Joanna Hoffman: “I’m begging you to manage expectations.”
Steve Jobs: “Have I ever let you down?”
Joanna Hoffman: “Every single [bleeping] time.”
– Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Steve Jobs (2015)
In roles big and small as media and messaging coaches, three award-winning film actresses are rising to the occasion this month in movies that tackle the myth and the reality of newsworthy moments in time. Although the films have tallied varying box office totals, the cinematic characters have modeled a steely determination characteristic of many of the women who dominate today’s communications industry. It’s great to see these characters on screen and marvel at five character traits that give our best PR practitioners a good name: resourcefulness, adaptability, transparency, sincerity and a way with words.
In the sci-fi adventure The Martian, Kristen Wiig plays fictional NASA spokeswoman Annie Montrose, who must garner public support for the rescue mission of the stranded astronaut played by Matt Damon. In the out-of-the-headlines dramedy Our Brand Is Crisis, Sandra Bullock breathes cinematic life into “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a real-life political strategist who comes out of self-seclusion for a chance to beat her professional nemesis in a sparring match between management teams in a Bolivian presidential election. And in the biopic Steve Jobs, Kate Winslet portrays Joanna Hoffman, the company’s put-upon but undaunted marketing chief.
Let’s take a look at the performances through a PR lens:
- The three screen characters possess superior resourcefulness. Winslet in particular has been acclaimed for disappearing into the role of a brunette Eastern European–born marketing guru who speaks truth opposite the charismatic power of Steve Jobs. Through the force of her commitment and the strength of her counsel, she is one of the few characters in the film who can reach and understand the enigmatic titular impresario at the film’s center and talk sense into him as he contemplates some petty and vengeful acts that could hurt his corporate life and relationships. Bullock’s Jane proves adept at reading a room, even when she doesn’t speak the language, and realizing when a pollster or additional operative is going to be just what the situation needs.
- The women prove to be exceptionally nimble. Wiig’s media spokeswoman is present at the executive table as some very far-fetched options are surfaced to rescue Damon’s character, and she is often a voice of measured reason. Winslet continually advises her boss with moxie as he guides her through launch successes and spectacular debacles.
- The cinematic characters value transparency and counsel against those who want short cuts. Winslet is resolute early in the film when Jobs and an engineer want to rig a computer to simulate something in a demo that the device can’t actually do. She knows these actions will come back to haunt the inventors – even in biographical adaptations. Good counsel even when not taken is important to voice.
- In their words and actions, the trio models sincerity. Bullock’s character bonds with grassroots citizens of Bolivia in an attempt to better understand the critical issues. Her character gets a little too close to the action as she exorcises some personal demons, but she is never any more or less than she says she is. Similarly, Wiig and Winslet’s characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, even through brassy exteriors.
- A way with words and a bias toward action proves the ultimate dual weapon of the PR screen hero. Wigg gets a great line: “I’m sorry, but you have not thought this through. I mean, what are we gonna say, ‘Dear America, remember that astronaut we killed and had a really nice funeral for? Turns out he’s alive and we left him on Mars, our bad. Sincerely, NASA.’ I mean, do you realize the [expletive deleted] storm that is about to hit us?” Constant counsel and recognition of worst-case scenarios are tantamount to effective planning.
Movies are so often a window into humanity and a reflection of evolving values, and it’s nice to see three films that get it right about the traits of people, real and fictional, who fuel our industry.
Stephen Brown is the chief innovation officer at Cookerly PR.