I'm both a movie junkie and a PR junkie - which means, I absolutely love movies and TV shows that focus on my industry. With that in mind and as people start queuing up their Netflix for holiday vacations, here is a list of what to watch for PR pros:
The West Wing (1999 - 2006)
I've often said watching the entire series of The West Wing is like getting a Master's degree in PR. Granted, the show was on the air just as the internet was coming into play and it is pre-social media, so there are great lines like, "the story is on the internet right now; it will break in wide circulation tomorrow." Or, plot lines around the fact that you dump stories you don't want anyone to see on Fridays because "nobody watches the news on Friday night."
Ahhhhhh the days when you could truly control the news cycle! As outdated as those moments may be, the show centers around the White House's communications staff - so every story spotlights how to charm and disarm the media, how to communicate and stay on message or otherwise shape opinion through media relations. Written almost entirely by my favorite screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, if you want to see how we did it back in the day and hone your strategic PR skills, The West Wing is the way to go.
Thank You For Smoking (2006)
Set aside that this is based on the novel of the same name by one of my all-time favorite authors, Christopher Buckley, Thank You For Smoking is an entertaining movie that centers around a tobacco lobbyist, Nick Naylor, who has mastered the art of spin. Throughout the film, he consistently and creatively presents the tobacco industry's case on talk shows, in interviews and in the courtroom.
His explanation that if you argue your point correctly, you're never wrong truly demonstrates how language can change minds or even just change the conversation enough to hit your message. It also concludes with the greatest line ever to describe PR: "Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent."
Parks and Recreation (2009 - 2015)
While this show plays PR for pure comedy, it does beautifully highlight the power of public perception. In the show, you see Deputy Parks Director, Leslie Knope lead campaigns ranging from an online public poll for a new town slogan (including write-in submissions gone wrong) to a private Tweet shared publicly and Leslie promoting community events on the local morning news with legendary journalist, Joan Callamezzo, on the radio with Crazy Ira and The Douche and on Pawnee's local NPR station.
But, my favorite moment can be found in the episode where Leslie and her parks pals are trying to convince a high tech company to donate land in one part of town and to revitalize several city blocks in another part of town for their HQ. In that scene, Leslie and her boss, Ron Swanson ponder what on earth could persuade the company to do such a thing, their answer: PR. After demonstrating the good publicity the move would generate, the tech company agrees. Seriously - hidden in the comedy are some truly great strategic gems.
Wag The Dog (1997)
Robert De Niro plays a PR strategist who teams up with Dustin Hoffman, portraying a narcissistic Hollywood producer, to distract the public so they forget all about the President's sex scandal before the election. Like The West Wing, some of the tactics will come off as a bit dated as the movie was produced in 1996, released in '97. So, there really isn't any use of the internet and most of the media is represented through television broadcast, radio and print newspapers.
Plus, of course, a good PR pro would never engage in such ridiculous lies and deception (at least, I hope not!).
Nonetheless, the overall strategic discussions and planning and packaging of the news stories are sure to spark your creative juices as you develop that next pitch and proposal. I particularly like how Hoffman's character views their efforts as Act One and Act Two of a movie. In a sense, that's what we do. For example, the product's BETA launch could be viewed as Act One and the full-scale release could be Act Two. Act Three, of course, would be the KPIs and success metrics presented at the end of the campaign.
The Newsroom (2012 - 2014)
Also written by Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom is not about PR pros, but rather turns the camera's lens to the producers and reporters who strive to keep the public informed.
The series begins with Jeff Daniels' character, Will McAvoy, creating his own PR blunder when he delivers a speech on a college campus about how America isn't the great nation it used to be. McAvoy is a popular, non-controversial anchor of the nightly news, so his speech is immediately captured and shared online, leaving him to decide whether he wants to continue to toe the line or to really start calling it like he sees it through his position as anchorman. His battles with the network's owner - beautifully portrayed by Jane Fonda - also give insight into some of the challenges today's media face in light of various political and corporate interests.
While the show gets a bit preachy, it's worth it just for the scene where the 10:00 news producer breaks down the sensationalism of a Nancy Grace episode (below).
So, set your Netflix and Hulu queues up and enjoy some fun PR talk over your holiday break! In the meantime, let me know some of your favorite movies and TV shows that feature PR in the comments below.