Pop Culture

Winners know how to play media game well

When public relations personnel micro-manage questions at a press event, they make everyone look bad, even themselves

One of the biggest pet peeves of entertainment journalists is that celebrities and producers think we are a part of their public relations machinery. Some interviews are micro-managed to the nth degree, with PR flacks telling us which questions we are allowed to ask.

Last week, the local media were not allowed to ask the cast of Netflix superhero series Marvel's Iron Fist any questions at an event ironically called a press conference.

Presumably, the unspoken ban was enforced to protect the stars from answering any potentially uncomfortable questions, given how the show has been blasted for cultural appropriation as well as for just being plain terrible.

In the end, my colleague managed to shout out a question anyway, about how the cast deal with bad reviews. And the show's lead actor, Finn Jones, answered.

His response - that he understands fans to be "loving" the series - was evidently planned and diplomatic (not to mention hard to believe), but still, he finally addressed the elephant in the room.

He did his job, we did ours.

When public relations personnel control such events too tightly, they make everyone look bad in the process, even themselves.

Not only are they insulting the integrity of the reporters, but they are also insulting the intelligence of the celebrities - to believe that the former are happy to drink the PR Kool-Aid and that the latter cannot speak for themselves in a tough situation.

Anyone who has been following news about Marvel's Iron Fist would be aware of the controversies surrounding it.

Mostly, TV fans have been unhappy over the show featuring a white gongfu superhero, questioning whether an Asian actor should have played the role instead, especially since Jones is awful in the fight scenes, by many accounts.)

This is a particularly big problem with South Korean entertainment interviews held here - questions often have to be vetted beforehand, not only for translation purposes, but also for content. Any question deemed "inappropriate" is struck off the list.

This happened, too, when the cast of popular Korean variety game show Running Man were in town three years ago to promote their show and for a local fan meet.

Specific rules were put in place to ban questions over the cast members' "physical appearance" or any "comparison with other members". This was unexpected, given that the show is, in fact, a fun-spirited competition among the seven members, who make fun of one another's physical appearance. Only six of the cast members were in Singapore then.

The cast members are also well known for their hilarious off-the-cuff comments in the programme.

By vetoing the list of questions, the public relations company was treating the cast as if they were not the witty and spontaneous personalities that they appear to be on their show.

Of course, the PR folks' job is maximise positive publicity for their employers and minimise the negative.

But, in the case of a widely criticised show such as Iron Fist, surely their approach cannot be to spin a fantasy world where the brickbats did not exist. Social media users' attention span may be short, but the collective memory of the Internet is long.

Might not the better strategy be to train the celebrities to answer in a certain way, if they do need the training at all.

The responses may end up becoming bland and politically correct, but at least the producer or celebrity is being held accountable for the product. After all, if you have put in effort to make a product, you should be prepared to justify it.

For Marvel's Iron Fist, Netflix could have chosen to do away with a press conference altogether and promoted the show in any way it wished on its own social media channels. But the company did not because it knows that the mainstream media is still crucial in getting the word out to the general public, not just Marvel comic-book fans.

When a company promotes a show only through its official Facebook or Instagram accounts, it is essentially preaching to the converted - that is, people who are already fans, such as Netflix or Marvel fans. The news may not travel to the rest of the population who simply enjoy a TV show or a movie, but who have little prior interest in a comic-book superhero show.

The Marvel movie Deadpool (2016), about a lesser-known superhero and carrying a restrictive audience rating, probably did not earn US$363 million (S$507 million) at the US box office by appealing only to the fans.

The crowds went in droves to watch it, likely after reading in the mainstream media of Deadpool's good reviews or about the film's famously clever marketing campaigns.

Compared with Iron Fist, Deadpool is probably the better product, but it is also a winner because it played the media game well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2017, with the headline 'Winners know how to play media game well'. Print Edition | Subscribe