Want to be a better PR practitioner? Watch more television

Emma Robertson

Are you frustrated by characters on television? I sure am.

Since entering the public relations program I’ve become aware of how poorly the profession is represented on network television. A 2010 study from Bond University, “A History of Public Relations on Screen: Cinema and Television Depictions Since the 1920s,” found that PR professionals are often portrayed as cynical, greedy, manipulative and unintelligent. Further, three quarters of practitioners on screen are male whose roles are often reduced to media relations.

That doesn’t seem right to me. Surely as the profession grows, understanding of the practice should too.

In some cases, it is getting better. ABC’s Scandal stars Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope, a former Whitehouse Communications Director and owner of a crisis management firm. Neither white, nor male, it’s reassuring to see an intelligent female in a position of power.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

In March, CTV launched Spun Out. The network describes the show online as a multi-cam workplace comedy starring a “patriarchal boss of a fledging PR firm staffed with people who can spin everyone’s problems but their own.”

It’s aggravating to see public relations depicted inaccurately. PR is not just about framing, or “spinning” a situation. However, there is value in watching shows featuring a fictional PR practitioner. Students and professionals in the communications field should be watching shows such as House of Cards and Scandal. These television portrayals provide valuable insight to the profession and practices. Tuning in to these shows will make you a better practitioner for four reasons.

1. It’s important to understand your audience – and how your audience understands your profession.

It’s common to hear professors address the importance of understanding your audience. It’s equally important that we know how the public understands our profession. Mass communication researcher Max McCombs says ordinary people view the world through the filter of the mass media. The public also tends to develop perceptions of professions from television images.

We need to be aware of what impression and information the public is receiving regarding public relations. Let’s be proactive and conscious of potential obstacles that can arise from negative or incorrect notions.

2. You’ll become a more critical thinker

Not all communication strategies on television are misrepresentations. For example, the second season of Netflix’s House of Cards introduces a plot line surrounding the Vice-President’s Press Secretary. Despite the lack of diversity (both characters are white men), the depiction has received praise for the use of real communication strategies. However, critics have also been quick to point out the tactics would not have occurred during the circumstances of the show.

Be one of those critics.

Recognizing a bad or unrealistic communications plan requires a critical analysis of the storyline. Why would a plan have succeeded or failed in real life? What would you have done instead?

Evaluating the results of a strategic plan is part of any public relations position. Asking and answering these questions will prepare you for future work and make you a more critical and creative communicator.

3. The shows will teach you valuable lessons

The professional takeaway won’t always be obvious. By thinking critically you can always find an important lesson or reminder in each episode. Here are some examples of what I’ve taken away from PR depictions on network television:

  • Choose talking points and stick to them
  • Keep your media relationships strictly professional
  • Having the right journalist share your message is crucial
  • Everyone needs media prepping before an interview
  • Maintaining relationships is as important as making them
  • Lose your credibility and you’ll lose clients

It’s a new take on watching educational television. Say goodbye to the Discovery Channel and hello to Netflix.

4. It’s fun and fitting

Shows often fail to mention that public relations is a stressful and challenging career. In fact, Career Cast ranks public relations executive as one of the top 10 most stressful jobs. Sometimes taking a break is what busy students and professionals need. Why not relax while watching something enjoyable and professionally relevant?

The frequent misconceptions of public relations make television portrayals all the more important. Even if PR is portrayed as the art of making problems go away take the opportunity to become a better communicator. Television’s inaccuracies and exaggerations can’t stop you from bringing a better image to the profession.