The role of a communications professional in pop culture is often reduced to a “fixer” who goes as far as hiding bodies (see: "Scandal"), a glorified party planner (see: "Sex and the City" or "The Hills"), or most commonly, a nameless, harried, go-between shouting “no comment” into an open mic. If you’re reading this and those characters feel like they represent your role, you are in the minority.
HBO's "Succession" places corporate communications and its practitioners at the strategic center for the Waystar Royco company and its various executives. While there are many outlandish plot lines on "Succession," from the hapless cousin Greg's rise to power, to CEO Logan Roy dying while fishing his phone out of a private jet’s toilet, the role of comms is one area where the writers have stayed fairly faithful to reality, simply by taking the job seriously.
As the award-winning show closes out its final season, it’s interesting to reflect on its representation of the communications industry.
The "Succession" Take on Internal and External Comms
Internal communications has been a focus on the show with beleaguered daughter Shiv Roy's failed attempts to rally employees with a speech, and patriarch Logan’s successful appeal to the “pirates” of news channel ATN. In recent years, PR has focused quite a bit of time in this area, and it will continue to be center stage in the age of AI and continued focus on workers’ rights.
The high-leverage work of shaping the external narrative and building consensus comes through in comms chief Karolina’s subtle, yet effective, way of advising executives. Whether she’s managing a crisis and crafting statements or planning which Roy to put forward in a given situation, her role represents the closest representation of corporate comms that I’ve seen, though I hope no one out there ever has to work in an environment as Chernobyl-level toxic as Waystar Royco.
Where "Succession" Lacks PR Chops
There are rare missteps. It was unbelievable to any viewer working in PR that a senior comms professional for a publicly traded company wouldn’t have prewritten a crisis response plan around the potential death or incapacitation of their 84-year-old CEO.
Even as Karolina hastily brainstormed next steps for a statement in lieu of an actual crisis plan, the complete lack of emphasis on internal comms was baffling. A real comms pro would have had that plan drafted with or without the CEO’s approval, as well as a communications plan for delivering the news to the board.
Equally implausible was the recent episode where comms presented two options for a story around the two sons, Roman and Kendall, taking over the company in the wake of their father’s death. The first one paid tribute to "Dear Old Dad," positioning him in a bright light, while the second one threw him under the bus to position the kids as the real power behind the throne. That last one has more holes in it than the Roys’ favorite golf course.
All it would take was one call to ATN to disprove the idea that Logan was a puppet. Instead there’s a great storytelling opportunity missed around the impending acquisitions forming a massive mega-corporation, a strategy deeply shaped by the sons.
This week’s plot line revealed that Lukas Mattsson, a financial investor behemoth looking to purchase Waystar, has made questionable advances on his head of PR. He sends the unwilling love interest “bricks” of his blood. This furthers the trope that comms pros, who are still all-too-often among the only women in the room, are subject to on-the-job harassment.
These inconsistencies are minor, especially when compared with the joy many practitioners feel seeing the PR profession (which I sometimes have a hard time explaining to even my own parents) taken seriously on a prestige TV show. The success of "Succession" is mainly due to the stellar writing and performances by the cast, but it gives me hope that it won’t be the last time we see PR on the screen in a respected context.
Many facets of our jobs aren’t glamorous, but the critical components of communications strategy that are essential to running a high-functioning company make great TV without any embellishment (or parties to plan).
Allison Braley is Marketing Partner, Bain Capital Ventures and a former comms professional at Condé Nast, The Information and The OutCast Agency.