The best movies about PR

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Often when I tell people I work in PR, they look at me with blank eyes, and I know exactly what they’re thinking: what the hell does that mean? I won’t be modest, because it’s unseemly for my profession, so I’ll say that a PR person is an architect who manages a reputation for a client. Reputations take a long time to build, a long time to lose, and an even longer time to rebuild. It’s like an overcoat. You may not need a coat in the summer, but left without a coat in the winter, you risk getting cold.

The task of PR is to prepare the consumer who is ready to buy. There is a belief that studying public opinion is much easier than influencing it. But logically built and implemented PR-projects can change public opinion. “In alliance with public opinion you can do everything, without it you can do nothing,” said U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. So yes, PR is about reputation.

In this blog, I’m going to discuss movies about PR that show our industry at its best (and worst). Truth be told, this rich, obscure industry is indeed a good reason to watch.

And a small caveat: While the films listed here may not be one hundred percent accurate depictions of our daily lives, they will give you a pretty good idea of what PR people sometimes do. Three. Two. One. PR!

#1 Thank You for Smoking (2005)

In a film based on Christopher Buckley’s 1994 novel about the rise of spin culture, the smiling, charismatic, convincing Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) seems able to sell snow to a Norwegian in winter. He’s a lobbyist for a tobacco company and, to him, presenting smoking as an attractive business is a cakewalk. Naylor doesn’t care if your mother says smoking is bad for you: is she a doctor? No? Well, why should you believe her? A great speaker, he operates on the principle of “what is not proven is doubtful.” Indeed, if the world has yet to see a single horse killed by the proverbial drop of nicotine, so why not take a few puffs? That said, there are virtually no smokers in the frame. But there is a lot of brilliant, logically honed dialogue and comical situations.

The logic is this: talk to the audience in their language, say what they want to hear from you, do what’s beneficial and don’t do what’s not. Both business and politics are essentially manipulations based on market expectations.

Quote: “I get paid to talk. Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent”.

#2 The Queen (2006)

In a crisis, no news is bad news.

After a long period of Conservative rule, Labour, led by Tony Blair, is winning in Britain. This shift in the fabric of power is not the only challenge facing Elizabeth II in 1997. In August, Princess Diana dies. Seven days passed between the tunnel disaster in western Paris and the funeral of the Princess of Wales, in which the British monarchy experienced one of its worst crises.

“The Queen” is a perfect example of crisis communications: Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and the royal family must present the death of Princess Diana to the public and a grieving London.

It is a story of the great confrontation between tradition and pop culture, the cult of restraint, inner dignity, and the principle of “glamour and tears.” Public sympathy is on the side of the Princess. The director’s sympathies belong to the Queen. It is Blair’s attitude toward Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), which has evolved from irony to admiration, that becomes the British Prime Minister’s main quality.

Under pressure from Blair (a brilliant crisis manager), Elizabeth II does what many expected her to do and what she believes would undermine the foundations of the monarchy – giving Diana’s funeral state status and returning to London from the Scottish estate of Balmoral to honour her former daughter-in-law.

Quote: “You know, when you get it wrong, you really get it wrong! That woman has given her whole life in service of her people. Fifty years of doing a job she never wanted.”

#3 Wag the Dog (1997)

“Nothing is real until it’s on TV,” said historian Daniel Joseph Boorstin.

A group of people, led by a political consultant (Robert De Niro), come together to change the audience’s focus from the president’s sexual misconduct to something more: a fictional but thoroughly depicted war with Albania. The film makes you think about how easy it is to make people think what you want them to think and react in a way that benefits you.

We all know the rule: If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation. This film alone, which could replace stacks of treatises on public relations, raises some important questions about how PR can shape public image and public sentiment, or in other words, wag the dog.

Quote: “A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”

“It’s like a plumber: do your job right and nobody should notice. But when you f*ck it up, everything gets full of shit.”

#4 Servant of the People (2015-2019)

PR helps make the audience get the impression that the happy idea to buy or vote came to them. “Servant of the People” is a case where the picture became reality.

Vasyl Goloborodko (Volodymyr Zelensky), a 30-year-old high school history teacher, is elected President of Ukraine after a video of him ranting about a corrupt government goes viral on social media. When he gets national attention, his students create a crowdfunding platform that raises enough money to run a campaign. In the blink of an eye, he is elected President, so he must live up to his tirade.

The series asks the question: what if an ordinary man became President? It’s not just life imitating art, it’s art that has created the conditions in which life imitates it. Viewers cannot know the extent to which we are watching the character or the man himself, but we have seen a president who will not abandon his people.

We are dealing with a show that helped comedic actor Volodymyr Zelensky become President of Ukraine. “Servant of the People” became so popular in Ukraine that employees of his production company registered a political party with the same name. Zelensky entered the presidential race and was elected in 2019, the same year the TV show ended.

Quote: “You are servants of the people. Actually, the Greek word “democracy” translates to “rule by the people,” not “rule over the people”. Where does it say that servants should live better than their masters?”

#5 In Bruges (2008)

Publicity is a most powerful force in public life. With an audience of millions, a movie can provide more publicity than traditional advertising can. Whether it’s ‘product placement’ where you can buy the trainers worn by the hero, or the song from the film becoming a hit single, movies can influence behaviour.

In this case, I’m talking about an unconventional, but effective, PR campaign for the Belgian city of Bruges. Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges was released in 2008 and since then the city has been undergoing a new wave of tourist boom.

The beautiful European city of Bruges  on Christmas Eve. Old houses, museums and attractions, crowds of tourists and falling snow. Someone is making dwarf movies, someone is robbing tourists, and two hit men (rookie Ray and experienced Ken) are in hiding after a partially failed case. But while Ken (Brendan Gleeson) takes the exile with the enthusiasm of a tourist, never parting with his guidebook, Ray (Colin Farrell) hates this fabulous city, bullies tourists and dreams of returning to England sooner. Their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) first scolds them over the phone and then arrives to settle the honour issue himself.

At first glance, there’s nothing special about the picture – the two hit men hang around Bruges and bicker (the word f*ck is repeated 126 times, or 1.18 f*ck per minute). Nevertheless, the picture is fascinating. Why? Bruges is not even a background, but an independent participant in the action, the main character, with its medieval streets and romantic canals, hotels and restaurants, and, of course, swans. The city is shot with such taste that the camerawork should have won an Oscar. The atmosphere of beautiful Bruges visibly influences the actions of Ken and Ray. Ken decides to rebel against the boss to whom he owes a lot, Ray also makes a difficult decision.

Quote: “– You know, I’m not sure it’s really his thing. – What do you mean it’s not really his thing? What’s that supposed to mean? It’s not really his thing. What the f*ck is that supposed to mean? – Nothing, Harry. – It’s a fairy-tale town, isn’t it? How’s a fairy-tale town not somebody’s f*cking thing? How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful f*cking fairy-tale stuff, how can that not be somebody’s f*cking thing, eh? – What I think I meant to say was… – Is the swans still there? – Yeah, there’s swans… – How can f*cking swans not f*cking be somebody’s f*cking thing, eh? How can that be?”

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