Four Things National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Can Teach Us

Stan O'Neill
December 20, 2022

Four Things National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Can Teach Us About PR

There are fewer holiday traditions I cherish more than laughing at National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with family members. Perhaps the most quotable movie ever, the film enjoys broadcast dominance once December hits, sitting firmly in the Christmas canon alongside Miracle on 34th St. and Home Alone. Chevy Chase’s exasperated face holds a special resonance for those of us familiar with the yuletide chaos of visiting in-laws. But what can the movie teach us about public relations? Is this premise just an excuse to explore the lovable neurosis of Clark Griswold, our knight in shining Blackhawks jersey? Amid the looming holiday season, Engage PR took some time between year-end reports to see if we could mine some PR lessons from the beloved holiday classic.

  1. Stay calm, even if your head’s sewn to the carpet

PR is an industry of unpredictability where executing projects between multiple clients can be an intense balancing act. As PR pros, our ability to weather that turbulence is our bread and butter. Upon the unexpected arrival of Clark’s oafish brother-in-law, he makes the statement, “Eddie, if I woke up with my head sewn to the carpet tomorrow, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am right now to see you.” In PR, we can’t always control what happens to us, our agency or our clients. Yet, we’re often obligated to be a beacon of calm insight amid the storms our clients face. PR professionals must prepare for the unimaginable and expect the unexpected. Chaos is contagious, but so is tranquility. Stay calm, worry about what you can control and learn from mistakes to ensure improved outcomes in the future.

  1. Don’t burn yourself out; you’re not a washing machine

After the in-laws arrive, Clark’s daughter tells her maternal grandfather that Clark “worked hard” on the failed Christmas lights. Art says, “So do washing machines.” PR is prone to long hours, burnout and turnover. PR professionals must contend with a 24/7/365 news cycle that the human brain was never designed to process. Be a clear communicator internally and ensure you aren’t working yourself past a healthy threshold. It doesn’t mean you’re making progress just because you’re persistently “working.” Ensure your team has clearly defined goals and open lines of communication. Burnout is a workplace hazard in PR, and it’s even worse without realistic goals that move the needle for your clients. Remember – you’re a human being, not a washing machine.

  1. Your team is your lifeline—depend on them for perspective

From an electrocuted cat to the kidnapping of his boss, Clark relies on his family throughout the movie, no matter how hectic things get. The average day in PR can be a whirlwind of deliverables, deadlines, content approvals, social media staging and more. So, it’s essential to rely on the individual strengths and areas of expertise within your PR team. No single person can handle everything themselves. Therefore, it’s important to lean on each other amid the chaos to put things into perspective and execute key projects. Remember, take a breath and understand that you are not “at the threshold of hell!” It’s just another Tuesday, and your team will make it through like they always do.

  1. Be ambitious but realistic when going the distance

Throughout the movie, Clark’s ambitions and expectations exceed the eventual realities of his holiday experience. The initial failure of his Christmas lights project was humiliating, but he stuck with it (or more correctly, his wife found the right light switch) and patriarchal glory was achieved. In PR, we deal with a lot of rejection, typically from the media and sometimes from clients. We must not get too discouraged. We can’t let setbacks define us, but we need to temper clients’ celestial expectations with grounded goals. PR is a long-term game of relationship building and consistency, and short-term gains can feel scarce for reasons outside our control. But if you’re going to go the distance – go for it! Don’t be afraid to spray ‘non-caloric, silicon-based kitchen lubricant’ on that metal sled and skid through oncoming traffic (figuratively). Be provocative and throw up a few sparks. You never know where your client will land.

A full-blown, four-alarm holiday break emergency

Ultimately, this movie endures because of its expertly written dialogue. Try to ensure your own content is high quality if you want it to last, tilting toward relatable and humorous when appropriate. Amid the year-end chaos of reports, last-minute deliverables and planning for the oncoming year, make sure you’re finishing strong and setting yourself up for a relaxing holiday break.

As we head into 2023, remember that it’s okay not to have all the answers. There is wisdom in the words of Todd, the yuppie neighbor, proclaiming, “I don’t know, Margo!” Your PR teammates are resources, and it’s always better to be transparent about the gaps in your knowledge instead of acting on assumptions. Remember, time to unplug is just as urgent as those last deliverables. From all of us at Engage, have the Hap-Hap-Happiest Holiday possible this side of the PR shop – you’ve earned it!


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