Paul Holmes 23 Feb 2019 // 4:28PM GMT
Public relations people are storytellers. The profession’s critics claim that what PR people do on the job is often closer to fiction than it is to journalism. Which raises the question, why have so few PR people turned their hand to creative writing—either as a sideline or as a post-retirement outlet for their talents?
In particular, why don’t more PR people draw on their career experiences to create fiction about the PR profession? After all, PR—particularly the corporate reputation and crisis management field—frequently finds itself involved in the kind of corporate intrigue that makes for good drama.
And if you take the cliché view of public relations people by public relations people—“the conscience of the corporation”—it’s easy to see how a PR character could be the hero of such a book. On the other hand, if you take the more cynical view of PR people as amoral spinmeisters, then the more fashionable anti-hero is an option.
The latter is definitely the case with Jim Lindheim’s protagonist Jonathan Keaton in the former Burson-Marsteller executive's debut novel Spin. Discussing the likely guilt of the client he’s been brought in to defend, Keaton reflects: “It was one of the truly miserable sides to the miserable profession I had stumbled into. I had had to do what I had to do now: ignore what my head was telling me, swallow my revulsion, and turn my back on any thought of integrity.”
So Keaton is a bit of a cynic.
Lindheim certainly knows whereof he writes. He spent 15 years with Burson in the 80s and 90s, rising to become head of public affairs, head of the firm’s European operations and eventually chairman, working with clients including Coca-Cola, Merrill Lynch, Johnson & Johnson, Altria, DuPont, Tetra Pak and Shell Oil.
He worked with Coca-Cola in the wake of the introduction of New Coke; with Perrier after its major recall; and with Philip Morris during the "tobacco wars."
Since retiring in 2007, Lindheim has been active on non-profit boards and served a term as Town Council Member in Castle Valley, Utah. He has also been writing short stories and 10-minute plays, before embarking on his first novel.
Anyone who worked at Burson-Marsteller during Lindheim’s tenure with the firm will recognize some of the fictionalized cases on Keaton’s resume, and will certainly have no difficulty identifying the late BM executive to whom the 350-pound Keaton is at least physically—and perhaps attitudinally— indebted.
Crisis experts will be familiar with the situation he describes inside his client—a technology company in decline: “These titans of American business were engaged in a pointless blame game. And their lawyer was burrowed into the internet, eager to read every bad piece of information floating around the public sphere. I call it ‘bad news addiction.’ It’s a common response of corporate types who are used to the controlled environment of the office suite. They lose themselves in the wonder of what a hostile media environment can do. Can’t get enough of it.”
And all seasoned PR people will recognize the relationship between Keaton and his client—a toxic CEO who sees sexual misconduct accusations as an opportunity to become a champion of oppressed misogynists everywhere; the tension between the hired gun and the in-house PR team; the portrayal of legal counsel over-confident that what works in front of a judge will also play well in the court of public opinion; and a workplace environment so riddled with resentment that it’s ready to turn on the leadership team at the drop of a hat.
Keaton makes for an engaging, flawed protagonist. “I was the cool head in the room,” he says. “Easy enough to do. I was the only one with nothing to lose.” The supporting characters are sharply drawn. And there are plenty of twists and turns in the plot before the crisis, after spinning out of control, comes to a satisfying resolution.
Lindheim says he is considering a sequel. It’s certainly a genre we could use more of.
Spin, by Jim Lindheim, is available from Amazon here.