Portrayals of public relations practitioners in film

Joshua Bentley and two other academics writes in 2014:

The public relations profession is often portrayed negatively in popular culture (Miller, 1999; Saltzman, 2011; Spicer, 1993). Television and movies have contributed to the impression that public relations practitioners are mostly dishonest, manipulative “spin-doctors” (Dennison, 2012). Public relations professionals have good reasons to care how they are portrayed in film and fiction because these portrayals are likely to affect the reputation of the profession. First, a fictional narrative can help us understand the patterns of culture in which professionals may operate because stories “instantiate and localize what is conventionally expected in a culture” and they “illustrate the troubles and the perils that the conventionally expected may produce” (Bruner, 2006, p. 232).

Narratives can also enable viewers to envision a subjunctive reality (“whatif. . .”). According to Vandermeersche, Soetaert, and Rutten (2013), films, as the most popular stories in our culture, have gained the status of authoritative sources of information. As such, films may provide valuable insight into public’s perceptions of any profession. Scull and Peltier (2007) argued that movies contain patterns of meaning that may “hold explanatory power” (p. 13). Thus, analysis of portrayal of public relations practitioners in film can reveal the patterns of how our society perceives these professionals. These portrayals may also affect the public relations practitioners’ perceptions of their own profession as individuals can use symbolic resources “to construct their own identities and define their own lifestyles” (Buckingham, 2003, p. 159).

Cultivation theory (Cohen & Weimann, 2000; Gerbner, 1998) suggests that if audiences are consistently exposed to an unflattering image of public relations over time, this image will become the mainstream perception of the profession. Some recent studies, however, have suggested that public relations portrayals may be getting better.

* Callison (2001) asked, “Do PR practitioners have a PR problem?” (p. 219). He observed that while most public relations practitioners work hard to create favorable images of clients, “the profession seldom works on its own behalf to campaign for the image of public relations itself” (p. 219). In another study Callison (2004) measured perceptions of public relations practitioners through telephone surveys and source manipulation. Although participants did not blame practitioners for being biased in favor of their organizations, Callison observed that “spokespersons who are paid to present their employers in the best possible light are not always seen as stalwarts of honesty, which often leads to motives being questioned” (p.373).

In their book on public relations in American society, Coombs and Holladay (2014) identified several wide-spread attacks on the profession, such as the public is purposely being kept uninformed and the entire field is only publicity. Authors argued that these attacks may be a result of portrayals of public relations in mass media. Many public relations practitioners agree with the fact that they need to engage in public relations campaigns to improve the image of public relations. Discussions about the role and functions of the profession (Tsetsura & Kruckeberg, 2009) and a recently launched by PRSA a national communication campaign to improve the image of the profession, to emphasize the importance of PRSA, and to elevate the status of APR, a voluntarily accreditation in public relations (Cohen, 2013) are good examples of the latest efforts to improve the image of public relations.

In short, many agree that the public has negative perceptions of public relations as a field. But why do these negative perceptions and portrayals matter?

* Because understandings of reality are socially constructed, the media can create “pictures in our heads” (Lippmann, 1922, p. 3) that shape our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. Cultivation theory (Gerbner, 1998) thus holds that when people use mass media—particularly television—they are more likely to believe that media portrayals of reality correspond to actual reality.

These portrayals can feed into perceptions of public relations professionals. Cohen and Weimann (2000) explained, “According to cultivation theory, massive exposure to television’s reconstructed realities can result in perceptions of reality very different from what they might be if viewers watched less television” (p. 99). “Mainstreaming” refers to the phenomenon by which people from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives come to share similar views due to heavy media exposure (Gerbner, 1998, p. 183). For people who have no direct contact with actual public relations practitioners, media portrayals may be their only source of information about the profession. As a result, perceptions of public relations are likely to influence, and be influenced by, fictional accounts. Previous experiments showed that participants’ overall ratings of public relations dropped after non-practitioners watched movie clips featuring public relations characters (Dennison, 2012). As Cohen and Weimann (2000) noted in their discussion of cultivation theory, reconstructed realities can have an effect on how viewers see the world around them. If stereotypes of public relations practitioners exist, these stereotypes may also be reinforced by the entertainment media…

* Traditionally, any good story must involve conflict (Whitcomb, 2002). Fundamentals of narrative structure and the need for conflict in storytelling suggest, first of all, that movies and television programs will probably never provide both positive and accurate representations of the public relations profession. Representatives of professions that naturally involve conflict, such as police officers and lawyers, seem to be disproportionately represented in the entertainment media. However, even these professions are not always portrayed in flattering ways (Asimow, 1999–2000; Inciardi & Dee, 1987). Furthermore, these professions are made to look more exciting than they really are. Hence, for screenwriters to make the practice of public relations central to a story, they would probably have to make the profession of public relations seem unrealistically exciting or would need to introduce conflict that would make the portrayal at least somewhat negative.

* Professional writers have long distinguished between flat and round characters (Lee, 2005). The main characters of a story should be round characters. Typically, main characters need to have flaws. Howard (2004) observed, “A hero with no downside is not only predictable but, ultimately, boring” (p. 209). According to Whitcomb (2002), “It is essential that [the main character] grows, changes, learns something in the course of the movie” (p. 48). This change in the character over time is called the character arc (Suppa, 2006; Whitcomb, 2002).

Unlike main characters, minor characters tend to be flat. When public relations professionals are minor characters in a story, they will naturally tend to be flat, stereotypical characters (Suppa, 2006). When public relations professionals are main characters, they need to face conflict so they can grow and change. If the conflict is internal, these characters will necessarily have certain flaws. If the conflict is external, these characters will have to face some kind of antagonist (Suppa). While it may be possible to imagine a story in which the protagonist practices public relations realistically and deals with external conflict that does not involve negative portrayals of public relations, one can see why this scenario is uncommon. What is more likely is that the character’s public relations career either fades into the background of a story or becomes part of the story’s conflict. When this happens, portrayals of public relations will likely involve at least some negative elements.
To summarize, theories of narrative structure and character development in fiction and screenwriting make it unlikely that a portrayal of the public relations profession in entertainment media will ever be completely positive and realistic.

* Public relations practitioners should take pride in their work and appreciate the good they can do for society. Instead of accepting Hollywood’s negative stereotypes about public relations, practitioners should remember that they are professionals who help organizations manage communication and build mutually beneficial relationships with their publics (Coombs & Holladay, 2014; Heath & Combs, 2006). Instead of using terms like “spin” or “BS” when discussing what they do, practitioners should use words that convey a sense of value in their work.

* Movies often portray public relations practitioners embroiled in conflict with journalists or their own clients. No doubt, one reason for these portrayals is that conflict makes for good entertainment (Whitcomb, 2002). However, public relations practitioners in real life must be consummate professionals. Even when journalists or clients are difficult, public relations practitioners must respond with grace and dignity. For instance, if professionals use catchy phrases from Hollywood films, such as Thank You for Smoking, in their everyday talks, they may inadvertently reproduce negative stereotypes about the profession (Tsetsura, 2010a). In addition, clients who cannot be respected because of ethical issues may and should be dismissed, and unreasonable journalists can be circumvented with new media channels to combat negative perceptions of public relations practitioners as obsequious and money-minded.

* Treating oneself with respect means not compromising own values or standards of excellence. Public relations practitioners who carry out their responsibilities with excellence set an example for others inside and outside the field. Keeping a positive outlook, avoiding ethical compromises, and finding ways to help others through public relations matters more than how public relations is represented in Hollywood movies. Although cultivation effects might have created misconceptions about public relations in the minds of many people, those who actually get to know responsible professionals and work with professional public relations practitioners would quickly realize that the image of the profession portrayed in the movies may not be accurate. In order for the professionals to combat wide-spread attacks on public relations (Coombs & Holladay, 2014), professionals should respect their profession and themselves by practicing ethical and responsible public relations.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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