Being a celebrity publicist in a post-truth era

A new drama “Flack” is out, centered on the fast-paced and chaotic world of celebrity publicist Robyn, played by Anna Paquin. The series begins with a familiar dilemma: a famous chef is on the brink of being exposed as a cheater and womaniser, and Robyn knows to district the public with another story.

“Illness is always good. Anything wrong with any of your kids? Downs, meningitis, learning difficulties?” she asks. Initially shocked, the chef recovers to remember that his wife’s mother died of breast cancer. Robyn arranges the perfect photo op: he is to take his wife to get a mammogram, under the guise of being an attentive husband. In the face of doubt from the chef, Robyn minces few words. “You’d be surprised what people believe if they want to,” she says.

While the plotlines of Flack are clearly exaggerated, the gist of the show is true: society’s evolving relationship with publicity has moved away from it being a “slightly elusive, mystic art,” says creator Oliver Lansley.

Indeed, anyone can be their own PR machines with a cultivated social media brand, especially in a time where facts have essentially been ruled meaningless, and the “truth” depends on who you ask. In the same way, the painstaking task of shaping a celebrity’s image is all about making people see what they want to see.

“In a way, publicists are offering us alternate realities, and we can choose the ones we like the most,” Lansley continues. We might know that it seems coincidental that two actors promoting a movie are also in a relationship, but it is still common practice to scroll through every Instagram photo and devour tabloid updates. “We’re just starting to realize the huge power of it, and it’s changing our culture in a massive way.”

As such, Lansley has heard a range of reactions from publicists who watch the show. “Oh my God, someone finally put my life on screen,” say some, while others insist that its not at all realistic. While many PR reps pull out all the stops to protect a celebrity’s mage, their job is more likely to revolve around sleep deprivation and unpleasant conversations with magazine editors than a “fake cancer” scam.

“I wish I had something to tell you, but for us, honesty is the best policy,” said Cece Vance, representative for several musicians and author of the book The Life Struggles of a Celebrity Publicist. “If we’re lying on our client’s behalf,” she adds, “we’re at least going to make it believable.”

Indeed, in the internet era, the implications for public relations gurus are mixed: “The bad news is that everybody sees it in three seconds,” says Susan Patricola, a public relations executive who has represented celebrities since the 1970s. “The good news is that someone else is in the news three seconds later.”

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