You’re In the Care of a Spin Doctor*

PR and Spin DoctorsIt’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.


Filed under Angela Savage, Carole Nelson Douglas, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, Hugh Pentecost, Judson Philips, Robin Cook

18 responses to “You’re In the Care of a Spin Doctor*

  1. This is a really interesting subject, Margot, and I’ve long been intrigued by the number of crime writers who had experience of working in the advertising/PR worlds. Julian Symons, like Sayers years earlier, but in a very different way, made use of his expertise a couple of times (there was a UK paperback containing both his novels which was entitled The Advertising Murders). And I also very much enjoyed a book written just before Murder Most Advertise, C.S. Forester’s Plain Murder.

    • Thanks, Martin. And you make a really well-taken point about connection between crime writers and advertising/PR. As a matter of fact, I put in some advertising time myself many years ago before I went into academe. I didn’t know Symons had been in the field – fascinating! And he used experiences effectively. While I confess I’ve not (yet) read the Forester, I hear good things about it. I ought to put that on my radar.

  2. Another intriguing subject! The only example I can think of is in Gordon Ferris’ Money Tree. It starts when the PR people of a US bank feed a story to our protagonist Ted, a financial journalist, that the People’s Bank in India is ripping off some of the poorest people in the country. When the story is published, an insider at the US bank contacts Ted and challenges him to investigate the story, claiming that it was pure spin to give the US bank an unfair business advantage. It’s up to Ted to find out the truth…

    • Oh, that is a good example, FictionFan! And if it’s Gordon Ferris, I have a strong feeling I’ll enjoy it. Ferris really writes well, in my opinion. Sounds like this one has a nice international sort of twist to it, too. And of course, that makes sense when you consider how international banking really is these days.

  3. I was thinking of the PR assistance given to Jodie Garrow in The Mistake by Wendy James, who her husband employed to handle the press interest around the adoption of her daughter…

    • That’s a great example, Cleo, for which thanks. Angus does indeed take a PR approach to the whole situation they’re in, and gets someone to try to manage the press. Folks, if you haven’t read that one, I recommend it.

  4. Great subject Margot. Spin is certainly a great way to misdirect, something which is necessary for all authors of crime. Some great examples. A little sillier but don’t forget MC Beaton’s, Agatha Raisin too. She retired from PR and became an amateur detective! What more evidence do we need that a knowledge of PR is vital to solving a crime 😉 ‘Murder Must Advertise’ is on my TBR list. I haven’t read many of Sayers. Some day I’ll get round to it but you know what TBRs are like, *sigh*

    • I know all about TBRs, D.S. There is just never enough time to read everything I want to read. If you do get the chance to read some Sayers, I hope you’ll enjoy it. And thanks for reminding me of Agatha Raisin. That’s a fun series, I think.

  5. Larry Brooks often includes advertising PR people, because he worked in the industry for years. And as you know, I love his books. Bait and Switch uses the advertising company, Write and Wong. Cute play on words. 🙂

    • Oh, I do like that play on words, Sue! That’s great. And, yes, I know you’re a Brooks fan. It’s interesting that he’s another crime writer who’s got a background in advertising…

  6. Col

    No examples of my own I’m afraid. I’m sure I have come across it in my reading, usually an organisation trying to suppress news or close down an investigation of wrong-doing in order to preserve their public image. No interest in justice for a victim.I recently watched the film THE EAST, about some eco-terrorists and a PR firm trying to uncover who they are. This kind of fits the bill.

    • It does, indeed, Col. And you’re right about that plot thread of a company trying to cover up its wrongdoing or silence a ‘whistleblower’ because of wrongdoing. That theme can work quite well, I think.

  7. Another great topic and analysis, Margot. It’s not exactly an example from crime fiction, but I like the spin doctor character in the TV series Borgen. Then there’s Chandler’s immortal quip: “Chess is the most elaborate waste of human intelligence outside of an advertising agency.”

    • Now that is a classic quote, Bryan! Thanks for reminding me of it. And Borgen is a really interesting use of the political spin doctor, so I’m glad you mentioned it.

  8. First time on your blog and I love how in depth you go! Great read – looking forward to more.

  9. tracybham

    I have read several of the Hugh Pentecost mysteries featuring Pierre Chambrun when I was younger, but I had forgotten that they were told from the point of view of the PR chief. I have wanted to reread some of those but haven’t had a lot of luck finding copies; I will have to try harder. Interesting topic, Margot.

    • Thanks, Tracy. Admittedly, they’re not easy to find. I hope they’ll be re-released at some point as a set. They’re solid mysteries, and worthy of that, I think.

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