Cocktails with clients, glamorous parties, and behind the scenes manipulation are common practices implemented by public relations agents in movies and television. Shows like Scandal, Ray Donovan, Mad Men and Sex in the City cast a spotlight on the activities of the featured press agent, or “fixer” in an evolving and sometimes problematic light.
According to University of Oregon public relations professor, Kelli Matthews, “The most common stereotype used to be the party girl/publicist, but I think that’s changing thanks to Scandal. More and more I see the “crisis manager” as a representation.”
Many jobs are fantasized in movies and television for the sake of story, but those fantasies can lead to misconceptions about the profession.
“The problems tend to be that the PR people in movies and TV are overly simplistic and usually represent stereotypes or one-dimensional characters,” Matthews says.
Public relations agents depicted on screen often deceive the public, tamper with crime scenes, and use their positions for personal gain. In the TV series Sex in the City, Samantha Jones uses her status as a press agent for Lucy Liu to bypass a waiting list for an expensive handbag she normally wouldn’t have been able to purchase.
Scandal’s Olivia Pope also engages in unethical activities for her clients. Played by Kerry Washington, Olive is a well dressed, elegant crisis manager who is willing to go to any lengths to preserve the image of her clients, even if that means hiding bodies or covering up incriminating evidence.
While she does try to present her clients in the best light, and has their interests at heart, Olivia frequently finds herself in situations where she must compromise her own moral compass and break the code of ethics public relations practitioners promise to follow.
The Public Relations Code of Ethics states that agents must build trust with the public by revealing all information, and that an agent must be honest and accurate in all communication.
” I think our roles tend to be a) more complex and nuanced and b) way more behind the scenes and not as visible,” Matthews says, ” and c) most practitioners are responsible and ethical.”