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A Brief Pop Cultural History of the Publicist

The new Pop TV series ‘Flack’ plays with the stereotype of the PR rep from hell. Why do fake publicists take so much flak?

Ringer illustration

In the new Pop TV series Flack, Anna Paquin stars as Robyn, a U.S. publicist working in a London PR firm under her icy boss, Caroline (Sophie Okonedo), and alongside her bitchy friend Eve (Lydia Wilson). It’s a dark comedy, emphasis on the darkness. The show opens with Robyn administering CPR to a teenage sex worker who has overdosed in her client’s hotel room. He lives, and she ducks into the bathroom to steal leftover drugs before arranging payment for his silence. In the same episode, she cheats on her boyfriend with a married celebrity chef and then makes an intern buy her contraceptives. Flack doesn’t announce that it’s a show about a messed-up, gifted antihero so much as it screams it in every single scene like a banshee with a loudspeaker. Robyn scuttles around the city laundering the sordid behavior of her celebrity clients, pausing mainly to lie to her loved ones and hoover cocaine. The show strives for edgy, soapy fun, but it suffers from the impression that relentless, cartoonish immorality is the same thing as actually being funny.

As its name suggests, this isn’t a show that thinks highly of the publicity business. Robyn’s deviance is nurtured in her work environment, where corruption is an asset and not a liability. Flack isn’t blazing a trail here, but leaning on an old stereotype. Publicists and other PR types are frequently portrayed in film and TV as conniving, vapid, or conniving and vapid. The depraved publicist is a long-running trope, up there with the loose-cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules or the unethical female journalist. It’s a stereotype almost as old as Hollywood: In 1932, The Half-Naked Truth focused on the exploits of a lying carnival publicist who pulls outrageous stunts to get headlines, while the 1937 version of A Star Is Born features a “demon press agent.” In 1957, the U.S. met its first iconic fictional publicist in Sweet Smell of Success, a noir starring Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, a Broadway press agent who helps powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) destroy a musician’s career. “It’s the publicity man’s nature to be a liar,” a club owner tells Sidney early on in the film. He lives up to the club owner’s words. “I’m nice when people pay me to be nice,” Sidney sneers. Even though Hunsecker is the movie’s villain, Sidney is the most contemptible character; Hunsecker memorably calls him a “cookie full of arsenic.” Sidney’s not a total bully like Hunsecker at the beginning of the film, but Sweet Smell of Success tracks his grubby descent into a pathetic figure, turning Sidney into a memorable heel: the man with a soul cheaply bought. He’s an ambition monster.

Sidney has many descendants, from crooked music promoter Vincent Vacarri (Ray Sharkey) in 1980’s The Idolmaker to cutthroat Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear) on the ’90s soap Melrose Place to the diabolical political spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) in 1997’s Wag the Dog. Whether they’re doing PR work for celebrities or presidential administrations, these characters push scruples aside to devote themselves to telling the stories they want people to believe. More recently, crisis manager Olivia Pope, the protagonist of the popular television show Scandal, shares plenty of DNA with the slimy Sidney. Even as she claims to wear a “white hat,” Olivia is repeatedly willing to transgress moral boundaries as she shapes public perception. Scandal regards its lead with warmth, but she did rig a national election for a client.

On the FXX comedy You’re the Worst, Gretchen (Aya Cash) fails upward as a publicist not in spite of her lack of morals but because of them. “All I do is lie and manipulate my clients into doing what I want them to do,” Gretchen tells a woman interviewing her.

“You just described being a publicist,” the woman responds.

Gretchen, who is more likely to seriously screw herself over than anyone else, belongs to a strain of fictional PR person who tend less toward evil and more toward excess and silliness. On the British comedy Absolutely Fabulous, which debuted in the early ’90s, Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) has her own firm, but she spends the series far more fixated on drinking, smoking, and dieting than actually doing her work. Edina is sleazy in a breezy way, as is Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall). The character of Samantha first appeared on HBO in 1998 and had such an impact on the cultural perception of publicists that one real-life public relations blogger lamented that she’d “ruined PR.” (An especially brutal diss considering the reality TV show about notorious PR exec Lizzie Grubman, PoweR Girls, also exists.) Samantha is portrayed as a loyal, funny friend, but she also isn’t above being sketchy at work. In one story line, she uses her connections to obtain a status handbag by pretending it is for Lucy Liu, while in another she gives a blowjob to a stranger in her office. Even when shown as professionally competent, Samantha’s responsibilities chiefly translate to throwing exclusive parties and scheming for complimentary press coverage. “No remotely successful PR pro spends half the day shopping and eating lunch and the other half seducing the UPS delivery man,” Ronn Torossian, president and CEO of public relations firm 5WPR, told The Ringer.

There’s even a breed of political PR doofuses, distinct from the Wag the Dog types because they aren’t good enough at their jobs to be criminal masterminds. On Spin City, Richard Kind’s press secretary, Paul Lassiter, is a cowardly gossip, and Veep’s Mike McLintock (Matt Walsh) is lazy and ineffectual. And guess who invites the aliens into the White House in the 1996 comedy Mars Attacks!. The damn press secretary! (Played by Martin Short.) Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), who plays a British press secretary in the television show The Thick of It and its movie spinoff In the Loop, both from Veep creator Armando Iannucci, is short-tempered and frequently frustrated by the inanities of his job. (But notably more competent than Iannucci’s American creations.) “I feel like Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It does a good job of telling the story of drama around irrelevant shit,” British publicist Ed Zitron told The Ringer. (“Honestly like zero percent of fictional publicists are close to most publicists, because most PR people have relatively boring careers,” Zitron also said.)

There are some other exceptions to the stereotypes of the slimy or silly publicist. In the 2000s, The West Wing idealized its press secretary, C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney). The 2008 movie Hancock features a weirdly prominent subplot about a PR specialist (Jason Bateman) who helps give Hancock an image makeover. And while everyone in Entourage was some degree of awful, Vince’s publicist, Shauna (Debi Mazar), was good at her job, and, for the most part, the worst thing she did was swear a lot. But, as Flack and its many predecessors demonstrate, the profession is easily skewered as a refuge for assholes and flakes—an ironic predicament for a field chiefly concerned with shaping images for the better.

How did an industry built around carefully managing reputation get pigeonholed as trash? People hate feeling like they’ve been fed a line, so suspicion of a profession so closely tied to image-making may inspire writers to give their vain and villainous characters this kind of job, and to likewise give characters who have to work in PR to suit the plot vain and villainous characteristics. It’s a plausible but incomplete explanation. PR is all about pushing a narrative—but so is advertising, and that industry got Mad Men. Lawyers, also distrusted for bending the truth to suit their own narratives, are also sometimes cast as fictional villains, from ambulance chasers like The Simpsons’ Lionel Hutz to literally Satan (Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate). But they are even more frequently cast as heroes, from To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch to Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods to the millions of law-related procedurals on network television over the past 50 years. It may be a case of writers leaning on a well-established stereotype, as a shortcut to signal to an audience that a character is manipulative or shallow or both. Perhaps screenwriters just really hate PR! But there’s a theory I like better. Perhaps publicists actually like when they’re portrayed as heels and do everything they can to encourage it. After all, whoever invented the saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” was probably a publicist.