When PR Meets the Rom-Com: A Case Study

Kelly Whalen,  Sheila Kulik

As PR pros, we wear a lot of different hats and each day can be entirely different than the one before. We’re facing new challenges and taking on new tasks constantly. On the one hand, we have pretty exciting careers and dull moments are few and far between. But outside of the office, we are often faced with the utmost basic, yet challenging question, “So, what do you do for a living?” and the oh-so eloquent answer of “financial public relations” usually doesn’t quite cut it for our friends and family. That response is often met with shrugs, looks of confusion and a barraging of follow-up questions like, “Oh, so you write earnings statements?” and “Oh, so you’re in advertising for banks?”

Suffice to say we need to figure out a way to explain what exactly this exciting world of PR really looks like so we can continue to impress our extended relatives when the holidays eventually roll around. And with that in mind, we’re here to break this down with an agency staple: a case study.

Being that one of the responsibilities of PR professionals is to refine and tell stories on behalf of another party, it felt natural to gravitate to an example of story-telling in its most basic form: The Romantic Comedy. Thus, the Rom-Com Case Study was born.

Yes, we know romantic comedies are cheesy. We know they’re not the films that critics regard, nor are they sweeping the Oscars. But, come on! If they’re good enough for Meryl Streep, they’re good enough for us. We think you’ll find that our jobs may have more in common with these flicks than you’d think.

Act One: Discovery & Planning

Working with clients requires an impenetrable understanding of their businesses. If we are going to present to the public on their behalf, the PR team needs to know what they are all about. Getting to know our clients through discovery meetings is sort of like the opening credits of every rom-com: the scene is set, we find out the movie takes place in a coastal town or bustling city. We meet the main character, probably a stylish divorcee whose adult children are pressuring her to lead a more impassioned life, or an unlucky-in-love twenty-something living in an unrealistic apartment in a notoriously expensive part of town. For the PR team, we meet our client.

In the real world, this is when we get to know the foundation of the client’s business; our very own ‘meet cute.’ We try to learn everything about them as fast as we can; their business, their clients, their spokespeople and what they want to achieve from working with us. This is also when we establish ourselves as the trusty sidekick. Ideally, we get to play the wise-beyond-our-years friend who keeps the main character’s best interests at heart while also telling it like it is. We are Megan in Bridesmaids.

Now that the characters of the story have been clearly defined, the plot begins to develop. In a romantic comedy, this is more often than not when the guy plots how to get the girl, or vice versa. In client services, this is when we put together a timely and tactical plan designed to position their business and leaders to the public and spread their desired message to the best audiences. Same thing, right?

PR agencies and clients always need to be on the same page, and maybe that doesn’t mean coordinating matching plaid outfits like Cher and Dionne in Clueless, but it does involve constant communication. We have to talk about our future together, what we want, our hopes and dreams and how we can help each other. Are we pitching media proactively, or are we preparing reactively? Will we be writing bylines? What public presence does our client need? With the answers to those questions, we build a plan tailored to their desires.

Act Two: Execution & Crisis Management

Once the wheels of our plan are in motion, we PR pros are ready and eager to start delivering on all of those plan promises we made: top-tier media coverage, reporter engagement, business leads! We often get things started by media training the spokespeople to ensure they are presenting their very best when speaking with reporters and interviewing on live TV. Watching them transform into media mavens can be loosely likened to the classic makeover scene that no rom-com is complete without (see: Miss Congeniality, The Princess Diaries, Pretty Woman).

At the start of our client relationship, there is value in getting off to a fast start. Clients are just as excited as we are and naturally want to see instant results, but it’s important for us to remember that we’re not just doing all of this for the numbers. To take a page from Bridget Jones’s Diary, we try to avoid her signature “fall too hard, too fast” move. We have to take a step back and remember the strategy we agreed upon to achieve long-term and top-notch results. We can’t compromise our standards and values just for a fling, we have to stick to the script.

In our sidekick role, we’re obligated to counsel our clients and provide them with sage advice around the clock, which means we sometimes have to manage client expectations. As a third party, PR agencies can truly provide objective perspectives that will serve our clients well. Consider Justin Long’s character, Alex, in He’s Just Not That into You, who told Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) that she was looking for love in the wrong places. And you know what? They end up together because of it. It’s imperative for us to provide important counsel and manage expectations so our clients don’t get their hopes up for something impossible.

Another key role that the sidekick plays is the problem-solver. When the movie action starts to rise, crisis is inevitable. In the world of corporate communications, we make every best effort to avoid crises, but sometimes they are unavoidable. Ever notice that every good rom-com sidekick seems to be waiting in the wings, ready to drop everything to swoop in and save our protagonist from heartbreak? During the classic “crying on the couch in pajamas” scene, the sidekick barges in, usually without a key, with a pint of ice cream or bottle of tequila in hand. We aspire to be that sidekick. We’re seeing around corners, anticipating crisis at any moment and are always ready to spring into action to address problems head-on, resolving matters quickly, sensitively and effectively.

Act Three: The Happily Ever After

At the end of the day, we love to tell our clients’ stories and nothing makes the PR team happier than a happy ending. When Heath Ledger gifts Julia Styles the guitar in 10 Things I Hate About You? Magic. That Barron’s fund profile? Poetic!

So, when the credits start to roll, likely accompanied by a feel-good song like “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire, it doesn’t truly end there. The best part of the Rom-Com Case Study is still unwritten: it’s when we ride off into the sunset and live our happily ever after as agency and client. 

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