PR on the telly… we’re all doomed

The Public Relations industry is doomed. …We’re all doomed.

Alright, that’s a bit strong. But you have to start stories with an attention grabbing opening line, it helps draw in the reader. See. Look at you reading this, pretending you have free will. What a malleable little shit you are.

Clearly the second way to draw in the reader is to insult their decision making and call them a malleable little shit.

Anyway, mindless postmodernist puffery aside – PR pros really have lost their way. We’re no longer the children of Edward Bernays and Ivy Lee; men of suave sophistication, politics, and persuasive psychology. Now we’re all about consumerist stunts and post-sex-tape celebrity wank. If Edward Bernays saw us now, he’d be disgraced… before quickly getting over it and frantically trying to network with us.

Much of this shift in the industry simply comes down to the perceptions of the general public. For the first time in history PR is widely understood. Unfortunately that understanding is completely inaccurate and almost embarrassingly wrong.

Largely this is thanks to over-exaggerated PR people popping up within mainstream television shows (think Twenty Twelve, Ugly Betty, Torchwood Miracle Day or The Work Experience). This has left the general public feeling that they have a firm grasp on what we in PR really do. Unfortunately TV’s portrayal of the average PR person has all the realism of a Michael Bay film and all the flattery of a fart in a jar.

BBC Three - The Work Experience
Some public relations professionals on television


Across television’s PR repertoire, men are represented by tri-sexual fashionistas, and women by blond bimbos who only signed up to meet “that fit one from JLS”.

What annoys me most of all, is that it’s only the PR pros who get screwed over on telly. At least advertisers get Mad Men (which may not be a realistic portrayal of the ad industry but sure does make it look cool). The closest PR pros get to ‘cool’ is Armando Ianncui’s ‘The Thick of It‘; which, while unbelievably excellent, only really focuses on the political side of Public Relations. This leaves more traditional PR to be represented by Edina and Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous… gulp.

My biggest problem with this inaccurate portrayal is that reality often has a tendency to mimic popular culture. The more people who believe that “Ab Fab” is a realistic portrayal of the Public Relations industry, the more people who aspire to that lifestyle will join.

So why does this bother me? It mainly bothers me because I’ve spent four years of my life studying a discipline which is widely discredited on television. Four years reading endless texts on persuasive psychology, war time propaganda, and a history of rhetoric dating back to the days of Aristotle, only to have it dumbed down to celebrity gossip and consumerist trivia.

It is these TV-enforced stereotypes which have led me to cringe every time I use the phrase “public relations”. Stereotypes which have encouraged me to state individual aspects of my work rather than daring to use my official, and potentially shameful, “PR” title.

Interestingly, it’s often these individual practices which command more respect than their umbrella term of “Public Relations”.

Take a couple of these phrases for example:

Each of these (when done correctly) is a core aspect of the Public Relations process. Yet when put under the “PR” banner they somehow lose all credibility.

So there you have it. Without any intended irony, PR has developed an image problem. For the first time in history though, it’s not an image of unethical “spin” and “manipulation”, but instead one of being a “fluffy” discipline. A discipline only appropriate for those interested in “celeb” culture, the latest fashion accessories, and who Kim Kardashian will be dating this week.

Like I said… we’re all doomed.

Alex Warren
Alex Warren
Miserablist, whiskey-drinker, and general tinpot shambles. Alex Warren has a weary pessimism for all things media, politics and tech.