I’m a sucker for classic movies, and the other night I was watching one of my favorites - The Sweet Smell of Success. It’s a 1957 melodrama with actors Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis really chewing the proverbial scenery. The dialogue is priceless. Who can resist lines like these?
Press Agent: “If I’m gonna go out on a limb for you, you gotta know what’s involved!”
Columnist: “My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.”
As enjoyable as the movie is, I do have a problem with the character Curtis plays. Sidney Falco is a totally amoral press agent who is supposed to represent the world of public relations. He’s portrayed as sleazy, opportunistic, and without any real skill other than for ruining other people’s reputations. The only positive thing you can say about him is that he works hard – at whatever it is he is doing. Same for studio publicist Matt Libby, played by Jack Carson in the 1954 version of A Star is Born. He’s cynical and jaded, but he works very hard to save an egotistical star’s career.
I wish I could say that the portrayal of PR people got better over the years, but from Jack Lemmon’s alcoholic Joe Clay in The Days of Wine and Roses to Kim Cattrall’s party-girl Samantha Jones in Sex and the City, I don’t recognize my profession of 30+ years in any of these portrayals. Where are the strategy meetings? Who is doing the writing? There must be someone writing something, somewhere – an action plan, news release, speech, newsletter, website, blog, anything? And how about all of those hours on the phone? These characters are on the phone all right, but that’s the extent of their work, it seems. What do they do all day?
The stereotypes are clear, if somewhat different for men and women. With few exceptions, public relations is portrayed as a stress-filled, down-and-dirty field for men and a fun-filled life of party-planning for women.
Most of the public relations people I know are ethical, professional and hard-working. Well, let’s face it: there’s no drama there!