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Episodes: On publicists


Emily VanDerWerff

Apr 21 2016

4 min read



The thing that happens when you're a critic is people accuse you of being biased. The most recent prominent example, for instance, is the theory that critics gave Batman v. Superman poor reviews because they were being paid off by Marvel. (If that were the case, I would desperately love some of that Marvel cash, but oh well.)

On its face, this is, of course, ridiculous. For starters, there are far more efficient ways for studios and networks to purchase publicity. For another, there's some evidence that any publicity is good publicity, that just seeing the name of something will make you decide, later, that it might be worth checking out.

And the larger point is that all critics are biased. It's in the very definition of what we do. We have certain things we like and certain things we don't, and our job is to express those biases in ways that hopefully make sense to you and help you understand your own reaction.

But whenever someone accuses me of bias because of some sort of corporate relationship between my company and another, or because, say, Netflix sent me a notebook I'll just throw out six months later, I think about the place where critics can actually be swayed, and where actual entertainment journalists can be misled: publicists.

Don't get me wrong. I love publicists. I have great relationships with lots of them. But their very function as a line between the journalist and the talent means that the relationship inevitably involves trying to sway the former to be more forgiving of the latter. And the best do this in a way that leaves the critic or journalist the autonomy to have their opinion, while still protecting the talent from whatever feelings that opinion might stir up.

But because all of this is based around relationships, it can get trickier to manage. Most critics and journalists know to keep the people who make art and entertainment at arm's length (the old Lester Bangs truism from Almost Famous: "These people are not your friends"). But it's much easier to let your guard down around publicists, because it's literally their job to get you to let your guard down.

(I think the assumption on the part of lots of readers is that the interviews and other things we do just sort of magically happen. And there have, indeed, been times when I've set up chats directly with talent. But in almost all cases, there was a publicist involved somewhere along the line.)

As someone who now not only deals with my own stuff but also manages a small team, I spend way, way, way more of my work day talking to publicists than you probably imagine. Most of it is quick emails or phone calls, but there are also occasional meetups at screenings or chats over drinks or things like that. It's really no different from, say, the way a political journalist would work sources within DC, but it's also incredibly different, because the publicists aren't the sources. They're the people who can get you to the sources.

If you're a features writer or a critic, this isn't as much of a problem. But if you're an actual reporter, who's trying to break news, it can become a huge headache, because you have to look for constant end-arounds around the system in place trying to prevent you from doing your job. (I'll be honest. Even as someone who's broken the occasional news item, I don't know how the people who get constant scoops even do it.)

None of this is to condemn publicists, who exist in every industry and are generally good at their jobs in my experience. But it is to say that I think readers often don't see publicists, because good publicists are invisible. You know they're there in the process somewhere, but you don't think about it, as you read an interview that hopefully sounds like I just bumped into Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould at a local coffeeshop, and they agreed to answer questions for 10 minutes.

Most journalism is spontaneous on some level. It resists management. Most PR is designed explicitly to manage. This isn't a conflict, not exactly. But it is something that most of us spend way more time dealing with than you'd expect.

And yet good stuff gets written every day. So don't worry about it all that much.


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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