24 Apr Keeping Up With the Joneses: How PR is Portrayed in the Media
By: Maria Pianelli
I have a confession to make: a few weeks ago, I stayed up until 3:30 on a Sunday night watching Bridget Jones’ Diary. Even bigger confession: because Bridget Jones made her debut in ‘01, when I was seven, I had yet to make her acquaintance.
Maybe it was the coffee I was dumb enough to guzzle so late in the day, but I was completely transfixed by Ms. Jones’ adventures—specifically her career, a barely recognizable version of PR. Because in this version, our plucky protagonist primarily “fannies around with press releases.”
My, a lot has changed since 2001.
To put things in perspective, I’ve been a PR professional for a year and a half now and I can count on one hand how many releases I’ve put out. That’s not a misstep of my agency or anything—in fact, some agencies don’t put out releases at all. Rather, I spend my days dabbling in a mix of traditional PR (things like pitching media and crafting PR plans) and content—penning bylines and blog posts, organizing sponsored campaigns, and managing social media programs. In fact, if working in PR meant nothing but “fannying around with press releases,” I’m not sure I’d be in PR at all.
But it got me thinking—how exactly is Public Relations depicted in film and television…and how much truth is in these portrayals?
Let’s talk about the Gucci-clad elephant in the room: I say PR, you say “Samantha Jones.” Since Sex and the City premiered in 1998, Samantha Jones has been the poster child for PR. Even if you don’t know what PR is, you know Ms. Jones did it well. But what exactly did she do?
- Planned a glamorous bar mitzvah for Kat Dennings.
- Engaged in a steamy affair with an up-and-coming client.
- Landed said client a suggestive billboard in Times Square.
- Became besties with Lucy Liu…until she took advantage of the relationship to score a designer bag.
Put all that together and what do you get? A well-dressed cosmopolitan who sips expensive cocktails, spearheads A-list parties, and rubs shoulders with celebrities.
I hate to break it to you, Samantha and Bridget, but PR isn’t a Gatsby party. While there are intermittent glimmers of glamour and the occasional Businessweek cover or Today Show appearance, the bulk of PR is in the strategy. And I’m thankful for it.
Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy a good mixer every now and then, but the real thrill for me is conceptualizing a killer byline and then watching it take form in print. Or sitting in on a new biz meeting and brainstorming ways to help the client shine. PR isn’t just about looking good; rather, it’s about devising creative strategies to help businesses meet their goals and emerge as thought leaders. Sometimes that means staffing a briefing with a top notch fashion editor, but more often than not, it’s heads down, sights up and fingers typing a million words a minute on a keyboard.
Job description aside, what strikes me the most about Samantha is how she’s introduced in the very first episode: “PR Professional, Unmarried Woman.” By stringing her marital status directly after her profession, Sex and the City implies that one informs the other—Samantha Jones is “unmarried” because she’s married to her work. Digging deeper, perhaps this unbalance is the root of her promiscuity; she’s not attached because she simply does not have the time. As paternity leave makes headlines and an increasing number of dads play stay-at-home roles, this clause seems outdated, as it adds to the stigma that “career women” forfeit domestic bliss in order to climb the corporate ladder.
Admittedly, yes, there are a number of “unmarried women” in PR, but that’s largely because they’re in their lower to mid-twenties. But while there’s a heap of young ladies in PR, there are also married women and men and working moms and dads, mavens whose accomplishments blow Samantha Jones’s out of the water. Just because you’re passionate about your PR career doesn’t mean you’re married to it—it’s very possible to balance both personal and professional worlds.
From Scandal to Thank You For Smoking, Bridget Jones to Sex and the City, there are no shortage of PR depictions in the media, each of them with a different spin. Often, the older the performance, the weaker the accuracy, which I suppose that speaks to the evolving nature of PR—it’s still churning and growing and reinventing itself. For that reason, fantasy and reality are forever playing a game of catch-up and it’s up to PR professionals to shatter stereotypes and shed light on their expertise.
Image c/o HBO.com