A Lesson for PR pros in Robert Redford’s “All is Lost”

It’s unusual that film makes you think about public relations strategy, but Robert Redford’s All is Lost recently did this for me.

I happened upon it accidentally, while perusing the new rentals on iTunes. Redford’s performance is masterful: an epic battle of a man against the elements, alone on his damaged keelboat, adrift after a freak accident. After watching this unusual film, I was curious to see how the critics and public reacted to it. The results made think of the place of the specialist in storytelling to an unspecialist public.

The critics were almost unanimous: Redford’s performance was masterful. The general public was largely bemused: a two hour film with only several lines of dialogue at the very beginning? How odd. A specialist public was outraged: sailors were angry in the dismissal of the several discontinuities and errors they identified in the film.

I found this to be an interesting allegory for what we do as public relations counsels.

First, I thought about what the film was trying to convey: the struggle of a man in an impossible situation, doing his best to respond to what could be perceived as a hopeless situation. He doesn’t lose hope. Redford’s character tries to survive. Also, the film’s soundtrack tries to capture the ambient sounds of a ship at sea, amplifying the aloneness of the main character and putting the viewer beside him. The musical score attempts to evoke the emotional timbre of the main character – a stoic man, pragmatically facing a longly death, trying to survive. The main message was to model what a manly response to an impossible situation might be, and Redford delivers that in spades. This is really a film about being a man: quiet, strong, resourceful, imperfect.

Then I reflected on what the sailors who were savaging the film and Redford’s performance were doing: they were bemoaning the fact that this was not a documentary film or safety film documenting how best to respond in this terrible situation. One review bemoaned the lack of a specific type of life preserver and another, the lack of a more sophisticated radio system. They also questioned his choices: clipping himself to the wrong set of cleats, etc.

As I continued to read several of the “old salt” blog reviews, I started to see a debate emerge among them about what would be acceptable errors for a sailor to make. Almost each of the insults levelled at Redford’s character were debated. After reading ten such bickering posts, I tired of them and logged off to write this piece. Interestingly, the one thing they all had in common, despite their technical differences was their praise of Redford’s manly performance. They bemoaned that he was not a credible sailor, or at least as good a sailor as they would like to be represented by.

The lesson for us in public relations is simple: technical specialist publics want their knowledge and expertise validated. The problem is that they often cannot agree on what defines that body of knowledge. While the general public wants to see in a character, a person like me; specialist publics want to see their ideal: a technical master. The problem is that no one is a technical master, everyone makes a hundred mistakes everyday. It’s just human error. But the eye of the specialist discards the real concept of verisimilitude, which is truly that of error and miscalculation and attributes truth only to the ideal model.

This film is a masterpiece. I have watched it twice and enjoyed its zen quality, as well as the portrait of manliness that Redford paints through his characters actions, expressions and emotions. As a story told, it was a great success, and the critics, representing the general public, loved it, giving it a 93% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The specialist critics got lost bemoaning an ideal that the film never attained, but never aimed for.

As a work of archetypal storytelling, All is Lost is a great success which can teach public relations pros that it is sometimes alright – if not even necessary – to portray flaws, as long as the greater story aligns with an grand archetype that the general public will tune into.


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