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Correspondents, PR reps warm ties at annual ‘Hacks & Flacks’ dig

by Mariko Kato

The relationship between a journalist and a corporate public relations representative can be a tense one. Journalists, pressured by deadlines, hound the PRs for precise and prompt information, while PRs, irritated and a bit bewildered by the incessant questioning, respond with gritted teeth.

This is the war and woe The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan sought to appease by holding its “Hacks & Flacks New Year Party.”

“We wanted to provide an opportunity for journalists and PRs to meet in a very casual setting and get to know each other,” explained Catherine Makino, a correspondent at IPS Inter Press Service and the current president of the FCCJ.

“We have more than 300 people attending, half of them PRs, from ministries, embassies, airlines, banks, electronic companies, as well as the World Bank and U.S. Forces,” Makino said immediately before the bash kicked off at the end of last month.

A lavish buffet greeted the “hacks,” or journalists, and the “flacks,” meaning press agents, who mingled, wine glasses in hand. “It’s a fun event, good for strengthening relationships and seeing different sides of people,” said Alison Airey, director of public affairs at Gavin Anderson & Co., a public relations firm.

For two New Zealanders attending the event, it was an optimum networking opportunity. “You get to meet interesting people from all different walks of life,” said Jeremy Green, a manager at Mizuho Securities Co., Ltd., and Nick Gentle, a technical consultant at GL Trade Japan KK.

It was also an “important occasion for freelancers to meet a lot of people,” according to self-employed cameraman Irwin Wong.

The centerpiece of the party was an appearance by The Newspaper, a Japanese comedy troupe known for its spoofs of politicians. As well as their regular satirical imitations of past and current prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso, they did an impersonation of U.S. President Barack Obama.

“One of the things lacking in Japan is political satire,” said Martyn Williams, an ex-president of the FCCJ and Tokyo bureau chief of IDG News Service. “The Newspaper is always a smash hit at FCCJ.”

The fact that the performance was in Japanese did not prove a problem for Kamayani Singh, a freelance radio broadcaster. “I could laugh even though I only speak about 60 percent good Japanese,” she said.

For some, however, the party prompted somber reflection about how the current recession will affect Tokyo’s role in the international business scene.

“This recession may accelerate the hollowing-out of Tokyo’s global head offices,” said John R. Harris, a Japan-based freelance speechwriter who works with corporate executives and politicians. He pointed to a lack of specialized, global human resources companies needed to run worldwide operations in Japan.

“Even before this crisis Tokyo was losing functions where foreign staff are essential, such as global public relations, marketing, brand management and design, to places like New York, California and London. But with skilled foreigners now streaming out of Japan, Tokyo may end up like Delaware in the U.S. — a city full of empty head offices,” he said.

The “Hacks & Flacks” party, now a popular annual event, was not nearly as formalized as it is now when it first began in the 1990s, a time when Japanese companies were churning out cutting-edge technology and grabbing the world’s attention, according to Dennis Normile, another ex-president of FCCJ and chief of the Japan news bureau of Science magazine.

“A group of journalists covering Japan’s high-tech sector were frustrated by what we thought of as limited cooperation by the PR reps of the companies we were interested in,” Normile said. He started an informal “High-Tech Writers’ Group” with his fellow technology writers, and they invited corporate PR representatives to a house party, intended as an “ice-breaker.”

“I remember one Japanese PR guy telling me that they were just worried because they didn’t know what the foreign press wanted. ‘Pretty much the same thing the Japanese press wanted,’ I told him, ‘information,’ ” Normile said.

Although the High-Tech Writers’ Group was never formally affiliated with the FCCJ, some of the group’s members were also club members. After the group disbanded, Normile, as then FCCJ head, proposed “Hacks & Flacks.”

“The FCCJ had long held a New Year party that was sometimes billed as a meishi kokan, or name card swap event. The club invited ambassadors, heads of companies and various VIPs. But few of these people ever showed up,” he said. “I got the idea of dropping the VIPs and making it a party for journalists and our PR contacts — “Hacks & Flacks” reborn!” The party began in its current form in 2007.

Such an occasion is particularly important for journalists specializing in particular areas, who may be in contact with the same PR representative every day, all day, according to Williams, Normile’s successor.

“PRs can see that the reporters they have been handling are bona fide journalists,” he said. “It’s also a great chance for foreign journalists to find people to talk to,” he added.