When Courtney Lukitsch began her career in public relations 18 years ago, she says most people didn’t know anything about the industry. “The image [in popular culture] didn’t really exist, but it’s very popular now, and truthfully it’s a good recruiting tool,” she says.
Lukitsch says that she no longer has to explain what she does thanks to popular TV shows and films like Thank You for Smoking, Sex and the City, Scandal, and Entourage that have offered viewers a peek into the lives of fictional public relations professionals in recent years.
While the uptick in recognition was initially good for business, however, Lukitsch fears those depictions might now be doing the industry more harm. In a 2016 post in Adweek, Lukitsch, who is the founder and principal of Gotham Public Relations, explained how the representation of public relations professionals in the media was creating unrealistic expectations.
“I don’t think that clients or people in general realize how much work goes in to even one high-quality [press opportunity],” she says. “There’s a misrepresentation that it’s smile-and-dial, wave your magic wand, and everything will come together; that’s not reality.”
According to a recent study by ZenBusiness, 58% of workers say their career choice was at least somewhat inspired by a movie, TV show, book, or other form of media. That number increases to 75% among Lukitsch’s peers in marketing, advertising, arts, and entertainment.
“Regardless of who we talked to or their industry, there’s usually one show or piece of media that people think back to and say ‘yes, this is what inspired me,’ or ‘yes, that show reinforced my decision or sparked my interest in pursuing that field,'” explains Joey Morris, part of the creative team for ZenBusiness, and author of the study.
Accurate portrayals lead to greater satisfaction
While such depictions can help in recruiting and sales, a negative or inaccurate portrayal can cause long-lasting damage. In fact, ZenBusiness found a direct correlation between the accuracy of the media’s depiction of a given role and overall employee satisfaction within that profession.
Overall, 59% of respondents felt their jobs were more challenging than what they were led to believe by the media.”
“When your expectations do align [with reality], you are more likely to be satisfied, or you may be more suited to that career or field,” says Joey Morris.
The lasting impact of negative depictions
A negative portrayal, however, can have long-lasting and highly damaging effects on an industry, as demonstrated by some of the most inspiring shows of the past few decades. According to the study, the top five shows that inspired the careers of respondents were CSI, Law & Order, Grey’s Anatomy, E.R., and The Office.
“When really successful television shows are about the law, law schools see an uptick in enrollment. Medical shows, when they show the profession in a favorable light, there’s similarly an uptick in medical school [applications],” says Johnny C. Taylor Jr., CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. “It can similarly impact their decision not to pursue a particular career.”
Specifically, Taylor says the way in which The Office portrayed human resource professionals has had an adverse effect on the industry’s ability to attract talent, and other industries have experienced the same. Furthermore, Taylor says even positive portrayals that stray too far from reality can lead to disappoint and disillusionment.
“I think we’ve experienced that a little with law,” he says. “People think this is how courtrooms work, and then they realize not so much; you get disillusioned people who go bad-mouthing the profession.”
Media is key to recruiting
Despite the potential damage, however, Taylor admits that the media is an important avenue for educating the public about career opportunities.
“People can’t dream about the things they’ve never experienced or seen, so media is good from that perspective; it exposes people to professions they perhaps hadn’t thought about before,” he says. “The downside is that the format doesn’t always lend itself to giving you a real idea of what’s involved in the job.”
For better or worse, media portrayals do bring awareness; so much so that Taylor says certain industries have sought out media partnerships to help attract candidates. He points to the recent spike in entertainment dedicated to specific careers—ranging from ice road truckers to fishermen to pawn shop owners and storage locker bidders, not to mention entire networks like HGTV and the Food Network—as intentional efforts to raise awareness about industries that were struggling to attract talent.
Do some homework to avoid disappointment
Understanding the negative sentiment that can result from unrealistic or inaccurate depictions, some media organizations have begun employing consultants from the industries they’re depicting, says Taylor.
“They were there to add to the integrity of the depiction, because they didn’t want people who really do the job to trash it, and they didn’t want the unintended consequence of people signing up because of the way its depicted and then becoming disillusioned,” he says.
While the media could do a better job in providing an accurate portrayal of the careers they depict, Taylor says their primary function is to entertain. At the end of the day, he believes it’s up to the individual to independently verify what they see on screen.
“I’m glad it’s piqued your curiosity—that’s a positive thing—now here’s the rest of your homework,” he says. “Go online and do some research, and then go find someone who is actually doing the job, and ask them what it’s really like.”