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By Lauren Bogacz and Payal Shukla
If you work in public relations and haven’t been hiding under a rock for the past few years, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the ABC hit show “Scandal,” inspired by a real-life crisis communications professional navigating the media and political landscapes of Washington D.C. While it’s no secret that large portions of the show have dramatized what it actually means to work in PR, the main character’s struggles with wearing the “white hat” are rooted in real practices seen across agencies of all practices and industries.
The “white hat” signifies when a person is playing the role of a good guy. The concept dates back to the good ole days of black and white Western movies, where the hero always wore a white cowboy hat and the villain a black one. In public relations, most of us are the good guys and wear the white hat on behalf of our clients. This also carries over to our interactions with our client’s clients, the media and each other. Kerry Washington plays Scandal’s main character, Olivia Pope, who references on multiple occasions when she’s taking her white hat on and off. Situations arise frequently that challenge us to keep them on.
With the new season of Scandal premiering Thursday, we take a look at some prominent, real-world examples of when PR professionals must put on their “white hats” - both consciously and subconsciously.
Early in the series, Olivia claims she can always tell when a client is being truthful and most reporters can say the same for PR pros. We all know journalism is bound by a code of ethics that values accuracy, objectivity and self-regulation. These same principles, among others, apply to media relations. Respecting a reporter’s deadlines, honoring exclusives and being truthful are just a few opportunities for us as public relations professionals to prove to reporters that we (and our clients) are good guys.
On the show, Olivia wins big for her clients thanks to her expertise in media relations. As the former White House Communications Director, she understands the importance of building a strong relationship and respected reputation with the press. She always positions her clients in a positive light while getting the media the material they need. Olivia is willing to honor exclusives to the press if they in turn allow her to sort things out with her clients first. She always takes time to focus on the “big picture” perspective from both sides of every story, allowing her to expertly frame the story she wants printed while still being honorable.
Beyond the basic principles of client relations - trust, honesty, professionalism and dedication to delivering results - PR pros often serve as a moral compass for clients navigating a challenging media or customer landscape. This is when we wear the white hat for our clients. Whether helping them through a crisis comms situation, shaping their key messages or launching them in a new market, we are extensions of our clients and their partners.
On “Scandal,” Olivia’s clients constantly put her white hat to the test. She often finds herself saddled with cases where the lines blur between her personal and professional life and right and wrong. Many clients who arrive in Olivia’s office are accused of heinous crimes and unjust behavior. As their public relations representative, it’s her responsibility to help them properly navigate both the law and media. She must tip her white hat in favor of her clients, while still respecting the justice system and journalism landscape.
In the cutthroat world of agency life, paying it forward with our peers can be an ethical expression of support within the industry. PR associates wear the white hat when they share resources, pass on leads and offer their time and help to other team members. PR managers can be seen wearing the white hat when they foster collaboration, knowledge sharing and positive reinforcement.
Olivia’s office is portrayed as a dysfunctional family. Each member of the Pope and Associates team comes with a history of dirty little secrets and emotional baggage, yet they always manage to come together to perform well for their clients. Colorful histories and questionable decision making aside, Olivia prioritizes loyalty and will do whatever it takes to maintain the dream team she’s created, understanding the talent each of them bring to the table.
“Scandal” may be dramatized, but the foundation it stems from of trying to produce ethical work has real-world applications. Despite popular conception of the industry, long-term success can’t be built on unethical behavior. Without this code of conduct, the media and our industry would be filled with mishaps, similar to what we see on the show. Public relations is all about your word. Be it literal word choice or reputation, it’s important to complete work that can stand alone in representing both clients and agencies well.