9 PR lessons from ‘Best Picture’ Oscar nominees

The movies vying for the crown at this Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony carry many insights. Here’s what communicators can take from ‘Arrival’, ‘La La Land’ and more.

The nine films nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards differ in genres and plots, but all share one important element: They all tell great stories.

For PR pros, that’s also one of the most important aspects of the job.

We help clients determine their message, decide which audiences we want to affect, use the appropriate channels and find the most effective ways to tell captivating stories.

Though we might not be able to directly relate to Ryan Gosling’s experience as a struggling jazz pianist or Dev Patel’s quest to find his lost family, here are lessons from their characters’ journeys that we can apply to our own role as professional storytellers.

1. “Arrival”

IMDB Summary: “When twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world, linguistics professor Louise Banks is tasked with interpreting the language of the apparent alien visitors.”



The PR takeaway: Don’t assume.

With any form of communication, there is always a chance that things may get lost or misinterpreted in translation. Always double check that you fully understand the message that is being conveyed.

For example, make sure you know as much as possible regarding the angle a reporter is taking on a particular story. That way, you can appropriately prepare a spokesperson going into that interview and they won’t be blindsided by any unexpected questions or topics.


2. “Fences”

IMDB Summary: “A working-class African American father tries to raise his family in the 1950s, while coming to terms with the events of his life.”


The PR takeaway: A timeless story can translate through different channels.

One of the most important things for PR pros to consider is if you have a core message that appeals to your target audience.

“Fences” is based on a 1983 Pulitzer-Prize winning play that takes place in the 1950s. From the page to the stage—and then to the screen, the story about family relationships is universal. “Fences” shows that if you have a timeless and powerful message, it can resonate with your audience, regardless of the format.

In PR, if you have a strong message, you can similarly adapt it in order to reach audiences through a variety of channels—whether it’s through a blog post, YouTube video or other means.


3. “Hacksaw Ridge”

IMDB Summary: “WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss, who served during the Battle of Okinawa, refuses to kill people, and becomes the first man in American history to receive the Medal of Honor without firing a shot.”

The PR takeaway: Follow your instincts.

Andrew Garfield’s character was served well by remaining true to his belief in the commandment that “thou shalt not kill.” Though it was a huge challenge, he followed his instincts.

In most scenarios, a PR pro should also go with his or her gut. Whether it’s a feeling that you might be veering too off message to try and fit into a news cycle, or a sense that a client’s approach might translate as something inauthentic, your gut will usually inform you if something may not be the right approach.


4. “Hell or High Water”


IMDB Summary: “A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch is West Texas.”


The PR takeaway: Be strategic.

Whether you’re carrying out a series of bank robberies or developing a campaign to raise awareness on an issue, you must be strategic in your planning.

To ensure your communications plan goes as smoothly as possible, begin by identifying your goals at the onset. Monitor your progress as you begin to execute your plan. Adapt as necessary, and just like the brothers in “Hell or High Water,” be prepared to face the unexpected with backup plans.

5. “Hidden Figures”


IMDB Summary: “The story of a team of African-American women mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.”



The PR takeaway: Use your team.

As the engineers at NASA learned, you might not always be able to solve a problem on your own.

You might be an expert on a particular client’s topic or industry, but sometimes the only way to find success is to work with your team members and brainstorm fresh ideas.

People with different backgrounds can contribute different perspectives and lead you a solution that you may not have thought of on your own.


6. “La La Land”


IMDB Summary: “A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.”



The PR takeaway: Persistence is the key to results.

There are times you might get lucky, but you’re not often going to achieve your goals overnight—no matter if that goal is becoming a Hollywood movie star or landing a front-page story in a major paper.

In “La La Land,” Mia takes small steps to achieve her dream, including working as a barista on a studio set and going on multiple auditions.

Similarly, PR pros must be persistent in building their experience and networks. Landing smaller stories can help build buzz for your dream media placement.


7. “Lion”


IMDB Summary: “A five-year old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.”


The PR takeaway: Use all available resources.

“Lion’s” protagonist, Saroo, uses Google Earth to find his lost family.

From using Google Analytics to evaluate which messages are working, to exploring Twitter lists to uncover the proper reporters for your topic, there is an abundance of tools that PR pros can harness to get their messages in front of their audiences.

8. “Manchester by the Sea”


IMDB Summary: “An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies.”



The PR takeaway: Be prepared for anything.

PR pros go beyond developing strategic messaging and reaching out journalists.

As we can learn from Casey Affleck’s character, sometimes you can find yourself in a role you least expected. From creating original content for a guest post to field producing a live television segment, PR pros should be prepared to perform a variety of roles.

9. “Moonlight”


IMDB Summary: “… Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.”

The PR takeaway: Get up close and personal.

“Moonlight’s” popularity is partially because viewers felt personally invested in the protagonist, Chrion, whose experiences they witnessed from childhood through adulthood.

In spreading a client’s message, it can help to go beyond the surface.

The winning story might not be what an organization does, but rather who is behind it. By sharing a personal story of why a founder was inspired to take action, you can create compelling copy and establish a personal connection with your audience.


Dee Donavanik is a senior manager at Scott Circle (@ScottCircle), a full service communications and event management firm based in Washington, D.C. Connect with her on Twitter: @donavanik.


Topics: PR


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