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PR Lessons From the Movies: Why “Whiplash” Strikes a Chord with PR Pros

By Gary Frisch, Founder and President, Swordfish Communications

An important PR issue has come to my attention, and I felt compelled to share it here.

PR pros loved the movie Whiplash. Or at least the majority featured in the Daily ‘Dog’s PR PROfile did. Of 24 spotlighted professionals who answered the question, “Favorite movie this year,” fully one fourth cited the Oscar-winning gem about a drum prodigy’s toxic relationship with his brutal band instructor, played with evil glee by J.K. Simmons (who took home the gold statue). I was one of them.

Maybe it’s just that PR practitioners represent a cross-section of filmgoers, like any other profession, and Whiplash was just a terrific movie that was warmly received by a wide swath of people. Then again, Birdman, which was equally acclaimed and got most of the Academy’s loving, was selected by just two PROfile subjects. In fact, no other movie received more than two call-outs (Selma, American Sniper and Boyhood were the others).

Maybe it’s because the tenacity of Buddy Rich-wannabe Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) resonates with practitioners of a career in which results often depend on how much of a “bulldog” you are. After all, no PR pro who gives up after one or two rejections will claim many media hits for a client.

“There has to be a little relentlessness in our profession and the teacher certainly personified that in trying to get his student to a difficult place – perfect. The downside of trying to get to perfect is that it’s a lofty objective to reach in public relations,” says Mike Swenson, Whiplash aficionado and president of Crossroads Communication in Kansas City, Mo. “But just as when a musician hits the perfect notes, when PR pros get near perfect in our work for a client, there is no greater feeling…and then we have to start all over again.”

Perhaps we connect with Fletcher’s speech in the lounge late in the movie, and we reject the notion that being told “good job” by our supervisor or client for that 14-inch article in The Dallas Morning News is high praise, when a front page in USA Today or an interview on Good Morning America still eludes us. As Andrew banged the “kit” until he was drenched in sweat and his hands bled, we professionals bang our keyboards and phone dialing pads until our heads swim. We might not aspire to become the next Edward Bernays, nor do we have someone throwing a chair at our head (hopefully!) but we sure as heck want to attain Bird-like status for our clients or organizations.

Or as Whiplash lover Jennifer Baum, president of Bullfrog + Baum in New York, put it, “Striving to be good enough in someone else’s eyes will always lead to disappointment. Only you can determine if you are working hard enough, being your best self and doing a ‘good job.’”

Our love for Whiplash might also hinge on the rousing climax, in which (SPOILER ALERT) Fletcher sees his protégé ultimately take wing and fly. The sparkle in the conductor’s eye, the hint of an approving smile, as he watches Neiman assault the drums in Carnegie Hall, after successfully humiliating him in front of the same discriminating audience minutes earlier, betray a mix of pride, satisfaction, and especially vindication. It’s the moment where he feels his unconventional methods do bear fruit. The ends justify the means.

As PR professionals, we jump through hoops every day in the pursuit of favorable coverage of our clients, and while we don’t throw chairs or spew invective about editors’ parents along the way, we’re hard-wired to get results. The pride and vindication we feel when we do that is very Fletcher-like. No high-fiving, no “woo-hoos,” just a hint of a smile that we’ve pushed someone – ourselves—a little further than what was expected.

For us, it’s go all in until your hands bleed, or go home. And then we start all over again.

Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. Visit Swordfish online at www.swordfishcomm.com.

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