PAUL HOLMES: PR practitioners have cause to be concerned as Hollywood casts them in unflattering light

It's tempting to dismiss PR professionals who worry about the portrayal of this business in the media by suggesting that they get a life. Don't we have bigger issues to worry about? And can't the fact that Hollywood is turning PR people into leading characters be seen as evidence that our business has finally arrived?

It's tempting to dismiss PR professionals who worry about the portrayal of this business in the media by suggesting that they get a life. Don't we have bigger issues to worry about? And can't the fact that Hollywood is turning PR people into leading characters be seen as evidence that our business has finally arrived?

In Phone Booth, actor Colin Farrell plays Stu Shepard, a smarmy, arrogant celebrity publicist who appears to be a compulsive liar. He plays two magazines off each other to secure a cover story for a C-list client, and he cheats on his wife to boot. (Farrell's character has been compared in many reviews to Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco in the infinitely superior 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success, suggesting there's nothing new about negative portrayals of our profession.) In People I Know, meanwhile, Al Pacino plays a political hack representing a sleazy, womanizing actor with political ambitions, while attempting to bring together a black activist who bears more than a passing resemblance to Al Sharpton and a Jewish liberal power broker. Pacino's character is seedy, desperate, and terminally compromised. One of the things that truly bothers me about these movies is that although the main characters are referred to as PR people, they're not. Farrell's Shepard is a celebrity publicist, a male Lizzie Grubman, whose talent is for schmoozing and throwing parties. He's no more a PR person than the guy who puts on a giant chicken suit and struts up and down the sidewalk outside Ranch One. Pacino's character, meanwhile, operates in the zero-sum world of politics, where the only thing that matters is winning one more vote than your competitor, regardless of how many people you alienate in the process. The other thing that bothers me is that nobody ever points out that these are bad PR people. Not bad in the moral sense, but inept. Even when what they're trying to do works - when Farrell gets the cover story he wanted - they destroy relationships rather than build them. In the real corporate world, sensible clients would run a mile not to be associated with these people. Yet in the films, their betrayals are presented as evidence of how smart they are. I'm not saying that movies about corporate PR people would be any more favorable. Remember the nuclear plant's shifty PR rep in The China Syndrome? The corporate world has its share of villainous clients, and its share of practitioners who prefer spin over substance. But at least movies about corporate PR people would be so dull that your mother would never go see them, and, as such, you wouldn't have to explain, "No, that's not what I do for a living." -----
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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