Film and TV are two great places to find helpful and interesting takes on public relations and media. As far back as 1957’s “Sweet Smell of Success” starring Tony Curtis as a less than scrupulous PR man, there have been media depictions, good, bad and ugly, of the industry and its players. Every so often it’s important to see how PR and journalism are portrayed in popular media and what we can take away from these portrayals.
Better Call Saul. A spinoff from TV’s beloved “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” focuses on Jimmy McGill (who eventually becomes Saul Goodman), and how he became the sleazy lawyer/fan favorite who played a crucial role in “Breaking Bad.” Nicknamed “Slippin’ Jimmy,” we see McGill make one ethically questionable decision after the next, just to get attention and build his brand and practice. In one memorable scene, McGill is filming an ad at a billboard he recently bought near a New Mexico highway. He is talking about what he offers and himself in general, when a worker suddenly falls from the billboard and is left dangling. McGill climbs the billboard and rescues the worker. We come to realize, however, was that this was staged by McGill to make him look heroic and gain press coverage – which it does. While this type of stunt is cheesy and dishonest, there is and always will be a place for fun, pithy PR stunts, like Lyft’s offer of Delorean trips to ride the “Back To The Future” craze on October 21, 2015.
OJ: Made In America. “OJ: Made In America” offers a detailed account of all things OJ, from his humble beginnings, to his superstar USC days, through his murder trial and acquittal, to the sad aftermath. The OJ Simpson trial was perhaps the biggest media event of the 90s, with all eyes (and cameras) on the case at all times. One noteworthy part of the saga centers on the infamous day when, fleeing a warrant for his arrest, OJ takes off in a Ford Bronco with his friend Al Cowlings behind the wheel. Police followed him down the freeway in Los Angeles, with cameras rolling and the whole country watching. This charade ushered in the kind of “wall-to-wall” news cycle event coverage that has become de rigueur in recent times whether an event warrants it or not. It has also helped shape how PR people craft messages and pitch certain stories, paying particular attention to how a story will play out beyond a one-time hit.
Weiner. “Weiner,” a recent documentary about disgraced politician Anthony Weiner’s campaign for New York City Mayor, comes with plenty of advice for public relations people. The film follows Weiner as he (unsuccessfully) mounts a comeback and tries to restore his tarnished image years after he was found to be sexting underage women on multiple occasions, and then lying about it. The film is chock-full of Weiner strategizing with his public relations team. He consults on everything from how the media covers the scandal and his eventual mayoral run, to when and where wife Huma Abedin should appear. While most of us will (hopefully) never have to deal with crisis PR like the crazy and volatile Weiner situation, the film is instructive in how it shows media advisers making snap decisions.
Money Monster. Anyone who has worked in public relations knows the tension created by a live broadcast interview. There’s often a bit of nail-biting as we wonder how a company spokesperson will deliver “key messages” in a three-minute chat, or how far a host will veer from agreed-upon questions. Sometimes we worry about the right props, or the proper brand mention. Starring George Clooney and Julia Roberts, Jodie Foster’s “Money Monster” incorporates these PR anxieties into its plot. As we wrote about here, the movie portrays a behind-the-scenes look at TV production that surpasses the garden-variety anxieties that PR people are prone to, yet it also offers a reminder of on-camera interview do’s and don’ts.
Spotlight. Last year’s Academy Award winner for best picture, “Spotlight,” tells the true story of a team of Boston Globe reporters who exposed child sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Boston. Throughout the movie, the team investigates the case through endless interviews and research, struggling to obtain clear evidence before publishing. And as the tension boils and the film reaches its climax, the team must decide whether they have sufficient information to finally go to press. It comes down to a judgment call where making the wrong decision could have serious consequences. In our dealings with journalists, when to publish a high-profile or sensitive story is a balancing act where the rush to beat competitors must be weighed against the merits and credibility of sources. PR people can often act as a catalyst, providing updates and more data to help a reporter complete a story.