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Walk and Talk: 3 PR Lessons from the West Wing

There are plenty of resources out there for anyone wanting to succeed at public relations. But what can the fictional world of The West Wing teach us?

There are plenty of resources out there for those wanting to succeed at public relations. There are books, webinars, conferences and even in-person training events. Personally, I’d rather just watch TV. You can learn a surprising amount about what works and what doesn’t from the fictional world. Here are a few examples from one of my favorite shows, The West Wing.

 Don’t get cute with the media.

I’ve seen a lot of smart people get tripped up by trying to be funny in front of the media. It makes sense – you’re nervous, and you want them to like you. So you tell a joke or a story and next thing you know, you’re having to reassure people that you don’t actually hate Germans or have a secret plan to fight inflation. It’s okay to have a sense of humor, but remember that there’s a reason businesses hire professionals like me to help them manage their public image. In the first season of the West Wing, Josh learns this lesson the hard way. When CJ, the press secretary, is sidelined with a root canal, he confidently assumes he can handle a press briefing by himself. It’s an unmitigated disaster in which he is alternately glib, offensive, condescending and hostile to the media. Don’t be that guy.


 Don’t settle for less than the best.

Not all writing needs to be special. Sometimes you just need to sell a widget. But there are times when choosing just the right words can make a major difference, especially when you’re speaking to an audience. There’s an art to being entertaining, informative and likable on stage. There’s something almost magical about people who do it well. Listen to other great speakers and speeches to see how they combine both meaning and meter to powerful effect. As Sam says, “Oratory should raise your heart rate. Oratory should blow the doors off the place. We should be talking about not being satisfied with past solutions. We should be talking about a permanent revolution.” The combination of Aaron Sorkin’s writing and Martin Sheen’s acting gives us oratory at it’s finest.


 Don’t argue with the internet (Don’t feed the trolls).

Most business owners have encountered negative feedback from the public. Facebook, Yelp, Twitter… there is an ever-expanding number of ways that you can engage with your customers – and that they can complain to and about you. Some criticism may be warranted – you can score points by being timely and responsive to those problems. But there are many people out there who are only interested in picking a fight. You cannot win with these people. You can only ignore them. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can defeat a troll with logic, facts or humanity. Josh learned that lesson the hard way when he went down the rabbit hole with a group of rabid fans on the internet.