New “Spirited” holiday film slams PR people

My eyes started rolling only minutes after I pulled up a beanbag for the extended-family-holiday-movie experience last weekend.

As the first act of Apple+’s Spirited got rolling, I murmured to my wife, “Oh great, another fake Hollywood depiction of PR.”

We’re introduced to Ryan Reynolds’ character as a “high-powered New York media executive” when he tells a trade show full of Christmas tree growers they can’t afford him, but if they could, he’d help them start an underground culture war and brand artificial tree owners as inauthentic.

I mean, we only just barely got past the era when everyone’s primary frame of reference for our work was the glamorous and vapid life of Samantha Jones in the world of Sex and the City.

As the movie went on, Reynolds showed people around him how to double down on wedge issues and go all-in on the one-off weaknesses of their competitors. He shrugged off the moral consequences of dividing people and feeding tribalism, which is repulsive to me. But then I started to get more introspective.

I remembered many times counseling clients to prod their subject matter experts to come up with a more “contrarian” viewpoint. To take a firm stand against the conventional wisdom. “That’s just what it takes to get the media to pay attention and for people to actually share your point on social.” So am I really that much better than this Hollywood caricature? I mean, look at the title I wrote for this post – something instinctive in me knew that if I told you something was against you, you’d be more likely to open it.

In my defense, and yours, almost all of the time we follow those standard practices, we’re just trying to fit our client’s messaging into a discussion of, say, cloud servers vs. on-site data centers. Not accepting an eighth-grader’s permanent ostracism as acceptable collateral damage for a student council victory, as this fictional scumbag does.

But as our society grows ever more divided, this movie’s exaggerated moralizing did nudge me to be more thoughtful about this principle of “standing out from the noise.” I committed to weigh potential unintended consequences before recommending campaigns. To look for messages and outreach that are more about uniting around the common good than needing “someone to tell us what to hate,” as Reynolds sings.

So I gotta admit, a holiday movie’s depiction of PR had enough of a grain of truth in it to teach me a lesson.

But it’s nowhere near as good or as fun as the PR lesson from a much better Will Ferrell holiday movie.

P.S. Hit reply and share if you can think of any pop culture depictions of PR that are reliable enough to point our friends and family to and say, “That’s kinda what we do”? Although political communication is an entirely different animal, I think C.J. Cregg of The West Wing was a pretty decent avatar for a media relations pro in that era.

This article was originally published on November 30, 2022

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