Comedic tv show has scary lessons for PR pros

My son and wife recently introduced me to a Comedy Central show entitled “Nathan For You.” I watched an episode dubbed “The Movement”* and found myself laughing hysterically but, in the end, wound up quite scared for the lessons it taught about the news media and the public relations profession.

The premise of the episode is that the nerdy young host, Nathan, offers to reduce a Southern California moving company’s operating expenses by convincing people to move their customers’ belongings for free. How? By telling them that picking up boxes and furniture is a proven exercise strategy to get in shape.

Nathan hires a body builder who agrees to lie and say he has never been to a gym and that he has gotten in shape by lifting boxes. He also hires a freelance writer to craft a fake book about the body builder’s fictional life and his unique (but phony) fitness strategy. The “life story” includes outlandish tales of how the body builder was supposedly once a friend of Steve Jobs and how he had helped “jungle children.”

Nathan self-publishes the book. The episode ventures further into absurdity as Nathan starts pitching the book to local television talk shows, offering the body builder as a guest.

To my surprise, numerous talk shows wind up interviewing the body builder and promoting the phony book and fitness strategy! None of them bother to even question the man’s tales, which include a “jungle child” being kidnapped by baboons! They air the story as if it was factual.

This example of “fake news” has tremendously scary implications, and yet, it also has a few lessons from which we can all benefit. For instance:

1) Skepticism is not only healthy, in some cases it can save you a ton of embarrassment. Imagine how those duped talk show hosts must feel after they watch “The Movement.”

2) Even if your own employer asks you to pitch a story, it’s a good idea to first check out the facts. At the University of Missouri School of Journalism where I studied reporting, we were told, “If your mom says she loves you, verify it!”

3) Never, never, never pitch a story that is not true. I would normally tell you that this goes without saying, but, after watching this tv show, I feel I must.

4) Don’t believe everything you read in the papers, see on tv or hear on the radio. Newsrooms have been decimated by layoffs over the past two decades. Combined with the news media’s rush to be the first to air, post and/or publish stories, fact checking sometimes gets overlooked.

* Season Three, Episode Three

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