I am a big fan of Succession, an HBO Max drama about family media empire Waystar Royco, which is run by aging patriarch Logan Roy (played by Brian Cox with snarling intensity). There’s great writing, a superb cast, and always lots of palace initrigue over who will succeed Logan.
I also like the show because of its strong focus on PR. There’s lots of talk about optics, crises, and influencing the media, both directly, by messing with the editorial independence of Waystar’s own Fox-like cable network, ATN, and indirectly, via PR. The media, lawyers, and comms execs are all part of the drama as the main cast members joust for power and seek to sway Wall Street and Main Street.
As Kendall Logan, the heir apparent (until he wasn’t… then was again; ya just have to watch!) said in a recent episode, while preening for a reporter over dinner, “Image is the family business.”
I have spent the better part of my career in PR, and love seeing the field get its 15 minutes of fame. Which is not to say that the show nails it. E.g. it seems the stereotypical PR handlers, fixers and flunkies are never too far away from the action. But the writers certainly make it entertaining, and PR is well-integrated into almost every episode.
Anatomy of PR Scenes in Succession
To give you a taste, I thought I’d share scenes from the first episode of the current season (season 3), with my commentary, and just enough info to get the gist even if you are not a fan or haven’t seen this show.
PR featured especially prominently in this epsiode due to the way Season 2 ended: Kendall Roy had turned on his dad during a press conference on national TV, taking a blowtorch to the enterprise over sexual abuse and coverup allegations related to their cruise line business. So there was the need for lots of damage control and maneuvering.
Just Like the O.J. Van Ride (“This is a Righteous Vehicle”)
Kendall Roy has left the press conference and is being driven somewhere to evade the media scrum. He is in a limo with Karolina Novotney, Waystar Royco’s Comms Chief, and Greg Hirsch (“cousin Greg”), who holds some important cards and needs to decide which side he is on: Kendall’s or Logan’s. The transcript is provided courtesy of TV Show Transcripts (also, see the video above).
Kendall: This is a company vehicle.
Karolina: What? I mean, I don’t have a dog in this fight. But since you just clearly opened the company up to investigation, lawsuits, I imagine you’re no longer working for the company?
Kendall: Well, no, because I was acting in the best interests of the company.
Karolina: Yeah? Violating your duty of confidentiality? Violating your fiduciary duties as a director?
Kendall: Look. I need a sealed unit here, Karolina. I need a clean jar. So… so… are you in for this f*cking revolution? This is a fork in your life, Karolina. This is the righteous vehicle.
Karolina: It’s just not… It’s not…
Kendall: Okay. Stop the car. Out. Out. Please. I need to make calls.
Kendall: I can’t have weevils in the f*cking flour sack, okay? Out. Now. Everything you’ve heard today is privileged. Repeat anything and I’ll sue you out of your f*cking ass.
(The limo stops, she gets out)
Kendall: Greg, Greg, if I get taken out on other shit, I might need you to take my cultural temperature.
Greg: Uh-huh. Got it. Okay? As in? Uh, wh… what does that, uh, mean?
Kendall: Like before I get my media monitoring in place I might need you to slide the sociopolitical thermometer up the nation’s ass and take a reading. Okay?
Greg: I’ll get seasick. (Stutters)
Kendall: Just feed me the metadata, anything that’s gonna move the market on me reputationally, yeah? (Phone notification chimes)
Greg: Uh-huh, uh-huh, yeah. Sure. Uh, media monitoring department over here
Analysis: It was great to see the PR rep be the adult in the room, or car – and not drinking the Kool-Aid. Karolina, who clearly had no part in Kendall going rogue, is not playing along. Also, in the same scene, Kendall is spouting some gibberish about media monitoring.
PR Agency Pitch (“F*ck the Weather, we are Changing the Cultural Climate”)
To throw off the press, Kendall then moves the war room to his ex-wife’s apartment; where he and his team hole up to plan next steps. There he is pitched by PR agency owner Berry Schneider and her sidekick Comfrey.
Kendall: Welcome to my ex-wife’s living room. Sit, sit.
Berry: Can we just say, right off, some jobs are money jobs, some are heart jobs.
Comfrey We would love to work with you. We love the narrative arc. We love everything you did.
PR Translator: OK, here we go, PR yes-women. “We love the narrative arc.” Give me a break, I have never said this on a pitch.
Kendall: And I would love to work with you, but, uh, if it’s cool, and I know you guys are the best but is it okay if this is still a pitch?
PR Translator: Kendall wants a taste, some free advice before signing them. That is usually fair game in the biz.
Berry: Of course!
Berry: So, we have a lot of thoughts.
Berry: Communication planning and positioning thoughts. How we can leverage our relationships with significant writers at major outlets.
Kendall: Yes. Yes.
Berry: Prepare to prime and amplify some impressive secondaries.
PR Translator: They’re going to pursue top tier media friendlies, and second level ones.
Kendall: Great, great. So, shall, shall I talk, or will you?
Berry: Well, we want to hear your thoughts, of course, but you wanna start off just hearing our five points?
Kendall: Sure. Sure, you go.
Berry: Okay. So…
Kendall: But I think the headline needs to be “f*ck the weather, we’re changing the cultural climate”. But you go.
PR Translator: The nightmare client – he doesn’t want to hear their thoughts, thinks he knows the best strategy.
Berry: Okay, I mean…
Kendall: For context, I, I, I’m talking to the Times about an op-ed. Draft an alternative corporate manifesto. Drop a rapid reaction TEDx. sh1t like that.
PR Translator: Again, a micromanaging client that does not know what he’s talking about. “Rapid reaction TEDx?” Fans of the show know that Kendall can get over excited and spout nonsense.
Berry: Well, that’s great.
Kendall: It’s cheesy as f*ck but, you know, I need people to see this was part of a coherent philosophy, not just punching an old guy in the f*cking nose? Yeah?
Berry: Right. Right. That’s in line with our thoughts. So…
Kendall: Well, I just, I may as well say, on a dumb level, I’d like my Twitter to be off the hook. This could all get super earnest, so I was thinking of hitting up some BoJack guys. You know? Some, some, some of the Lampoon kids… to just smash that sh1t, make my feed a little powder keg people need to check-in with?
PR Translator: This is dad-PR talk. Kendall thinks he is being smart, hip. It is also interesting how Twitter and influencer marketing gets mixed in with other strategies. And there actually is a tie-in with this show and BoJack Horseman.
Berry: Like cool tweets that position you?
Yeah, that would be the… straight-leg chino way of putting it. “Cool tweets”.
Berry and Kendall: F*ck you (laughs)
Kendall: No, it’s… I’m kidding. I know you guys are the best. Okay, sorry. I want to work with you if you can… if you can work with me?
Berry: Sure. Well, we think you’re going to win this and we like winners!
PR Translator: They’ll take any job.
Kendall: Hell yeah!