No Good Deed: PR role models

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No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession. Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it.  We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

Dilemma du jour:

I’m 19, studying public relations at university and really enjoying it. Beyond being one of the fastest-growing fields, it seems like the perfect career for my generation who have grown up using social media, being involved, politically astute, good communicators and very tech and media savvy. 

Recently, a couple of my fellow students and I were talking about PR role models in popular media and we couldn’t come up with anyone beyond Olivia Pope on Scandal and Samantha Jones on the old Sex & the City show. Neither of them seem quite right to us. Olivia is ruthless, though powerful and Samantha just puts on parties in the Hamptons and um, ‘dates’ a lot.

Are there any high-profile PR role models — real or fictionalized! -- who demonstrate professionalism, behave in principled ways and to whom we can aspire? 

Signed, Missing Models

While names of PR practitioners who are well known outside of professional circles don’t readily spring to mind, I believe that’s consistent with our job. As someone facilitating communications between an organization and its publics, the PR strategist represents the organization, not themselves. There’s also another reason PR isn’t well represented in entertainment: our role is to help minimize conflict and raise awareness of our clients’ work in a positive light, not exactly the stuff of must-see-TV. To keep viewers tuning in, Scandal evolved Olivia Pope from a crisis comms guru into an election fixing, blackmailing lawless murderer. Riveting viewing, but if you model your career after her, you’ll need a lot more help that an ethics column can provide.

Look for role models and mentors in the upper echelons of your organization -- if the team is large enough -- or through your local CPRS chapter. CPRS fellows have been recognized by our profession as among the very best, and accredited practitioners (APRs) have also undergone a rigorous process to prove they know their stuff. If you have questions or seek guidance, reach out to one of them. We PR types are in the business of being helpful. PR might not bring you public glory but done well, it can be varied, compelling and rewarding.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, KM Strategic Communications

There aren't many realistic or positive public relations professionals portrayed in TV or movies. If I think of the characters allegedly playing PR professionals in Sex in the City, Wag the Dog or Thank you for Smoking, it seems they're mostly cast as corporate villains or superficial socialites. And often, anyone described as a PR person is really a mislabeled publicist.

I understand the challenge for fiction writers. Unlike the legal profession, which is typically featured as a mix of good and bad traits because a heroic lawyer story can have a lot of drama climaxing in a courtroom confrontation, in PR doing a good job can be pretty prosaic stuff. Imagine a movie where your intrepid public relations protagonist conducts polling and focus groups and creates messages to successfully reconcile the views of their client and stakeholder audiences so that conflict is minimized. Not much drama there, so script writers find it simpler to entertain people with a PR disaster or conspiracy story.

Maybe Marvel could come up with a public relations superhero whose special power involves getting people with conflicting points of view to understand each other better and co-operate, jazzed up with some CGI effects and cool costumes. How about "The Dealmaker"? I fear they'd take the easier negative route with a name like "Decepticon" or is that already a thing?

Watching PR people on screen isn't my favourite leisure pastime. However, I've heard that The West Wing’s White House press secretary C.J. Cregg played by Allison Janney was quite a nuanced and positive portrayal. It's probably easier for a long-running TV series to cover a PR role more realistically than a movie.

My own real life PR role model is Vancouver's James Hoggan, APR. I loved his book Do the Right Thing: PR tips for a skeptical public and the work he did to expose a some of the darker chapters of PR such as the attempts by tobacco and oil interests to obscure science using dubious tactics.

~ Scott Jackson, APR Program Manager, National Communications, Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada

‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ certainly applies to these TV characterizations of public relations professionals. At best, they might highlight one or two aspects of the profession, but for every grain of truth in their portrayals there are many more times when these characters do things that are often unethical or just plain wrong. And while it may be good entertainment, none of these characters or their behaviours provides a road map to building a solid career. Truthfully, you won’t find many examples on TV or as headliners. We provide counsel to leaders who often have high public profiles, but that same profile is not something most of us strive for as individuals. Not to worry though, as there are plenty of real life PR role models in your community of practice.  

My advice: take advantage of your university days and join CPRS as a student member. Attend a few professional development events and you’ll start to see some very real, local role models in action. The Society’s Mentorship program is another great avenue, and a terrific way to begin to build relationships with some of the best in the business. For less than $60 a year, it’s a great investment in your career.

Here’s a link to the Society’s mentorship program for more info: /mentorship/

~ Peggy John, APR, LM, Senior Program Manager, Donation and Transplant, Canadian Blood Services


About the Author

Deborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.