PR: Perception vs. Reality

Unlike a lot of professional fields, public relations is one that often requires explanation for any industry outsider. So, you’re a doctor? A teacher? An accountant? Cool. Cool. Cool. We get it. Not so easily explained for us PR pros. And unless one happens to know someone in the industry, any understanding of the job, limited as it may be, is likely based solely on the portrayals of public relations professionals in TV shows and in film.

So that got me to thinking, just how accurate is that portrayal? After all, they say perception is reality, so let’s get real.

A few weeks back, I was channel surfing when I caught a promotional ad for a new show on Pop TV called Flack. Immediately I was intrigued. As the name not-so-subtly suggests, the show centers around a sharp and cunning PR strategist, Robyn (played by Anna Paquin), as she expertly navigates the fast-paced and often unpredictable aspects of providing crisis counsel to high-profile personalities, at times crossing invisible ethical and moral lines to get the job done.

Colin Farrell’s character in the film Phone Booth, an arrogant and philandering NYC publicist, and Aaron Eckhart’s character in the film Thank You For Smoking further cement the portrayal of PR pros as a “willing to do anything at any cost” bunch.

Sure, we put out fires and do our damnedest to maintain positive sentiment for our clients, but never, ever at the potential risk of breaching the strong code of ethical standards we hold ourselves to.

The verdict here? F for falsehoods.

“The Samantha Syndrome”

While there are several PR portrayals in film and television, all of which are dramatized to provide the entertainment intended, no one had more of an impact on me – and perhaps the entire millennial generation – than that of Sex and the City.

As a very precocious and impressionable 13-year-old, my fate as a future public relations professional was sealed the minute the fierce and fabulous Samantha Jones strutted her way across my TV screen and into the depths of my pre-teen consciousness (my parents had VERY lax rules about what I could watch; it was a simpler time).

Nevertheless, it wasn’t Samantha’s celebrated promiscuity that had my attention (OK, maybe a little), but rather it was her equally enthralling job that gave her and the rest of the gang access to the hottest clubs and parties that had me daydreaming about designer power suits and coordinating Birkin bags. She had both the power to take down any foe and make a name for a nobody. Helloooo Smith Jerrod. I was SOLD.

I’m not the only person to draw comparisons, or a lack thereof, to the portrayal of public relations in SATC. A quick search on Google uncovered that a PR professor in Australia actually coined a term to describe the common misconception young students have that the field is just about party planning, attending events and jetsetting around the globe – “The Samantha Syndrome.” A syndrome of which 13-year-old me was clearly inflicted. After all, Samantha is never seen attending client meetings (other than those in the bedroom), pitching, clipping, logging, researching, writing or any of the other fundamental aspects of the job.

However, while it’s easy to point out the inaccuracies of how the job is portrayed, there is some truth to it, so I’m going to hold off on giving this one an “F,” too. An unpopular opinion based on past comparison seekers, but let me explain.

I’ll first preface by saying that over the course of my 13 years in the industry, I have worked on some of the LEAST sexy accounts one could imagine. An HR consulting firm. A brand licensing agency. A network of amateur animators (alright, that may be cool to some). I’ve monitored until my eyes bled and clipped until my joints ached. I’ve sent out more media mailers than I can count and the majority of my time is in front of a computer, not in a club.

And yet, I’ve had the opportunity to do some REALLY COOL SH*T.

During the first week of my first job in PR, I worked an event hosted by David Bowie in support of the High Line Festival AND somehow made my way into a City Hall press conference with then NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Not too shabby for week one, and over the next dozen or so years, the metaphorical velvet ropes this career has opened for me are countless.

I’ve worked the red carpet events 13 year-old me would have freaked out over and have been in the presence of some of the greats of our time: Bill Clinton. LeBron James. T-Swift. I’ve worked on campaigns that have given small brands national headlines. I’ve helped to affect policy change. I’ve worked with some of the greatest minds in the industry.

Sure, the average day isn’t as glamorous as Samantha Jones would have you think; it’s hard work. But since that very first week, this job continues to challenge me, excite me, inspire me, and I look forward to the day that the industry is accurately represented in film and TV.

(In the meantime, I’m still waiting for my Birkin bag.)

Jennifer Launchi
Jennifer Launchi, Assistant Vice President
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