Long-time friend Joe Biscontini, one of the funniest men we’ve met in the higher education PR business, has taught an upper-level undergraduate public relations course at Penn State University. As part of his introduction, he has used film clips from feature films and television to show his students how public relations people are typically portrayed in popular culture. In Joe’s analysis below, you’ll see it ain’t pretty.
The appearance of NBC’s “The West Wing” was most welcome, dealing somewhat realistically with the ethical dilemmas of the fictional White House communications corps. But a research sweep of feature films so far has turned up no comparable role models. (The “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” comes close, but hits a different target.)
What I’ve found, regrettably but predictably, perpetuates the stereotype of PR practitioner as sleazeball. The best of the worst:
“The China Syndrome,” in which the power company’s PR guy routinely lies and denies, enlists political pressure to scare off the television station and, in the climactic press conference, suggests “there are reports that he (our frazzled hero, Jack Lemmon) has been drinking” when he tried to tell the world of the alleged near accident.
“The Days of Wine and Roses,” in which Lemmon again (this time as the PR guy) makes numerous references to the sleazy nature of his job as he recruits female companions for a businessman’s yacht cruise. Later in the film, Lemmon’s character tries to describe his job to Lee Remick’s skeptical father. The dialogue is so good it’s enough to make you consider getting out of PR and going into farming.
“Lover Come Back” comically focuses on advertising, rather than PR. But in the early setup it has a major wax manufacturer reportedly shopping for a new agency. In vying for the account, the “good guy” (Doris Day) orders the research department to learn everything she needs to know about the product: its history, user demographics, packaging design, best features, etc. The “bad guy” (Rock Hudson) orders his agency’s research department to learn everything he needs to know about the company’s owner: where he went to school, what kind of liquor he drinks, what kind of women he likes, etc. Guess who wins the account?
And a tight summation from veteran snarler Agnes Moorhead in “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” in which Moorhead, referring to the occupation of the hated Olivia de Havilland character, says, “Public relations! Ha! Sounds dirty to me.”
You get the picture. There are feature films that make heroes out of gunslingers, doctors, musicians, teachers, gardeners, secretaries, astronauts, abortionists and even lawyers, for heaven’s sake.