Way back in 2008-2009, you may have caught a series of pieces in The New York Times Dealbook column written by “Jack Flack,” who Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan called “one of the media’s sharpest decoders of corporate bullshit.” Its “anonymous” author primarily earned attention for parsing and translating statements from financial execs whose companies played key roles in the near-collapse of the US economy.
The man behind the column was Paul Pendergrass, a former Portfolio writer and longtime comms executive at Coca-Cola who left corporate America to run his own independent consultancy. We’ve known for a while that he was Jack Flack, but he recently developed a new project with the same basic goal: cutting through all the spin to figure out what companies and their PR reps are really saying.
“A. Spokesman” is effectively a social media-friendly comic strip with art by Alvin Diec and Elisabeth McNair, who work together as part of the Band of Brothers design group in Atlanta.
Here’s a recent entry translating Starbucks’ defense of its disastrous #RaceTogether campaign:
— A. Spokesman (@ASpokesman) April 7, 2015
This week we spoke to Pendergrass to learn more about the project.
Why did you create A. Spokesman?
The idea is that it’s not just taking people down for saying silly things, but for looking at what’s actually going on here: the story beneath the story. As a friend of mine once said, in less than seven seconds I can get to what the real story is and move on to the next thing.
Insight is first, but hopefully it comes with a little bit of wit. This is not a “ha ha” cartoon; it’s more of an “ahhh.”
— A. Spokesman (@ASpokesman) April 30, 2015
What’s the secret behind the “decoding” you do?
What’s the most important thing that’s not being talked about by the company or reported by almost anyone in media (for one reason or another)?
Having worked on the inside for a long time, I can tell you the words used [in these corporate statements] can seem very bland…but there’s almost always a precision to them. If you look at them carefully you can figure out a lot more.
For example, if you see/hear the phrase “not at this time,” you know that means they could very well be doing it that afternoon. The statement would still be correct.
— A. Spokesman (@ASpokesman) April 21, 2015
On another note, will the public always see PR spokespeople as corporate robots?
The public distrusts everybody: PR, politicians, and media. We are generally fickle.
This depends on how the company in question operates: if it’s straightforward and the CEO is honest and forthright, then people will trust them. If it sounds like they use “weasel words,” people won’t trust them. This varies from company to company.
How has this behind-the-scenes work affected your day job?
People ask whether Jack Flack and A. Spokesman have been bad for my consulting business, but they’re good because they help eliminate anyone who doesn’t want to work together in a straightforward manner [from my potential client list].
I like honesty as a strategy.