Bournemouth University

The Media School

Content only version

Representations of PR

10 February 2011

Tom Watson of Bournemouth University's Media School

Public relations professor produces worldwide resource.

A Bournemouth University (BU) professor has produced a collection of resources depicting the rollercoaster world of public relations.

Professor Tom Watson is an international practitioner and historian based in BU's Media School. He began the collection four years ago.

"It's a labour of love", says Tom who has collected and published a database of films, TV, radio and novels that represent public relations in all its forms.

"The search started in 2007 when I read an academic article by Karen Miller (now Russell) of the University of Georgia on the manner in which film has portrayed PR. One of the first PR people on celluloid was Bing Crosby in the 1937 musical, 'Waikiki Wedding', in which he played the publicist for Hawaii," says Tom, who is Professor of Public Relations and organises the annual International History of Public Relations Conference.

"As Karen Miller's article covered film only up to the mid-1990s, I started searching for more recent releases and added television, documentaries and books, especially novels. There has been a burgeoning of portrayals of PR in the past 20 years, mostly with humorous characters but some serious and others rather cynical.

"The portrayal of any profession or activity contributes to public understanding. It also shows the views of others towards it and indicates historical development. Film has produced some memorable characters and enjoyable films, but it is television which has given more extensive portrayals.

"Many are larger-than-life characters such as Edina (Jennifer Saunders) in 'Absolutely Fabulous' and the recent Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) in 'The Thick of It'. There are also long-running series like 'Spin City' and 'The West Wing' from the US, in which there are prominent PR characters, and the UK's 'Absolute Power'. Recently there have been "train-wreck" reality programmes like 'Kell on Earth' on the fashion publicist Kell Cutrone."

Tom also points to the role of documentaries. He considers that 'The Century of the Self' offers an important insight into the formation of public relations with its interview of Edward L. Bernays, one of the most influential (and self-publicising) thought leaders of PR in the first half of the last century.

As for his favourites, Tom selects the black comedy 'Wag the Dog' (1997) as his top film, in which a spin doctor (Robert de Niro) and a Hollywood film producer (Dustin Hoffman) fabricate a war to obscure a presidential sex scandal. The comedy 'Absolute Power' (BBC 2003, 2006), in which Stephen Fry and John Bird play the management of a London PR firm, is his favourite TV series.

"Both are enjoyable, although they portray PR as creative but cynical and manipulative. 'Absolute Power', which was played for laughs, has characters and situations that were almost recognisable," concludes Tom.

Tom's database can be viewed over at, where suggestions for additions can also be posted on the site.

Tom is also an expert in evaluation and measurement of public relations. This forms the topic of his inaugural professorial lecture at Bournemouth University on 15 March 2011. Book a place.

Related links:
Campaign Logo
Visit the BFX Festival website Follow us on social media websites The Centre for Excellence in Media Practice National Centre for Computer Animation Skillset Media Academy Visit the BU Media School blog