Bogie’s Last Film is a Reminder That PR Groups Need to Change Their Script

Eddie Willis (Bogie) doesn't do the PR profession any favors.

This past weekend it was nice to turn on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and curl up with “The Harder They Fall” (1956), in which Humphrey Bogart plays a downsized newspaper reporter who becomes a PR agent for the boxing profession.

It’s Bogie’s last film, and it’s a gem, with salty language, wonderful performances and an unsentimental view of the human condition.

While his heart is ultimately in the right place, throughout the film Bogart’s character (Eddie Willis) displays some rather situational ethics.

He knows the boxing profession is corrupt and controlled by the Mob, but he’s desperate for cash so he takes the gig. When a buddy asks him why he’s going to work for crooked boxing promoter Nick Benko (Rod Steiger), Eddie replies, “Well, The New York Times isn’t waiting for me and, besides, money is money, who cares where it comes from.”

Eddie plays fast and loose with the truth and is not above some questionable means to justify the ends. It’s a decidedly hoary portrayal of public relations.

Unfortunately, nearly 60 years after “The Harder They Fall” was released there are more than a few people who continue to have a caricatured perception of PR.

Despite the dramatic and ongoing changes in public relations at both the corporate and agency levels—having moved from the margins of marketing communications to the core of strategic marketing—PR still gets a bad rap.

At best, misconceptions about PR abound. At worst, one still hears the constant accusations that PR is a “soft” discipline and seldom, if ever, has legitimate buy-in from the C-suite.

The various PR trade groups know better, as public relations now commands a bigger and bigger slice of corporate budgets as well as respect from media-savvy CEOs.

Nevertheless, the perception holds that that the PR field is filled with lightweights, who, like Bogart’s character, will say anything and call it communications.

To change the narrative, PR trade groups have to step up the plate. Groups such as the Arthur W. Page Society, the Council of Public Relations Firms, the Public Relations Society of America and International Association of Business Communicators have to get out of their comfort zone and start to tell their story not just to the public but their brethren in the marketing and advertising industries.

For PR trade groups, this may come off as déjà vu all over again. But the reality is that public relations has made tremendous strides in the last few years, but few people beyond the industry seem to know about it.

PR groups have to stop talking to one another. They need to get into the media ring and start to mix it up.


-- Matthew Schwartz: @mpsjourno1