Alternative Flacks: Sean Spicer & Kellyanne Conway

In the past two weeks, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) have issued public statements reaffirming their commitment to honest, ethical public relations and decrying deliberate efforts to misrepresent information.

The unfortunate irony of what precipitated these statements—the unethical behavior of public relations professionals—is not lost on me.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer kicked things off by hosting a “press conference” (read: press statement) in which he restated inaccurate information about the size of the 2017 inauguration day crowds. His performance understandably generated a plethora of comical social media memes. It was when Presidential Advisor Kellyanne Conway told an incredulous Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that Spicer’s statements were not lies but, rather, alternative facts, that public admonishments began in earnest.

It is my contention that unethical public relations practitioners like Spicer and Conway share the blame for the consistently negative way in which we are depicted in the media.

1. These public relations practitioners convey a false impression of what is involved in public relations work. Public relations professionals use strategic communication to advance client perspectives.

2. Such practitioners represent the antithesis of public relations. Ethical public relations professionals build coalitions by engaging with multiple publics.

3. By becoming the story, these public relations practitioners take reporting time away from news of value to the public interest. Public relations professionals foster relationships with media professionals to facilitate fair client coverage.

4. These public relations practitioners widen the credibility gap that already exists between the media and public relations. (Remember when the Associated Press used the pejorative, adjectival form of public relations to clarify proper usage of alt-right?)

Sure,  Sean Spicer is not one of us, but folks like him certainly share the blame for continued media misrepresentations of the public relations profession.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

The Young Pope: Marketing Vatican City

Imagine you’ve been hired to manage publicity for a new client, a client who has just been elevated to the highest position in his field. People around the world—his peers and ordinary citizens alike—are waiting to hear about him, to see him, to get to know him better. Now imagine that your client is decidedly camera-shy and eschews ordinary communication channels.

This is the scenario the Vatican City Marketing Director encounters on the fictional television drama, The Young Pope.

In her first visit with Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law), Sofia (Cécile De France) outlines an outreach plan that includes a photo shoot and commissioning artists to create commemorative dishware featuring His Holiness. But the Pope has other ideas. He asserts that his office should feature a lack of access.

Sofia’s requests for a photo shoot are met with the Pope’s insistence on being photographed in shadow. His response to interview requests are even more extreme given his status as the first American Pope in history: He announces that he will no longer grant interviews.

Sofia’s responsibilities shift by necessity from profit-driven marketing to relationally-oriented public relations. His Holiness is more than a little caught-up in his new position. Upon learning that his first homily has sown “doubt and fear among the faithful,” he announces plans for a press conference, but instead dictates a statement to his special advisor, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton). During the press conference, she reads the statement aloud to a jam-packed room of journalists, all without taking a single question.

His Holiness remains steadfast in his refusal to grant interviews despite media now clamoring for access. The Young Pope’s communication approach is at odds with that of the entirety of the fictional Vatican City.

It remains to be seen whether Sofia will wield any real influence on building relationships between the Pope and the faithful. But the lusciously stylized program contains just the right amount of melodrama, realism, and character-driven narrative to keep viewers engrossed.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

History, Sears, & Public Relations

When Sears, Roebuck and Company announced that its iconic Craftsman hand tools brand is being sold, I felt a not insignificant twinge of nostalgia. The death of Sears has been predicted againagain, and again, but this time feels different to me. Almost like the end of an era.

I worked in the public relations division of Sears, Roebuck and Company headquarters from 1998-2005. My work there involved serving on the Sears Grand team, the group that promoted the free-standing store notable for its foodstuff, fashion, and an inviting racetrack store layout. I was also there when the company opened its venerable Sears on State store—a dramatic return to the area. Although that store has since closed, its presence downtown conveyed the near-seamless connection Sears had managed to maintain between the past and then-present.

My time at Sears 12 years ago is, admittedly, recent history—shout out to my former colleagues on the Sears Public Relations Alumni Facebook group—but my memories of the company are historical in context. The Sears Catalog. Kenmore appliances. And yes, Craftsman.

These days, my connections to corporate public relations history are scholarly*. I presented at the 2012 International History of Public Relations Conference, which later led to the article Positioning AT&T: A rhetorical analysis of Arthur W. Page speeches. I also presented at the 2013 conference, a launching point for the book chapter Digging for Victory Gardens: A comparative analysis of the U.K. and U.S. World War II gardening campaigns.

There is something special about considering corporate public relations through a historical lens. That said, I’m grateful my experience at Sears was recent enough that I can still share contemporary public relations examples with my students.

Should the day ever come that Sears closes its doors for good, I will hold out hope that reports of the company’s death are greatly exaggerated.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

*The International History of Public Relations Conference founder, Dr. Tom Watson, is also the founder of this blog.

The Nature Of Public Relations

Most folks believe they understand the true nature of public relations. Some see public relations as a half-baked attempt to restore a reputation; thus, public relations professionals are worthy of blame when their clients fail. Ironically, other folks see public relations as a panacea, capable of erasing any ill will as would a Hate Mulligan (h/t Anand Giridharadas). To wit: The New York police department has announced intentions to spend $4 million on an outreach campaign to improve its image in minority communities.

Public relations professionals must alternately defend, explain, and reject societal constructions of public relations, particularly those equating our work to spin. Television representations can sometimes perpetuate the spin-master moniker. In the Rock Never Dies episode of the drama Supernatural, a publicist discovers that Satan has possessed her client. She hardly bats an eye. After all, she says, she’s worked for racists, sexists, and even politicians.

As a public relations scholar, I have been grappling with the true nature of public relations since at least 2008. That year, one of the questions for my PhD Program Comprehensive Examination was the history of public relations. In a post-exam discussion, a professor urged me to always think critically about public relations. Public relations has indistinct limitations and capabilities, he said, so we must avoid applying it where it does not belong. His other assertion? Public relations is not everything.

I use semester breaks to catch up on non-academic reading. Last month I read “In a Dark, Dark Wood,” in which a character is described as attractive, manipulative, and perfectly suited to her job as a publicist. The lead character in “The Girl on the Train” is similarly problematic: She is a self-destructive alcoholic who has lied about getting fired from her public relations job.

No, public relations is not everything. Nor is it everything negative that has been ascribed to it—in fact or in fiction.

Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

The Fixer: Scandal

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.

In Cleverman, Representation Matters

If you watched Cleverman this summer, you understand why this post-apocalyptic drama is under consideration for Best Drama Program at the TV Week Logies. The first season of the Australia-based program offered something audiences had not seen before: The first indigenous Australian superhero (Gateway and Eden Fesi notwithstanding).

Aboriginal writer and producer Ryan Griffen created Cleverman with representation in mind. He wanted to honor Aboriginal cultural traditions and create a superhero with whom his son could identify. With Cleverman, he has achieved his goal.

The Aboriginal tradition of the Dreaming features prominently in the plot of Cleverman. The Dreaming refers to the beginning of time in which mystical beings created humans, animals, and the natural environment. These beings alternately take the form of humans and animals. They remain spiritually alive today because they are manifested through ritual objects. The titular character in Cleverman, Koen West, is a shaman responsible for maintaining the balance between the spirit realm and the natural world.

In Cleverman, a propaganda campaign functions to disempower certain segments of the Aboriginal community, adding immediacy to the narrative. The government establishes boundaries between city residents and a species of human called the Hairypeople. These so-called hairies have thick coats of body hair, razor-sharp nails, and super-human strength. The government mandates that Hairypeople be contained in a secure segment of the city called The Zone. Because their segregation is based solely on physical differences rather than behavior, the government relies on media narratives to criminalize Hairypeople.

Reporters who cover Hairypeople call them subhumans, situating them as outsiders. Some hairies internalize the damaging messages, shaving in order to pass and live outside the Zone. By the time the media begin covering a series of gruesome murders in the city, the presumed guilt of the Hairies is a foregone conclusion. The government uses the killings as an excuse to remove Hairies from the Zone by force. It is not until the Zone shut-down is imminent that Cleverman reluctantly emerges.

Koen West undergoes a significant transformation to become Cleverman. When viewers first meet him, he is an ardent supporter of the anti-Hairies campaign. He lacks any connection to Aboriginal tradition due to an estrangement from his family. He is so far removed from his culture that he works as a government informant to capture Hairies attempting to escape from the Zone. Once he finally embraces the Dreaming, he is prepared to navigate the spirit realm and natural world as Cleverman.

Resistance fighters have a storied history, but it remains to be seen if Koen can aid Hairypeople in escaping government occupation. No doubt the anti-Hairies campaign will continue unabated during season 2.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.

E.J. Baxter, PR Pro: 12 Men of Christmas

At the beginning of the film “12 Men of Christmas,” E.J. Baxter (portrayed by Kristen Chenoweth) is a public relations executive living the perfect life. Gendered public relations stereotypes notwithstanding—E.J. is a 30-something single at a high-powered New York City agency who simultaneously loses her job and fiancee—the movie contains compelling representations of the field.

Below are four lessons viewers can learn from this fictional public relations character:

1) She knows her worth

The film suggests E.J. Baxter has a well-earned reputation as a stellar public relations professional. She provides research-driven counsel to attract new clients; in fact, she is responsible for nearly 20 percent of new business at her former agency. E.J. nurtures her networks throughout the film, and is portrayed benefiting from those networks as well. Although she is unable to find work for several months after leaving New York City, she is unwilling to accept a position at a disreputable agency because she knows her worth.

2) She seizes opportunity

E.J. Baxter reluctantly accepts a one-year contract at the Kalispell, Montana Tourism Board. Her primary responsibility in the 19,000-population town is launching a program to establish the city as a hub for corporate retreats. Her secondary role is raising money for the Kalispell Search & Rescue team. When she learns that the Search & Rescue team funds its equipment, training, and even helicopter rental, she seizes the opportunity to expand the corporate retreat program into a fundraising venture.

3) She does her homework

It is apparent from her program pitch to the Kalispell Search & Rescue team that E.J. does her homework. She knows how much money the team typically makes during fundraising, and she knows how much money the team could raise with her new idea: A Twelve Men of Christmas calendar featuring photos of the Search & Rescue team. E.J. explains that the calendar would highlight the important work of Search & Rescue for the city while showcasing the men. Thanks to her connections with corporations (see lesson one above), calendar sponsors might also be inclined to host their corporate retreats in Kalispell.

4) She crafts her messaging

Acknowledging the unconventionality of the calendar for the town, E.J. assures the Search & Rescue team that they would be tastefully photographed and only partially nude. Whether it’s appealing to the wife of a reluctant team member or learning fly-fishing to pitch someone during a lesson, E.J. carefully crafts her message to persuade the holdouts to participate. With the Mayor, for example, she positions the calendar as the city’s opportunity to express gratitude to the Kalispell Search & Rescue Team.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) describes public relations as a high-pressure occupation occasionally involving travel. Public relations practitioners establish relationships with various publics, use communication to accomplish daily tasks, and regularly pitch ideas to clients, according to the BLS. Further, public relations practitioner responsibilities include event-planning, meetings, and community activities (BLS, 2015).

E.J. Baxter fulfills many of the descriptors the BLS applies to public relations. If you don’t mind a predictable plot, check out “12 Men of Christmas” for a fairly accurate depiction of public relations work.

—Cheryl Ann Lambert, Ph.D.