In the United States televisual universe, Olivia Pope is a Washington, DC-based crisis communication expert who manages her own public relations firm. As a self-proclaimed fixer, she breaks out the crazy-glue, moves mountains, and slays dragons on Scandal.
Real talk? I previously dismissed fixer as a throwaway term meant to either intentionally obfuscate public relations work or to suggest that public relations is solely reactive.
My views about the term have improved significantly through the years. It wasn’t Olivia Pope who changed my mind, though. It was an attendee at the Public Relations Society of America 2013 International Conference. Following a panel discussion there, I asked attendees why public relations (film) characters present themselves as fixers. According to that attendee, it’s simply because public relations professionals are regularly hired to fix client problems.
When celebrities break the law, it is their publicists who step in to “fix” their reputation in the court of public opinion. These public relations professionals do more than just advise their clients how (long) to avoid public appearances, they also carefully plan eventual re-emergence. They select media platforms and provide extensive media training. (See A-list celebrity Reese Witherspoon appear on Good Morning America to apologize following her 2013 disorderly conduct for an example of this strategy.)
When a company has been damaged by either real or perceived (in)action, corporate communicators step in to fix misperceptions. These public relations professionals counsel executives on holding statements, website updates, and, more recently, social media messaging. (See how Arizona Ice Tea and Skittles handled public comments following the death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida for an example of this approach.)
When high-profile individuals make the personal decision to go public with their sexual orientation, their publicists help fix, that is correct, misperceptions about their private lives. For example: Entertainment PR veteran and crisis professional Howard Bragman prepared Meredith Baxter to come out publicly on “The Today Show.”
Every day, public relations professionals resolve (read: fix) issues for their clients, their companies, and their brands. These real-life public relations professionals are not miracle-workers—we can’t all be gladiators in suits, after all—but they are repairers, menders, renovators, rebuilders, and correctors.
In other words, they are fixers.
—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.