It’s a competitive world out there. So, for a lot of people and businesses, image is everything. They have to inspire confidence and build loyalty. That’s where public relations and ‘spin doctors’ come in. They’re the ones who work to ensure that the public sees the company in the best possible light. They also do ‘damage control’ when there’s a problem.
PR people certainly play roles in real life. They help build brand image and the good ones articulate the company’s (or person’s) message. They can be interesting characters in crime fiction, too. And including a PR angle (or even conflict) can add a solid plot point or layer of character development to a story.
Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise is the story of Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., a very respectable advertising agency. One day, copywriter Victor Dean has a tragic fall down a staircase at Pym’s, and dies. At first it looks as though it could have been just a terrible accident. But Dean left behind an unfinished note that calls that conclusion into question. The note says that he’d discovered one of Pym’s employees was using the company’s advertising for illegal purposes. For Pym’s, this is a PR disaster, so they don’t want to call in the police. Instead, they hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover as Dean’s replacement and find out the truth. This he agrees to do, and he starts looking into the matter. It turns out that Dean was right: someone was using the company’s advertising to arrange meetings between drugs gangs and local drugs dealers. When Dean found out who it was, he blackmailed that person and paid the price for it. It’s an interesting case of a PR firm that needs a PR boost of its own.
In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, Queen is temporarily working for Hollywood’s Magna Studios. The project is a film biography of famous actors Blythe Stuart and John Royle. The two had a very stormy romance and public breakup, and the gossip about them has been popular for a long time. Each married someone else and now has a grown child; and at first, the studio people think they’ll refuse to do the film. But to everyone’s shock, they agree. More than that, they rekindle their romance and decide to get married. For publicity man Sam Vix, this is a nightmare. He’d depended on the couple’s feud to sell the film. Then, Vix and the publicity team decide to make the best of the situation. They arrange with Stuart and Royle to give their wedding the ‘Hollywood treatment,’ and have it take place on an airstrip. From thence, the couple and their children will leave for a honeymoon trip. All goes off as planned; but by the time the plane lands, Stuart and Royle are dead of what turns out to be poison. Queen works to find out who the killer is and how the killer managed to poison the newlyweds.
As Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips wrote a series of mysteries featuring Pierre Chambrun, manager of New York’s very upmarket Hotel Beaumont. A hotel’s image is extremely important, so one of Chambrun’s valued employees is his PR chief, Mark Haskell. In fact, this series is written in first person, from Haskell’s point of view. As the series goes on, it’s interesting to see how Haskell handles press announcements and other public image events. It’s also interesting to see how the hotel deals with PR challenges such as police searches and arrests.
Carole Nelson Douglas’ Temple Barr is a freelance PR expert. As such, she’s hired by hotel/casinos (she’s based in Las Vegas), corporations and so on help create or restore the images they want. Companies consult with her to choose TV advertising campaigns, push new logos or spokespeople, and otherwise keep their names before the public. Among other things, this cosy series offers an interesting look at what PR people do.
Public relations is important to the plot of Robin Cook’s medical thriller Contagion. In that novel, medical examiners Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery are faced with a mysterious set of deaths at Manhattan General Hospital. They seem to be caused by a particularly virulent strain of influenza, and there’s a great deal of concern. But, as Stapleton discovers, the concern is as much for the hospital’s image as it is for anything else. For that reason, the hospital’s administrators want there to be as little obvious investigation as possible. From Stapleton’s point of view, this puts patients at risk, so he frequently butts heads with those in charge. He and Montgomery learn that Manhattan General is affiliated with insurance giant AmeriCare. That company’s major rival is National Health. As the story goes on, we learn how the competition between those companies impacts what’s going on at the hospital. We also see how important public image is in the medical field.
And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. In that novel, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner, Rajiv Patel, are taking a holiday at Krabi. There, they meet a guide, Chanida Manakit, who goes by the name of Miss Pla. When her body is found washed up in a cave, Keeney and Patel feel a personal sense of loss, and decide to extend their stay for a bit and ask some questions. It’s difficult to say exactly how the victim died, but Keeney doesn’t believe the police theory that it was an accident. Miss Pla was far too good a swimmer for that. So Keeney and Patel trace Pla’s last days and weeks. They learn that she was working with an environmental group. Her task was to attend meetings between local villages and Nukun, the public relations officer for Apex Enterprises, a development company. While at those meetings, Pla was to ensure that villagers’ concerns were articulated. For the company, these meetings are important for public relations. Apex wants to cultivate the image of being sensitive to the local culture and its needs, and the people who run these meetings have to keep that image at the forefront. And Miss Pla’s role in the company’s PR plan plays its part in what happens to her.
PR people and ‘spin doctors’ have important and sometimes difficult tasks to do. That’s especially the case when a company or politician gets into trouble or does something illegal or unethical. There are all sorts of interesting possibilities when that happens, and crime fiction certainly shows that.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from TV Smith’s For Every Hit There’s a Miss.