Stereotypes about the public relations industry abound in popular culture, and some are anathema to real PR professionals (see Samantha Jones in “Sex and the City”).
Happily, today there are TV shows that offer a more sophisticated and up-to-date look at PR and how it works. They can even help a company exploring PR learn a bit about what it can and can’t do, or at the very least have some fun in the process.
For anyone who works in tech and specifically tech PR, “Silicon Valley” mines a rich vein of parody as well as inspired humor. The show’s depiction of investors and start-ups, deal-making, rumor, and innuendo is ripped from TechCrunch, and they get a lot right. For example, in an earlier season, an investor in the fictional Pied Piper startup dumps his stock in the venture. Word gets out, prompting the team to hire a PR head to start damage control in a way that’s hilarious but relatable. For a somewhat more informative take, check out our wisdom for tech startups to determine the best time to bring on a PR agency.
Most people know Olivia Pope. The glamorous D.C. queen of crisis PR bears very little resemblance to PR folk we know, but the show seems less outlandish given today’s crazy political news cycle, and there are episodes rooted in realism…well, almost. Olivia has been called to media-train politicians and everyday citizens for their “15 minutes” – something that seems to happen with frequency in the real world. Like some PR pros, she leverages media relationships to leak important secrets or to rehabilitate reputations. For a certain type of company suffering from chronic missteps, like United Airlines (which can’t seem to go a week without one), a strong and savvy fixer seems a good investment.
This dark and wonderful send-up of reality TV’s “The Bachelor” also shows the use of public relations in interesting ways. This season the show-within-a-show, “Everlasting,” needs an image makeover after a scandal-ridden year. The producers set out to select a “suitress” (their “bachelorette”) with more intellectual heft and business success than the typical candidate to garner positive press. We liken the strategy to that of any company that has suffered a setback and chooses to better their image with a new hire as Uber did last year when replacing its CEO, for example. However, because this is a show that thrives on backstabbing and sabotage, it’s likely they will squander the opportunity.
“Better Call Saul”
The awesome “Breaking Bad” spin-off featuring “ethical-adjacent” lawyer Saul Goodman is full of great plot twists and dialogue, but we also love it because Saul is an old-school PR genius, as we’ve written before. We particularly like the goofy publicity stunt he pulls to gain exposure for his fledgling law practice. By appearing to rescue a fallen worker who dangles perilously from an outdoor platform while filming a TV commercial, Saul parlays staged dramatics into coverage on local TV news. Few self-respecting PRs would advise such a blatant, fraudulent stunt, but there’s still a place for a clever, well-managed PR event like this recent NYC subway makeover heralding the revival of ABC TV’s “Roseanne.”
The last two seasons of the show seem ripped from today’s headlines — Russian social media meddling, right-wing broadcasters, and a beleaguered president. These forces converge in the aftermath of a Ruby-Ridge-like standoff fomented by an Alex Jones-type media personality and his followers. The impasse explodes in violence when a Russia-backed fake news story misleads the mob about the fate of a young man injured in the standoff between law enforcement and locals. The fictional President Keane, who has been struggling with negative media coverage all year, devises a plan. She stages a masterful media opportunity that brings together the widows on both sides of the conflict to mourn those killed. It’s all about the optics, as any good PR practitioner knows.
On the lighter side, for those who remember the popular 90s sitcom “Mad About You,” with Paul Reiser as a documentary filmmaker and Helen Hunt as his PR agency-owning wife, the show is looking at a reboot! If that’s the case, let’s hope they get the PR part right.