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“Flackalism”: Where Heroes and Headlines are Born

Below is another reflection on the life of a publicist from Michelle Rafferty. Rafferty has been a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press since September 2008. Prior to Oxford she interned at Norton Publishing for a summer and taught 9th & 10th grade Literature. She is chronicling her adventures in publishing every Friday so be sure to visit again next week..

A chimpanzee, his suspected dose of Xanax infused tea, and a cartoon was all it took this week to jeopardize the reputation of the New York Post and incite racially charged division in our country the very month we are supposed to honor and celebrate African Americans. Our news often looks like this—a series of unprecedented events we never saw coming. And just as often our headlines are meticulously premeditated and timed, often under some influence of the PR industry.

When it comes to generating publicity, the publicist’s goal is to make their client a headline. In the publishing industry this correlates closely to a “pub date” or when a book is officially available to the public. When we set “pub dates” for books we do our best to make them coincide with the news cycle. For example, Oxford anticipated the closing of Guantanamo upon Obama’s inauguration, so we moved the “pub date” for Karen Greenberg’s The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days, from May to March 2009. This type of adjustment requires a lot of extra work and collaboration from the publicity, marketing, sales, and production teams, but is worth it when we are able to “sell” the author’s work as a newsworthy story in itself, which generates more interviews, reviews, and features.

Sometimes publicists do such a good job, that it is unclear where their work ends and the journalist’s story begins. I’ve learned that many producers and editors encourage story pitches from publicists, pitches which sketch the angle the writer can use in their article, to help them quickly sort through and decide which story best suits their talents; further, I’ve seen press release copy injected—sometimes verbatim—into book reviews. I don’t say this in a pejorative sense, but rather to convey how the industries work together. I think Emily Gordon, editor of Print magazine, was dead-on when she predicted that “PR and journalism will merge to become flackalism.” (Folio’s “Magazine Predictions for 2009)

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve realized that we all were caught in the muck of the publicity and marketing efforts of two camps: love (and all the merchandising it entails near Valentine’s Day) and its antithesis (the latter having apparently won out— Friday the 13th was number one at the box office this past weekend). Emerging from this aftermath is a comedian whose publicist is working the system. From my Fresh Air podcasts and New York Magazine to late night television, I ran into Demetri Martin everywhere amidst the Valentine’s Day slaughter. The comedian, known for his work on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and the The Daily Show, has been doing a slew of promotion for his new show on Comedy Central, Important Things With Demetri Martin. A friend of mine put it perfectly when he said, without having seen Martin’s television debut, “Oh yeah, he’s the next big thing.” The public believes he is the “next big thing” because publicity and media (“flackalism”) poise him to be.

New York Magazine said, “…he may be the Barack Obama of comedy’s cerebral stand-up whose moment has arrived just in time.” The article attributes Martin’s singular uniqueness to his “offbeat observations” or what Martin has called “a parallel world right in front of us that’s revealed with a small shift in perspective.” A favorite Martin original comes to my mind: “I think it would be cool if you were writing a ransom note on your computer, if the paper clip popped up and said, ‘Looks like you’re writing a ransom note. Need help? You should use more forceful language, you’ll get more money.’”

Much like “celebrity comeback” campaigns, the media is giving people a reason to take interest and believe in Martin. Further, the comparison between Martin and Obama clearly plays on the public’s desire for a hero; Martin is to comedy what Obama is (or at least was) to the country: a savior and a revolutionary with fresh ideas. And is he? After only two episodes of Important Things, that has yet to be determined, but I’m pretty sure I already hear the media chanting: Yes he can. In which case, his publicist definitely should get a raise .

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