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What PR students can take away from 'The Greatest Showman'

With its star-studded cast, catchy soundtrack and less than favorable reviews from critics, "The Greatest Showman" has become one of the most talked about movies this awards season. The original musical paints P.T. Barnum as a idealist visionary who, while dangerously ambitious, provides a community for social outcasts in his quest for success. At its core, the origin story of “the greatest show on earth” is a feel-good family musical rather than a historical biopic, which has led to criticism that its message of empowerment comes off as empty.

Whatever your thoughts are of its message, "The Greatest Showman" appeals to communicators by portraying not only the complicated P.T. Barnum’s insatiable need to entertain, but also how he spreads messages, deals with the press and attracts audiences. Here are just a few examples of what public relations students can take away from "The Greatest Showman":

Evolving communication methods and skills At the beginning of the film, Barnum advertises his “museum of curiosities” on the streets of New York City by passing out flyers to people who proceed to throw them on the ground. After adjusting his business model, Barnum’s first success comes when people quickly seize his flyers calling on those with odd features or talents to audition for his show. Barnum understood these flyers attracted attention because they were different, and for the rest of the story he strives to present his show as one-of-a-kind. He takes this lesson to the extreme by exaggerating the truth, leading to criticism from the press. As he gains success and attracts audiences from differing socioeconomic classes, moviegoers get to see Barnum’s public relations skills evolve from doing whatever it takes to get attention to trying to navigate communications pitfalls and manage the narrative surrounding his show.

Identifying a need Barnum has an epiphany when he realizes all people have a natural yet hidden desire to look at unusual people. While there is an ethical dilemma over Barnum’s ideas on exploitation, in offering those cast off from society a chance to control the narrative and stand before those who stare at them in secret, Barnum simultaneously fulfills a previously unmet need for his publics.  In general this idea of identifying a need that is not being met and then meeting it is an important principle in public relations and a crucial skill in helping clients gain business, traction in the media and more.

The relationship between public relations practitioners and journalists While Barnum is not in the public relations business by practice, he serves as his business’s primary communicator. When his show gains traction and attracts the press, we see a budding antagonist in James Gordon Bennett, a journalist who criticises the show for being fake and low-brow. Throughout the film, Barnum and Bennett bicker back and forth. Bennett strives to deliver an unbiased account of a show he finds ridiculous, while Barnum, who sees all publicity as good publicity, keeps inviting him back to shows. They share several conversations throughout the film that humorously depict the relationships between journalists and those trying to utilize earned media.

These three broad takeaways highlight how many of the themes explored in the story reflect issues and skills important in the public relations industry. Amidst the hype and theatrics of the film, public relations students at the very least can expect to be entertained at how much they can apply from "The Greatest Showman" to their own lives and future careers.

By Emily Hillhouse, VP of Diversity and Inclusion


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