Pop PR: portrayal or betrayal?: Many movies, TV shows and novels depict fictional PR characters - not often in a flattering light. Has pop culture been fair to PR? Paul Simpson investigates

Who would want a job in PR? According to Hollywood screenwriters, TV producers and the nation’s novelists, public relations is a profession full of cynical, manipulative, money-grabbing, back-stabbing phonies, whose primary qualifications are a certain shallow quickness of mind and the fact that before they took their first PR job they were admitted to a hospital to have their ethics surgically removed.

Who would want a job in PR? According to Hollywood screenwriters, TV producers and the nation’s novelists, public relations is a profession full of cynical, manipulative, money-grabbing, back-stabbing phonies, whose primary qualifications are a certain shallow quickness of mind and the fact that before they took their first PR job they were admitted to a hospital to have their ethics surgically removed.

Who would want a job in PR? According to Hollywood screenwriters,

TV producers and the nation’s novelists, public relations is a

profession full of cynical, manipulative, money-grabbing, back-stabbing

phonies, whose primary qualifications are a certain shallow quickness of

mind and the fact that before they took their first PR job they were

admitted to a hospital to have their ethics surgically removed.



The indictment doesn’t end there: PR pros are the kind of lowlifes who

would sell their mother for a column inch. They are the kind of people

who, to quote a PR person in the novel For Immediate Release (written by

Rion Bercovici in 1937), are in the ’same business’ as the local brothel

owner. They are the kind of people who, when a dear client has just

died, wonder if they will lose the account.



As Richard Weiner, senior consultant at Porter Novelli, says, ’Most of

these PR characters are based on Hollywood press agents, because

screenwriters write what they know, or the behind-the-scenes spin

doctors who have a little black book of contacts with which they can

solve any crisis.’ It’s just a pity that these prove to be two sides of

the same counterfeit coin, variations on a familiar theme that PR is a

corrupting force, all the more sinister because it is a secret art.



Dina Wise, account director at New York’s Harrison and Schriftman, says,

’It’s hard to explain what PR people do. My mother still doesn’t know

what I do after five years. People latch onto the spin doctor thing

because they can understand that: they think PR is the art of making bad

things go away.’



Even in films like LA Confidential, where PR is not represented by a

character, the practice is presented as a fix: when the crooked police

chief is finally slain, his exit is rewritten as heroic. PR, the film

implies, is the art of selling a tranquilizing lie to the credulous

masses.





PR people who aren’t jerks



Where a writer or director goes against type and creates - gasp! - a

sympathetic PR character, the profession is often just a convenient back

story (see sidebar on Jamie Buchman in Mad About You). This is

especially true if the character is female. In Sliding Doors, Gwyneth

Paltrow plays a PR woman named Helen, but PR is merely a plausible

occupation, light enough not to detract from the romance. Nor is the job

particularly difficult: setting up her own PR company is a matter of

dashing off a note to an unusually eager bank manager and buying a few

cans of trendy blue paint to decorate the office. These chores done -

hey presto! - Paltrow is back in business with her solitary client, a

restaurant owner, whose launch party she organizes only to spend most of

it arguing with her ex-boyfriend.



It’s enough to make you pine for the bad old days of press

agent-cum-human vermin Sidney Falco, played by Tony Curtis, in the Sweet

Smell of Success. As Harry Truman once said of Richard Nixon, if Falco

caught himself telling the truth, he’d lie just to keep his hand in. But

the man lives for his trade.



So powerful are these cliches that they have infiltrated that most

cliche-ridden of Hollywood canons: the 31 non-documentary movies of

Elvis Presley.



In one of the early, not-completely-vapid movies, called Loving You,

Presley plays a hillbilly singer manipulated by a scheming agent played

by Elizabeth Scott, who, when all else fails, pretends she’s in love

with him. But even the Pelvis is not completely blind to her methods,

saying: ’That’s how you’re selling me isn’t it? Like a monkey in a

zoo?’



The entertainment industry has always held PR in disrepute. But

ultimately, does it matter?



Kevin Keenan, assistant professor at the Department of Mass

Communications and Journalism at the American University in Cairo, who

has studied the way PR is presented in network TV news, thinks it does.

’PR is something most people would not encourage their own children to

pursue,’ he says.



’Certainly you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry someone in PR any

more than you’d want her to marry a mobster or a car salesman. Media

alone is not responsible for this stereotype but it does

contribute.’





A tradition of PR-bashing



Research by Karen Miller, assistant professor of public relations at the

University of Georgia, suggests the media have been peddling this

stereotype for some time. ’In the movies you can trace the negative

stereotypes at least as far back as the original A Star Is Born, filmed

in 1937,’ she says. ’But some of the darkest portrayals of PR come in a

crop of 1950s novels, often written by ex-PR men. One of these, Life in

the Crystal Palace (by Alan Harrington) is about AT&T, although it

doesn’t say so, and the characters spend most of their time trying to

find something to do.’ This book dismisses PR’s attempt to become a

profession as ’intellectual social climbing.’ Similar cynicism infuses

John Braine’s 1968 novel The Crying Game, which defines PR as ’the

easiest way of living without working that was ever invented.’



Miller’s study of 118 movies or novels containing a PR character,

published in the January 1999 Journal of Public Relations Research,

showed that 103 of the 202 characters lied for their client or

themselves. Miller says the characters fall into the following

none-too-flattering categories: ditzy, obsequious, cynical,

manipulative, money-minded, isolated, unfulfilled and (a rare positive

one) accomplished. Unfortunately, accomplishment was not always a

virtue, because when PR is effective, it is often seen as akin to

hypnotism, as in Robert van Riper’s 1959 novel A Really Sincere Guy, in

which a PR pro is told ’the fact is you’re tinkering with men’s

minds.’



Tinkering has been elevated into the mystical science of spin doctoring

by films like Wag the Dog. In the 1972 Robert Redford film The

Candidate, PR is a means of selling a senatorial candidate like a soap

powder; Redford’s character wins the election but loses his soul. PR is

obviously not Redford’s favorite trade. In his 1979 movie The Electric

Horseman, with Jane Fonda, he plays a cowboy who is smeared by the

company PR department after stealing the drugged-up horse that is its

corporate symbol. Few big-screen cameos have done as much damage to PR’s

image as the footage of real PR man Ron Ziegler defending his ’client’

Richard Nixon in All the President’s Men.



On the other hand, NBC show West Wing, with Rob Lowe as deputy

communications director Sam Seaborn and Allison Janney as press

secretary CJ Gregg, portrays White House PR people with more

sympathy.



As Miller says, however, the negative images are more powerful because

of the profession’s very invisibility: ’Most people know a lawyer or a

doctor, and when they see them represented in a book or a movie, they

compare it to the person they know. But how many people know somebody in

PR?’



Jack Bergen, head of the Council of Public Relations Firms, admits the

stereotype is powerful but says its effect should not be

overestimated.



’There’s nothing you can do about the stereotype because it will be

there almost as long as there’s an entertainment industry. But when I’m

touring the colleges, many young people are prepared to put talk of spin

to one side and give us the benefit of the doubt. What we need to do as

an industry is to make it easier for people in it to explain to the

people who matter to them what exactly it is they do.’



Sometimes, though, the stereotypes are too extreme to be mistaken for

reality. Wise remembers watching the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous,

allegedly based on the life and misdemeanors of Lynne Franks, a famous

British celebrity PR pro, on TV in Canada before she joined the

industry.



’It was so extreme I couldn’t take any of it seriously,’ she says. ’I

don’t think it really registered that it was about PR.’ Asked if she’s

ever had any AbFab moments, Wise laughs and says, ’No, nor am I always

ringing people from a little black book, although I’d be lost without my

Rolodex. The PR character I’m most impressed with is Samantha Jones on

Sex and the City. If you take away some of the arrogance, that’s not too

bad a picture of a PR person.’



Presumably, you’d have to take away some of Samantha’s lust-crazed

one-night stands too, although the HBO show would hardly be the first to

imply that PR people lack moral fiber. In the film Days of Wine and

Roses, alcoholic PR man Joe Daly (Jack Lemmon) procures dates for

clients while two other PR pros have sex with reporters in their quest

for the perfect story.



In the upcoming movie The Kid, Bruce Willis plays a powerful ’image

consultant’ who meets his eight-year-old former self - ’the kid’ helps

him see that he doesn’t like what he’s become.





The bottom of the barrel



Still, any of these are probably preferable as PR pin-ups to Paul

Lassiter, the press secretary in Spin City who makes Goofy look like a

philosopher prince and must be the only PR pro who has to make a New

Year’s resolution to be less gullible. The only logical conclusion to be

drawn from Lassiter is that if he can get a job in PR, anybody can. As

Wise says, such depictions suggest that the only skills you need are

’being good with people and being able to organize a cocktail

party.’



No movie or novel focuses on the mechanics of PR with the intensity

that, say, All The President’s Men examines the mechanics of newspaper

reporting, but then not many Hill & Knowlton strategy meetings take

place at midnight in underground car parks with mysterious raincoated

individuals who revel in the nickname Deep Throat. In Carol Brennan’s

early 1990s mystery novels Full Commission and Headhunt, heroine Liz

Wareham is the executive vice president of a Manhattan PR agency, and

the backdrop is reasonably convincing, at least until Wareham takes time

out from clients to solve a few murders.



PR pros like Paul and Samantha are cropping up more often in films and

TV. That said, Rip Torn recently had a minor and unflattering role in

The Insider as John Scanlon, and in other cases, the PR characters are

far down on the list of credits, or their trade, like Paltrow’s working

life in Sliding Doors, has no relevance to the plot.



Ultimately, the most damning element of the entertainment industry’s

portrayal of PR may not be its depiction of the characters as

unprincipled liars (who, if there were any justice, would all meet the

same end as the PR pro in the novel Jurassic Park, who is eaten by a

baby tyrannosaurus rex), but rather its consistent insistence that, as

trades go, it’s as intellectually challenging as falling off a log.



In the film version of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, the ’hero’

Tommy Rath says, ’I don’t know anything about public relations,’ to

which a friend replies: ’Who does? You got a clean shirt, you bathe

every day, that’s all there is to it.’ Or, as Carl Hiaasen puts it in

his novel Native Tongue, PR takes nothing out of you but your pride. Or

as Peter Howitt, star of one of Britain’s worst-ever sitcoms (Bread),

who wrote Sliding Doors, puts it: ’Bullshit is what we do in PR.’



Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that, Peter.





POP PR: BIG SCREEN, LITTLE SCREEN, BETWEEN THE COVERS





FILM



Sidney Falco (played by Tony Curtis) in Sweet Smell Of Success

(1957)



Opinions differ about press agent Sidney Falco. In one camp are those

who merely dislike him, like columnist JJ Hunsecker, who describes him

as ’a man of 40 faces, all of them deceptive and not one of them

pretty.’ In the second camp are those who loathe the very Broadway

pavement he walks on, seeing him as a man ’with the scruples of a guinea

pig and the morals of a gangster.’



But Hunsecker’s secretary, Mary, sums him up best when she says,

’There’s not a drop of respect in you for anything alive, you’re so

immersed in the theology of making a fast buck.’



In the bitter screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehmann, Falco is

presented as the charismatically oily specimen of a ’slimy trade.’ As

one of Falco’s many dissatisfied clients tells him, PR ’is a dirty job I

pay clean money for.’ And dirty it certainly is. In 96 sleazy minutes,

Falco procures a woman for one Broadway columnist, tries to blackmail

another and plants a smear story alleging that a jazz player is a

marijuana-smoking communist and tries to frame him - all in pursuit of

his ’slimy trade.’



Falco is constantly on the run from clients who never seem to know why

they pay him dollars 100 a month. One outraged client does at least know

why he spends money on PR in general and Falco in particular: ’I hire

you to make up lies about me and get them printed. I wouldn’t hire you

if you weren’t a liar.’





TV SHOW



Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt) in Mad About You



Mrs. Buchman is one of the few sympathetic portrayals of a PR person to

make prime time TV. This makes it even more of a shame that the

scriptwriters are madder about her husband’s stop/start career as a

documentary filmmaker than her chosen profession. Jamie gives up her job

to pursue her education just as her old boss Fran gave up PR for her

family. Jamie, at least, does return to the fray by starting up her own

PR firm.



Despite the show’s ambivalence about PR, it often gets the details

right.



Jamie’s first company has the plausibly double-barreled name of

Farrer-Gantz and she rises to a job with the grand-sounding title of

regional vice president, although she is known to colleagues as ’Dragon

Lady.’ (Heck, she even has a boss who takes all the credit for her work

and whose mistress runs the legal department.) And unlike many other

fictional PR professionals, Jamie does things like, well, win accounts

from companies with humdrum names like Computron.



As Richard Weiner, senior consultant at Porter Novelli, says, Jamie is

completely different from many fictional PR pros because she is modest,

conscientious, ethical and not manipulative. The only time she steps

over any ethical line is when she steals a fax machine from work for her

old boss to use. Indeed, she’s almost too good to be true: staying at

the same firm for eight years when in the New York PR market she’d have

been headhunted before you could say ’mad about you.’





BOOK



Captain Flume in Catch 22



PR people are used to being misunderstood but few have eked out such a

miserable, paranoid, existence as Captain Flume, the public relations

officer for the Fighting 256th squadron of the US Air Force in Joseph

Heller’s mordant antiwar satire.



As the novel begins, Flume is contentedly sharing a trailer with a

Native American named Chief White Halfoat, who, for a cheap laugh,

threatens to slit the captain’s throat one night. When the startled

Flume asks why, Halfoat says simply: ’Why not?’



Flume’s attempts to solve his problem through the usual channels fail

when his senior officer tells him ’If you mention that again, I’ll cut

your throat.’ Flume then flees into the woods where he becomes a

cadaverous stranger living on sandwiches he sneaks out of the mess. Yet

his professional dedication never falters. He tells the chaplain

optimistically, ’I’ll be back grinding out those press releases as soon

as Chief White Halfoat dies of pneumonia.’



While Sidney Falco is disliked for good reason, Flume is shunned for no

apparent reason other than that he is a PR man and that his fellow

trailer trash likes to bully him. But, in his habit of spending ’most of

each evening developing the publicity pictures he took in the day,’

there is more than a hint that Flume’s real sin is social

inadequacy.



Hence - goes the implication from author Heller (who worked in the

promotions department for Time magazine) - his move into PR.



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