Public relations lessons learned from books, TV, movies

What do Red, White & Royal Blue, Grey’s Anatomy and Spider-Man: Homecoming have in common? PR crises.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

PR is everywhere. But those who don’t work in the industry may not even notice. Ever since declaring my public relations major, I’ve noticed how the topics I’d learn about in class were in the media I consume. Here are the PR lessons I’ve learned from a book, a TV show and a movie:

PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Red, White & Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston

“Red, White & Royal Blue” is a near-perfect lesson in crisis communication 101. When the First Son of the United States (FSOTUS) and the Prince of Wales almost ruin the royal wedding by knocking over the $75,000 cake, both countries’ communication teams have to quickly pull together a plan to control the narrative of the story before it turns into a full-blown international relations crisis.

On the night of the incident, the president’s Chief of Staff was already working on a plan to fix what the British tabloids were calling “cakegate.” After spending the night conferencing with the Royals’ PR team, they had an agreement of terms drafted before the sun came up. Their plan was to make the incident look entirely accidental and that FSOTUS and the prince were longtime friends who were just joking around rather than sworn enemies who got into a fistfight at the royal wedding. And how are they going to do this? With one trip to England, two daily social media posts, a handful of media placements and a public charity appearance.

While their agreement of terms didn’t go exactly as planned—you’ll have to read the book to see why—what stands out about this incident is the timeliness of their response. Articles were coming out overnight saying that FSOTUS always had it out for the prince or the U.S. planned on ruining the royal wedding, so there was no time to wait. The U.S. had to be proactive, even if that meant staying up all night after a flight home from England to find a solution.

Lesson summary: When faced with a crisis, it is important to be both proactive and honest.

PHOTO CREDIT: ABC ENTERTAINMENT

“Grey’s Anatomy”

A strong internal communications plan can make all the difference when it comes to company culture. While Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital is no stranger to crisis management, an internal PR initiative from season 14 of “Grey’s Anatomy” shows how we can use PR and a little healthy competition to increase employee engagement.

In this fictional surgical community, the highest award a surgeon can win is the Harper Avery Award, which recognizes medical innovation. However, Grey Sloan Memorial has run into issues in the past because it is owned by the Harper Avery Foundation, making it much harder for its doctors to win the award because of the conflict of interest. To add more complications to this, Dr. Jackson Avery, a plastic surgeon at Grey Sloan, is the grandson of Harper Avery himself, which means he will probably never get to win the award. Because of the struggles he and his coworkers have faced from the Harper Avery Award competition, Jackon decides to anonymously propose and fund the Grey Sloan Surgical Innovation Contest, which allows the hospital’s doctors to compete against each other for funding for a research project of their choice.

From rechargeable hearts to a pen that can detect cancer cells, the doctors at Grey Sloan came up with ideas that would not only do great things for the hospital itself, but could advance the entire field of medicine. This contest achieved its original goal of increasing the doctors’ participation in research and innovation, but also challenged everyone to become better doctors overall, taking on more advanced procedures and giving the hospital great press. What started out as an internal communication and employee engagement initiative turned into Grey Sloan’s doctors advancing the field of medicine.

Lesson summary: Internal communication is equally as important as external communication.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

One aspect of public relations that isn’t often represented in media and film is maintaining relationships with journalists. The 2017 film “Spider-Man: Homecoming” starring Tom Holland as Spider-Man and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man showcases how to maintain positive relationships with journalists even if your original plan goes awry.

At the end of the movie, after Peter Parker proves himself to be worthy of joining the Avengers, Tony Stark invites him to the Avengers headquarters and officially asks him to join the team. Tony gifts Peter a new Spider-Man suit and explains to him that there are 50 reporters waiting outside for a press conference where Spider-Man will be announced as the newest member of the Avengers. However, Peter thinks that Tony’s joking and that this was all a test just to see if he’s mature enough to be considered to join the team one day. He declines the offer and leaves. Tony is now left to figure out how to tell the journalists that are anxiously waiting to cover a new announcement from the Avengers.

Mr. Stark is left with two options: tell all 50 journalists the big announcement is postponed and send them all home, or come up with something to tell them while they’re still here. If Tony leaves them with nothing, he runs the risk of damaging his relationship with these journalists. Not only that, it’s likely they won’t want to cover a real announcement from the Avengers. Tony decides to go with option two, and instead of announcing Spider-Man as the newest Avenger, he proposes to his girlfriend Pepper on stage at the press conference. It seemed as though Tony’s assistant Happy has had this proposal in mind as a backup plan, as he mentions that he’s kept an engagement ring in his pocket for them since 2008.

Hey — it never hurts to have a contingency plan!

Lesson summary: Maintaining positive relationships with journalists is key for PR practitioners.