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PR in Popular Media

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

By Hannah Taylor


“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” This famous line can be attributed to Don Draper of AMC’s award-winning TV show “Mad Men.” Throughout the years, the advertising, public relations and marketing industries have been portrayed in various fashions in popular media. But how accurate are these portrayals? I’m taking a look at five PR characters to see what the entertainment world got right and where it went wrong. 

1. Samantha Jones, “Sex in the City”

One of the most prominent PR characters on TV, Samantha Jones might be the reason why many teenaged girls decided to pursue a career in PR, and also the reason why their parents didn’t want them to. If you were to base your knowledge of what PR professionals do on Jones, you’d assume that all they do is plan lavish parties, mingle with celebrities and get invited to every event in town. To be fair, while some of these perks might hold true for some publicists and agency owners, they don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the strategic planning and creative thinking skills required of true PR professionals.

2. Olivia Pope, “Scandal”

While not exactly the patron saint of ethics for the PR industry, crisis manager Olivia 

Pope of Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal” displays admirable competence in media training and communications. Accented by her enviable wardrobe, Pope’s leadership and ambition mark her as a powerful woman in the political arena; in 2013, she was listed by Time magazine as one of the most influential TV characters. 

3. Jerry Maguire, “Jerry Maguire”

Have you ever wondered where the famous phrase “Show me the money!” came from? Well, it came from critically acclaimed film “Jerry Maguire.” A powerful sports agent who falls from grace after a late-night existential crisis, Maguire brings passion and heart to an industry portrayed by Hollywood directors as saturated with backstabbers and money-hungry schmoozers. Though not technically a PR practitioner, Maguire is particularly adept at pitching, and he successfully manages the image of professional football player Rod Tidwell, his sole loyal client post-firing. 

4. Don Draper, “Mad Men”

“Mad Men” is about a New York advertising agency in the 1950s, but many of the situations Draper faces in the show mirror what happens in a PR agency. Counseling clients on how to handle brand crises, competing with other agencies to land accounts, and of course, the crucial art of pitching, all take center stage in this hit TV show. Though Draper is quite adept as a salesman and strategic planner, little can be said in favor of his ethics. 

5. Lee Phillips, “America’s Sweethearts”

In “America’s Sweethearts,” Phillips is a stressed-out publicist tasked with maintaining a romantic narrative around a film when its two stars are going through a messy divorce offscreen. The challenges Phillips deals with don’t stray too far from reality. He attempts to manage a star’s image during a press junket that goes horribly wrong, and he does his best to advise his client on how to relate with the media. However, Phillips lacks any strategic management and is mostly scattered and unsuccessful in his PR efforts. 

These characters are a mere handful of the numerous PR professionals portrayed in popular media. Unfortunately, more often than not, the truth of the industry is forsaken in lieu of portrayals that favor drama, conflict and glamour; these characterizations often shape the general public’s idea of what public relations consists of. 

I’m hoping future trends in popular media will provide a shift toward more accurate representations in PR characters. In the meantime, checkout the aforementioned movies and TV shows if you haven’t already; accurate or not, they make for entertaining viewings!


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