Retro television sits on table

Pop Culture Incorporated: PR on TV

If there was ever a career rep­re­sent­ed on TV that needs some PR, it’s PR.

The small screen is over­flow­ing with cops, doc­tors and lawyers. And espe­cial­ly dur­ing many cur­rent PR prac­ti­tion­ers’ for­ma­tive years – in the 70s, 80s, and 90s – sit-coms and dra­mas fea­tured a vari­ety of well-defined careers for all sorts of icon­ic char­ac­ters: Mike Brady was an archi­tect. Lav­erne & Shirley worked at a brew­ery. Bob Newhart was a psy­chol­o­gist. But it’s tough to put a pos­i­tive spin on the sit­u­a­tion for PR pro­fes­sion­als, since it was almost nonexistent.

As our PR agency, Bell­mont Part­ners, cel­e­brates its 25th year, we’re look­ing back at some of the pop cul­ture influ­ences that got us inter­est­ed in pur­su­ing a career in pub­lic rela­tions in the first place. Spoil­er alert: Fic­tion­al PR role mod­els are few and far between. In an infor­mal poll among PR pros, not a sin­gle one cit­ed a pop-cul­ture rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the indus­try as direct­ly influ­enc­ing their career path.

And for good rea­son. If you watched “Sex and the City” you’d be for­giv­en if you assumed PR was all cock­tail par­ties and back-room deals. New York pub­li­cist Saman­tha Jones had a thriv­ing PR career in the 90s dram­e­dy, but I don’t ever recall see­ing her write a word. Instead of spend­ing hours por­ing over a Bacon’s media guide to find just the right edi­tor to pitch at the Oma­ha World-Her­ald or assem­bling a clip report, she went to brunch with her three friends and made sure they were on the guest list for some of the most glam­orous par­ties in town.

And were you even aware that Jamie Buch­man from “Mad About You” worked in PR? Appar­ent­ly, she start­ed as a PR exec­u­tive at a New York agency, then ran her own agency and ulti­mate­ly worked for City Hall. Even though I watched it through­out most of its sev­en-year run, I’m hav­ing a tough time recall­ing more than a few plot­lines that had to do with PR. Maybe she should have issued a press release.

Through­out the decades, our indus­try like­ly got the high­est-pro­file rep­re­sen­ta­tion from polit­i­cal PR. And why wouldn’t it? Pol­i­tics affords a dra­ma-rich, high-stakes back­drop for the lives of Wash­ing­ton movers and shak­ers like Olivia Pope and her cri­sis-man­age­ment firm in “Scan­dal” or White House Press Sec­re­tary CJ Cregg from “The West Wing.” Enter­tain­ing, sure, but it didn’t exact­ly chart a course for where the major­i­ty of us land­ed: at an agency, cor­po­ra­tion, non­prof­it or solo.

There’s no big­ger argu­ment for the lack of PR rep­re­sen­ta­tion than the fact that one of the fun­ni­est, most accu­rate PR-agency depic­tions was prob­a­bly Com­e­dy Central’s rel­a­tive­ly less­er-known “Kroll Show.” It fea­tured a recur­ring seg­ment about two women – both named Liz – who run a PR agency called Pub­LIZ­ity. (“It’s based off our names.”) Hilar­i­ous and, in all hon­esty, some­times a lit­tle bit too on point.

So few accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tions of PR on TV, and yet mil­lions of us chose this career path. What was it, then, that actu­al­ly did play a role in piquing our col­lec­tive inter­est in com­mu­ni­ca­tions? Five words: Mary Richards and Mad Men. I’d argue that jour­nal­ism and adver­tis­ing – plen­ti­ful on TV, both – played a major role for many of us.

In my next Pop Cul­ture Incor­po­rat­ed post I’ll be look­ing at how fic­tion­al ver­sions of the adver­tis­ing and news busi­ness­es sparked a gen­er­a­tion of communicators.

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