Facts vs. Straight Up Fiction: Mainstream Media’s Depiction of Public Relations

PR pros, be honest, we’ve all experienced being asked this question: “So what do you actually do?” I wouldn’t go as far to say that PR has a bad reputation, but it is certainly misrepresented. 

There are multiple roles in the communications industry and none of these things are quite like the other: branding, marketing, media relations, advertising, influencer relations, social media, event-planning, award execution, the list goes on and on. Within public relations there’s a garden variety of tasks, responsibilities, and niches (i.e. crisis vs. financial events,)  and there are even different types of PR (consumer v. B2B.) There are also various industries that sit under both B2C and B2B (with different size companies ranging from startups to enterprise giants). 

While these nuances contribute to general confusion around what PR pros actually do day in and day out, the representation of PR on your TV screen doesn’t clear anything up – in fact, it adds to this general confusion and stereotyping.

No doubt, the best way to understand what someone does for a living is to ask them yourself – however, hopefully this clears a few things up:

You work in PR, you must be untrustworthy

People that work in PR are often characterized on TV shows as nonchalant spin doctors with a low moral code – they’ll do anything to seal the deal and to get the job done. If you’ve ever watched Scandal, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Olivia Pope will go as far to cover up crime scenes to manage crises for her clients. This type of scrappiness is not what we typically do. Instead, communications work is all about relationship building and quick instincts and you can do this with upstanding ethics and honesty. The nature of the business is that clients trust you with a brand image. To promote and get your client’s name in the limelight, your methodology must be sound (or you could risk losing your client, your job and your integrity)!

PR is Mean Girls 2.0

Many depictions of communications professionals present a world in which only women are present in the office. There’s always a protagonist (think Emily in Paris – a hard-working, naïve, nice girl trying to make it in a cut-throat industry) and a villain plotting her downfall. This “girl world” is typically illustrated with broad strokes of high fashion and a touch of cattiness that makes you hate almost everyone but the protagonist you’re rooting for. While the PR industry is a predominantly female-dominated field (roughly 70% of the PR workforce is women), women only comprise 30% of executive roles in PR. Which means 70% of men comprise executive roles in PR – a paradigm that is shifting but ever-present. I can also share anecdotally that throughout my PR career I’ve had the privilege of working alongside supportive, collaborative role models and peers (both men and women.) While also a predominantly white profession (87.9%), the industry is holistically moving toward a more diverse and inclusive future beyond gender and race by tackling hiring biases and improving recruitment/retention processes.

Roll Out the Red Carpet

While events can certainly be a part of a client’s PR program, holistically PR is so much more than planning for and organizing events. Not to mention, on the TV screen these events are almost exclusively on expensive yachts and/or luxurious venues. What you don’t see in this glamorized depiction of PR is the grit and hard work that goes into the execution of a client event. You don’t see the spreadsheets, executive talk tracks, countless email threads and calendar invites to journalists and the time spent on coordination, scheduling and booking to ensure everything goes smoothly. While celebrities and influencers might be present, for example in the capacity of a keynote talk for some events, you won’t be sipping champagne with them all night. In B2B PR, events also include trade and industry shows in which the room is filled with innovative developers (not fashion icons.) That’s a room you won’t see Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones in.

Next time you catch a representation of a PR pro on the big or small screen, remember that our work is much deeper, more meaningful and based on integrity and hard work! 


This post is written by Abbey Clark, senior media manager at PAN Communications and PR Club Board Member.