly different.

For example, I could see how someone titled a “spokesperson” could be viewed by the public as someone similar to the White House Press Secretary — a person who is not involved in policy setting but who is paid to articulate the party line (although I know “spokespeople” whose portfolios are much larger).

“Corporate communications manager,” on the other hand, hits my ear as having more heft, or at least conveying a broader range of responsibilities.

The difference between the titles might also matter during a crisis. One of the most pointed things I see in news coverage occurs when the principal person named in a story refuses to comment and turns that work over to a third-party PR firm. Reporters occasionally jab the principal in those situations, writing in a line such as, “Mr. Phillips refused to comment. A spokesperson from his outside PR firm said…”

Who are you question
What do you think?

Do you think the difference between being described as a “spokesperson” and a more specific title signifies something meaningfully different to the public? If so, which titles do you prefer, and why?