Five lessons for PR professionals from Boardwalk Empire

By Erik Arvidson



Five lessons for PR professionals from Boardwalk Empire

I’ll freely admit that the premise of this post is a bit of a stretch. There is probably nothing we should emulate from a group of gangsters and bootleggers as portrayed on HBO’s hit series Boardwalk Empire.

But after having just watched season 3 on DVD (season 4 is now airing on HBO), it seems to me that there are certainly life lessons from Boardwalk Empire we can learn that apply to PR and business in a general way.

Warning that there are spoilers below.

  1. Know your home base well: At one point, Nucky Thompson strikes a deal with Arnold Rothstein that gets him the location of a rival bootlegging gang in Philadelphia. He immediately uses a press conference of Atlantic City reporters to pin the blame for recent murders on this enemy gang, promising that they are being apprehended for questioning, and leading to an election victory for his Republican friends. Nucky had built up trust with the local press, allowing him to put out his side of the story in a timely (though manipulative) way. Similarly, PR professionals need to have their home turf covered. We need to know the local press that cover our clients frontwards and backwards.
  2. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver: Rothstein protégé Lucky Lucciano makes an ill-timed deal with some drug dealers, but the enterprise fails, and that puts him at a disadvantage to – and in the debt of – Rothstein. Similarly, we should be careful as PR professionals to set high but achievable expectations that will help our clients’ business.
  3. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket: Jimmy Darmody makes the mistake of forming a rival operation that would assume control of Atlantic City’s bootlegging operations from Nucky. Unfortunately for him, it was an irrevocable move that allied him with certain people and put him at odds with Nucky forever. PR professionals need to be adaptable as conditions that affect our clients change and demand new approaches.
  4. Information is power: Time and time again, Nucky gets the upper hand by gaining information about his enemies, whether it’s using information about corruption in the Attorney General’s office to get himself a reprieve, or learning in a timely way of Jimmy’s betrayal to make his own move. As PR professionals, knowing what a target reporter is writing about, or what are the pressure points for a target publication, or how a client can perform better in a briefing, makes all the difference.
  5. Keep your networks strong: Nucky runs into legal troubles over allegations of election-rigging, and after being unsatisfied with his own attorney’s advice, decides to fire him and ask Rothstein’s own attorney to defend him. Maintaining a good relationship with Rothstein allows Nucky to keep his legal options open. Similarly, PR professionals should take care to always leave bridges intact – as you never know when a business opportunity could arise from a source you never expected.

Do you have any other lessons from Boardwalk Empire relevant to PR professionals to share?