New portrayals of PR on screens – Scandal & House of Cards

15_pyeh2     absolutely_fabulous_ednia

PR has been portrayed in the media for many years now. We all have seen or heard of the glamourous adventures of Samantha Jones in Sex and the City or laughed at Absolutely Fabulous’ famous PR agent Edina Monsoon. And it is fair to say that all these portrayals of the PR industry weren’t very flattering and only focusing on specific aspects of the profession without showing how diverse it can be.

However, these TV shows have been over for almost a decade now and the perceptions that people have of the profession have changed a lot since then. First of all, the practitioners depicted are not all women now. And the glamour and partying has been replaced with more serious matters, such as politics, crisis management and so on.

One of the most recent portrayal of PR on TV is Scandal’s heroin Olivia Pope (the very talented Kerry Washington). The former White House Communications Director has left to start her own crisis management firm, Pope and Associates. She dedicates her time to protecting the reputation and public image of the nation’s elite but somehow, her work always drives her back to the White House.

Olivia’s character is partially based on Judy Smith, George W. Bush’s administration press aide, who serves as co-executive producer on the show. Of course, the stories depicted have their fair share of sex, drama and politics (it wouldn’t have lasted that long on TV otherwise, it’s still an american show after all), but for the first time in a long time, PR is put in the spotlight, and in a serious way for once.

The website asked a relevant question though : does Olivia Pope represent the industry well ? The reactions from female practitioners were interesting.

I think there are similarities and differences in Olivia Pope’s practice and today’s PR practice. Pope & Associates is willing to go to any lengths, even hiding bodies and cleaning crime scenes, to preserve a client’s image. I don’t know of many PR practitioners willing to go that far (let’s hope they wouldn’t).” Laurent Gray, Finn Partners

However, while the show may be extremely exaggerated, I think Olivia does reflect aspects that we want represented in our industry. She is smart, savvy and invests everything she has in helping her clients succeed. She understands the importance of building a team that she can trust and rely on in any given situation. I also think she illustrates attributes that are needed in this profession, from being calm and level-headed in a stressful situation to providing strategic counsel that helps address an issue and solves a problem, even though it may be hard for the client to hear.” Heather Cmiel, Bellmont Partners

It is true that the show depicts a very exaggerated version of the profession, but wouldn’t we expect it from a TV show ? Exaggeration aside, I really like the way the show has put a strong PR woman in the spotlight and the public finally gets to see a whole other side of PR, far from Samantha Jones’ restaurants launches and cocktail parties.

Another side of PR is portrayed in Netflix’s last sensation, House of Cards, about a ruthless American congressman who slowly makes his way up to the highest ranks of the White House. Kevin Spacey, accompanied by the very talented Robin Wright as his wife, plays Frank Underwood and portrays the ambitious politician. The show revolves around how Underwood plays with each person he wants to see gone or on his side and how he manipulates his way into the White House. Other characters also include a lobbyist and Underwood’s communications director, providing a good overview of how PR is practiced in political circles. Of course, let’s not forget it is still a TV show, although amazingly well-written and quite accurate. But for once, the public gets to see a whole new side of PR and the profession is finally portrayed as more serious and diverse as it used to be in previous shows. Final point, in House of Cards, major PR characters are all men !

As the industry is expanding and the profession is gaining more recognition, show business and Hollywood surely is getting more interested in telling the stories of people who can make or unmake reputations and careers. Even though, let’s be honest, it is still quite far from the truth…

Bonus : A new show focusing on an advertising agency (starring Robin Williams) premiered last September, and I think it’s fair to say, as funny and witty as it is, real ad agencies are very far from that…!

References :

Further Reading :

Girls on screen (journal article)

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