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PR in Movies: How NOT to Do Press Conferences

Published on March 30, 2020, at 8:16 p.m.
by Dylan Lanas.

I recently watched a YouTube video from WIRED that featured a former CIA officer reacting to various Hollywood movies. The scenes chosen from the movies featured characters “disguising” themselves, realistically and — much more often — unrealistically.

I found this element very entertaining.

I mean, to see someone who personally briefed U.S. spies unironically critique Channing Tatum, saying “My name’s Jeff” in “22 Jump Street”? Hilarious.

This concept hasn’t been used for a public relations angle, so I looked to the internet to find potential scenes to critique.

Unfortunately — as I found out while researching this piece — Hollywood seems to consistently portray PR in one setting: bad press conferences.

Luckily, research exists that allows us to assess the effectiveness of a spokesperson from a PR perspective. Texas A&M’s W. Timothy Coombs’ “Ongoing Crisis Communications” offers a rubric for grading speakers.

I will note what I feel is the spokesperson’s strongest and weakest trait, according to Coombs’ guidelines. Let’s see how Hollywood fares. (Spoilers ahead.)

“Iron Man”

The film that kicked off the unprecedented Marvel Cinematic Universe introduces us to Tony Stark: genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist. The film also reveals Stark as a smooth but rebellious spokesperson. Luckily, Stark’s honesty proves worthwhile, something real-life organizations could take a lesson from.

Tony Stark

• Appears pleasant on camera (Robert Downey Jr. is one cool dude.)

• Not able to explain why a question cannot be answered (caused by straying from the prepared message)

“Succession” (contains NSFW language)

If superhero movies aren’t your favorite, you might consider watching HBO’s ongoing series “Succession” — a modern retelling of “King Lear” in the context of a media conglomerate. In this scene, the son of the company’s CEO reveals details of corporate wrongdoings. Reporters erupt in excitement, and the head of PR for WayStay Royco is left to salvage the disaster.

Kendall Roy

• Extremely high stress tolerance (does not so much as blink as he launches an attack on his own company in front of reporters)

• “No comment” attitude (leads to a one-sided exchange of information)


Need a kid-friendly movie? Enter Officer Judy Hopps, a promising recruit for the Zootopia Police Department. It’s hard to blame her for her speaking gaffe: Anthropomorphic Jason Bateman’s advice is quite literally spin. Zootopia’s police department needs to learn to prepare its speakers.

Judy Hopps

• Able to organize responses (While a little shaky, Hopps delivers an understandable message when explaining the situation.)

• Unable to preface tough questions in a tactful manner (Labeling an entire portion of a population as inherently dangerous is a bad take.)

Clearly, Hollywood often fails to represent public relations in a favorable light. Practitioners in these movies tend to be spin doctors — morally bankrupt and ridiculously incompetent. More so, these representations fail to show the full scope of what PR truly entails: grassroots campaigning, branding and content marketing, to name a few practices.

Dr. Cheryl Lambert and Dr. Candace White published a study focusing on the portrayal of PR in movies. Many of the generalizations from this blog are also present in this study, albeit in a more quantitative manner. Their main takeaway remains the same as my own: Movies make PR look bad.

While critiquing these misrepresentations can bring its fair share of laughs, the overarching situation is far from lighthearted. It is up to us to fight for our industry’s reputation in every action we do.

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