It’s pretty ironic that the proposed return of Absolutely Fabulous this Christmas has been getting so much attention. With the stars splashed all over the culture media and some big news stories, anyone familiar with the industry can spot the tell-tale signs of a hardworking publicist beavering away. Yet this presumably highly professional and efficient team is working unwittingly toward branding individuals working in PR as exactly the opposite. After all, this is the show which-arguably more than any other- has damaged the public perception of the PR industry.
Of course, the real PR world would make a pretty poor comedy. Sure, it’s on one level a creative industry, and there are moments of brilliance (as well as the odd rambunctious, explosive event, one or two of which I’ll admit to orchestrating). However, there’s a good deal of daily grind- the PR consultant’s agenda is laden with stress, and often driven by trickier clients who expect the earth, want it right away and then demand precise figures to confirm its existence.
Needless to say, if I turned up to a lunch with one of my corporate clients clutching a Stolly Bolly, sporting a beehive and spouting a series of irritating catchphrases, I’d not long keep the account. Though I’m sure I’d look pretty marvellous.
Yet that’s hardly an excuse for selling a bunch of tired clichés of lavish party excess and toppling hi-heeled fools. Absolutely Fabulous successfully warped public, anecdotal opinion of PR because it latched on to an unavoidable fact- that networking and events form a significant part of the publicist’s working life- and used this as a way in to push an image of PR of one long, loud, particularly boring party. In reality, most events the PR has to attend aren’t any more fun than the morning planning meeting. As anyone in communications will tell you, work is work- in or outside the office.
This stuff is particularly damaging when it harms serious professionals. Lynne Franks was stitched up when her friends decided to brandish a caricature of her for laughs- a decision that said more about people in the TV industry than in PR. Franks’s name cannot now be mentioned without a reference to the show following shortly after. It’s a shame, given that Franks’s career is iconic.
A pioneering female businessperson, she built a business from her kitchen table, sold it for a cool £6million, and now runs the SEED network which is doing some pretty interesting stuff for women in the business world- their b.hive female business spaces are more or less unique.
It’s not a cultural trope that stopped with Ab Fab either: ‘The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker and the feckless PR director in BBC’s recent Olympic satire ‘Twenty Twelve’ are two direct descendants. With the communications industries currently under continual flux and re-assessment, PR is emerging as the most valid, serious way of tapping into public conversation. Before the industry’s reputation is shattered once again by the show’s return, individual agencies, professionals and the CIPR need to think carefully about the way they present what they do to the public.
They need to think about how best to sell exciting PR while disposing of the cliché that dogs them. Publicity is dynamic, but if it’s good it’s also highly professional: fully planned, intricately executed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to attend a lengthy meeting in a gloomy boardroom. Rest assured the consequences will not be hilarious.