It’s tempting to dismiss PR professionals who worry about the portrayal of this business in the media with the simple suggestion that they get a life. Don’t we have bigger issues to worry about? And could the fact that Hollywood is turning PROs into leading characters be seen as evidence that our business has finally arrived?
In the recent thriller Phone Booth, Irish actor Colin Farrell plays 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 cheats on his wife. Reviewers have compared Farrell’s character to Tony Curtis’s 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 adviser representing a sleazy, womanising actor with political ambitions.
One of the things that bothers me about these movies is that, although their main characters are referred to as public relations people, they’re not. Farrell’s character is a celebrity publicist whose talent is for schmoozing and throwing parties.
Pacino’s character operates in the 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 are trying to do works 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. I’m not saying movies about corporate PR people would be any more favourable.
Some may remember the nuclear plant’s shifty PRO in 1970s nuclear energy drama 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 you wouldn’t have to say: ‘No, that’s not what I do for a living.’