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  • Writer's pictureMichael Rodriguez

Scene Stealers: How Hollywood has Portrayed Public Relations

Some of movie and TV’s top characters and memorable moments have come out of our industry, notes Ceisler Director Michael Rodriguez.

Like many of my friends growing up, I often used my imagination to roleplay exciting careers I could pursue when I was older – such as being a doctor, firefighter, police officer or some other exciting occupation I saw in the movies or on television.

Strange as it may seem, however, I cannot recall any kids pretending to be a public relations director or a government affairs manager.

It would be easy to blame Hollywood for the lack of heroic characters saving the world from misinformation one press release at a time. Still, over the years movies and TV shows have featured their fair share of characters engaging in the thrill-a-minute world of strategic communications and issue advocacy.

While public relations professionals are not always portrayed as knights in shining armor, it is interesting and funny to see how our efforts are presented to audiences. In no particular order, here are five of my favorite on-screen representations:

1. Thank You for Smoking While Thank You for Smoking is considerably over the top and certainly drifts into “dark comedy” territory, I do have to admire the conviction with which the main character, Nick Naylor (played by Aaron Eckhart), represents the interest of his client, Big Tobacco. Beyond the humor, the movie does illustrate the importance of truly believing in client causes and the need to be true to oneself.

2. The West Wing The West Wing approaches public relations and issue messaging from the complete opposite direction as Thank You for Smoking. While many of the characters in this White House ensemble drama can best be described as idealogues, the show also demonstrates exactly what you would want from a communications team – collaboration, strategic planning, passion for issues and accountability to steer efforts in a productive direction.

3. Parks & Recreation I confess that I did not follow the sitcom Parks & Recreation beyond its first couple of seasons. However, I loved how the plots felt eerily like work I had done earlier in my career. Building bridges between different stakeholder groups or raising awareness about public issues requires creativity and a good sense of humor. My favorite episode was the one where the characters had to develop a plan for a school lunch program that included the unveiling of a mascot named “Sporky.” Oh wait, that was a real scene from my career. See what I mean?

4. Wag the Dog Somewhere between a realistic story about a presidential administration engulfed in a scandal and the unethical absurdity of faking a war to create a public distraction is a surprisingly accurate look at the many elements that comprise a robust public-facing campaign. While I have certainly never created “fake news” for a client, I am well aware of the hours required and the attention to detail needed to keep multiple plates spinning on a complex campaign that requires on-point messaging and includes engaging content that captures the appropriate tone for target audiences.

5. Scrooged This 1980s adaptation of A Christmas Carol includes a scene in which leading character Frank Cross, a modern-day Scrooge played by Bill Murray, receives a call from a newspaper about a viewer who died watching a commercial designed to shock the public into viewing an upcoming, big-budget television program. Approached by his secretary with a phone in her hand, Cross initially dismisses the question and responds that the viewer’s death was the result of food poisoning. The secretary begins to repeat Frank’s comments to the reporter before he grabs the phone out of her hand in disgust and provides a more polished statement for the reporter. As Cross is doing so, a stage crew in his vicinity has a comical mishap which results in all hell breaking loose. Dismayed, Murray’s character hands the phone back to his secretary and goes to lunch. I feel like every communications professional has experienced a moment like this in her or his career.


Michael Rodriguez is a Director in Ceisler Media's Philadelphia office.


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