Ronn Torossian Commentary On PR Pros On The Big Screen & Flack

Picture4With the release of the newest TV show on Public Relations, Flack starring Anna Paquin, its time once again to examine how the PR industry is reflected upon in the media.

 

It appears that Robyn, the character in the new TV show ‘Flack’, has a somewhat accurate role, even though the show itself isn’t entirely reflective of the PR industry. Given that she works as a crisis PR strategist, her day to day is fast-paced and unpredictable. This part couldn’t be more true. Working with high profile clients means that anything they do can go viral in an instant—so it’s safe to say my day can go a different direction at any moment depending on my clients’ needs.

 

The reality is that the Public Relations industry is rarely portrayed accurately on TV and film, although there are some truths to what you see. TV shows will often showcase the more glamourous aspects of the job (drinking, parties, networking, etc.). In reality, PR, even when dealing with celebrities, involves a host of more demanding (and not TV-friendly) tasks like spreadsheets, internal and external communication, drafting strategies, things like that.

Public perception of the industry is fueled by pop culture portrayals that are unrepresentative of what real PR work entails. Consider, for example, the character Samantha in Sex and the City. No remotely successful PR pro spends half the day shopping and eating lunch and the other half seducing the UPS deliveryman. PR is far from a glamorous profession (though it can entail plenty of drama).

That said, “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) which was selected in 1993 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, is arguably one of the best and certainly saltiest movies about the public relations profession. It deftly portrays the symbiotic yet often adversarial relationship between journalists and PR pros and the constant angles each side aspire to.

“Sweet Smell” was released when PR was coming of age and its occupants were commonly (and somewhat pejoratively) referred to as “flacks.” (We still are, but not nearly as much.) The film views PR through a fairly jaundiced eye. Falco is oily, and while he wants to do what’s right for his client he won’t let niceties, such as honesty, get in the way of his ambition. He can talk in circles, but his motives are seldom square. Watching the movie now, Falco comes off as a PR caricature, but the reputation endures.

In the second half of the century to follow — as PR pros shifted from the margins of marketing to the core of strategic communications — several other films focused on the PR profession have been released. Few (if any) of them have come close to getting it right. Sure, it’s not exactly box-office gold to portray a CCO or PR manager providing counsel to the boss about a marketing campaign that’s gone awry, or how to properly prepare a senior executive for what’s expected to be a tough media interview that millions of people will see.

Hollywood goes to the extreme and often makes PR people out to be — at best — undisciplined and unethical and, at worst, hopelessly corrupt.

Take “Wag the Dog” (1997), a comedy in which Robert De Niro plays a spin doctor who will stop at nothing to protect his client (the President of the United States) from a sex scandal — even if that means starting a phony war — and ensure the President wins a second term in the Oval Office.

“Phone Booth” (2003) also takes a dismal view of the PR profession. It stars Colin Farrell as publicist Stu Shepard, who can charitably be described as execrable. He has a nasty disposition and will stoop to the lowest common denominator so long as it gets his clients some exposure. It is little wonder that for most of the film Shepard is held hostage by a sniper — and through the ordeal admits to onlookers that his whole life is a lie. Subtle.

Of course, there have been other Hollywood flicks that take a sober approach to PR and publicity, such as “The Candidate” (1972) and “Primary Colors” (1998). In both films, the PR pros portrayed are not exactly choirboys, but political mercenaries who craft sharp and innovative PR campaigns and sincerely believe their clients who aspire to the White House will do right by the country.

PR stereotypes abound in cinema. And while the PR industry is regularly counseling the C-suite, the big screen isn’t always conducive to reality. The PR industry has morphed, matured and changed, and only continues to improve. It would be great if the PR industry was more fairly represented on-screen and in the media. Our industry is comprised of the world’s best storytellers who succeed in shaping narratives through thick and thin.

At a time when corporate reputation is crossed with brand reputation, PR executives are in a position to offer more value to the C-suite than ever. In a hypercompetitive economy, relationships — with consumers, partners and vendors — are key. And PR pros know how to build, cultivate and retain relationships to the benefit of both sides of the table.

PR executives, of course, are paid to tell great stories. It’s high time that we are recognized as such. I won’t hold my breath.

Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR agency.

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