There’s an old Chinese saying that sounds like a blessing but is really a curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
What with folks in Baltimore having been battered like a heavyweight champ’s sparring partner with uppercut earthquakes, haymaker hurricanes and now a right cross Grand Prix, we’re still reeling from just how gosh darn INTERESTING things have gotten of late.
Of course, everything is a matter of perspective; if you’re in media or in public relations, that Chinese saying is welcome news. Interesting times means lots to write, broadcast and stream live video about…and from the PR point of view, plenty of challenges that require our special brand of problem solving.
Speaking of perspective, what’s Hollywood’s take on PR? How has the motion picture industry depicted we sultans of spin, heroes of hype, bulwarks of ballyhoo?
According to a study developed by the Department of Communications at California State University in 2009, PR’s image has actually improved, if an analysis of films between 1996 and 2008 are any indication.
The study examined three key issues: “How is the PR practitioner portrayed in recent films?” “What kind of public relations activities and models of public relations are depicted?” and “How do other scholars’ results in prior studies apply to the portrayal of public relations in current films?”
The study authors admit that, in past years, public relations suffered from “a serious image problem”:
Behind practitioners’ backs, outright in the media and even in the pages of industry journals, there were references to ‘a parade of hacks, flacks, and assorted charlatans who have adopted ‘public relations’ as a prestigious synonym for press agentry or publicity.” (Brody, 1992)
I found it interesting that the study further cited researchers who claim that the term “public relations” has become so “tainted” as to merit replacement. I recently read a PR blog poster’s comment that PR should be replaced with “People Relations.” One to grow on…but anyway…
Looking at how PR has been portrayed in movies from 1930 to 1995, Miller (1999) summarized her findings regards “recurring traits or archetypal characteristics associated with” PR practitioners as follows:
- Ditzy, as in “shallow, but lovable”
- Obsequious, “guided by whatever they think will satisfy their employers”
- Cynical, “sarcastic, edgy, angry, contemptuous and driven”
- Manipulative, those who “lie and cheat both for personal career advancement and on behalf of their clients”
- Money-minded, “thinking about their jobs from only a financial standpoint,” providing “comic relief,” but who equate PR with “prostitution”
- Isolated, “unable to fit in with coworkers…ill at ease…an outsider”
- Accomplished, “confident, poised, capable, responsible, bright, reliable, efficient, imaginative, well-read, personable, and trusted” but only as stereotype
- Unfulfilled, “skilled, but unhappy with their jobs”
Truth be told, I’ve known a few PR and marketing types over my 25 year career who fit in a few of these categories…some of which I’d even apply to myself..and not just the ones under “Accomplished”! Who in PR hasn’t had a moment of cynicism…or perhaps felt isolated from others within their organization? And as for fulfillment…well, I’ve held multiple jobs in PR over the years and so that means I must have been unfulfilled somewhere along the line or I wouldn’t have left whatever job I was in at the moment. If you follow…
I found this insight of Miller’s particularly striking: “She concluded that public relations is generally presented as ‘a somewhat mysterious occupation populated by unscrupulous practitioners with superiority complexes whose main goals appear to be getting their clients mentioned in the news media, duping the public and their clients and gaining power.”
The key phrase here is “mysterious occupation.” Perhaps one reason movies in the past cast such a shadow over PR purveyors is because the film writers, directors and so forth never really understood what PR actually IS.
While there are still many people who don’t truly understand what PR is truly all about, I do believe there’s a change underway in how people embrace the concept of public relations. With news being 24-7-365, the influence of PR cannot help but be felt and as a result, I think PR is much less the activity of “the man behind the curtain” if I can toss in a Wizard of Oz reference—PR is more in the spotlight than ever before. And I think we are seeing some “positive spin” as a result.
One of the films the study cites as showing PR in a more positive light is actually one I use in my own introductory PR class at Loyola University, the 2008 Will Smith comedy, HANCOCK.
Actor Jason Bateman plays a PR practitioner named Ray Embry who endeavors to use his PR skills (his non-profit “All-Heart” campaign) to help society as a whole. Ray isn’t about power, he isn’t cynical, he’s downright honorable, taking Smith’s people-skills-challenged super hero, Hancock, under his wing, to help him not merely reform his image, but to improve his personal character.
The study concludes that “the presentation of the PR in the movies is becoming more positive over time…the image of the practitioner has improved, with negative stereotypes decreasing in kind, frequency and virulence.”
The study also notes that perhaps part of the reason for this lies in the fact that the Writers Guild of America West “which represents film and television writers,” in launching a PR campaign of their own (to educate the public that movies aren’t just the work of big name directors but are the work of the writers who pen the scripts), have gotten to know a bit more about what public relations is really all about—building relationships, putting out an important message that benefits everyone involved.
The study reports, “Today’s screenwriters better understand what public relations practitioners do, why their work is important, and how they do it. Screenwriters write about what they know. Now they know PR.”