Thursday, March 26, 2009

How to be a PR troublemaker for fun and profit

It would almost seem like a given that when it comes to pounding their public relations drumbeats, corporate entities want to keep their noses clean, appear politically correct, and sometimes be succinct and terse, while other times be cute and friendly.

That's completely legitimate because for many companies, sainthood is how they want to be viewed in the eyes of the public. They would like nothing more than to be thrust upon a pedestal, beautiful pieces written about them with no more than a whiff of negativity and doubt.

For 95% of PR outreach, this is the norm.

However, there is no law that says you have to swim with the rest of the school. Sometimes it is a perfectly sound PR tactic to stir the waters on purpose for driving a press campaign, as long as it does not involve lying.

I liken it to the long-in-the-tooth media habit of tallying up "best" lists. "Best of" lists are a dime a dozen and often have the "so what?" factor built right into them. You already know the best family vacation resorts or shows on TV or places to live -- there isn't that much change in these lists from year to year. The only news would be if they actually fell off the list.

However, you can swing over to the "dark side," devise "worst" lists and the buzz becomes that much more heightened and interesting. When music magazine Blender ranks its best songs of the year, it's a lot of the same records we see on everybody else's list. Press-wise, it's a non-starter.

But when they rank their worst songs of the last 30 years, radio DJ's are arguing, blog posts become flame wars, and it ends up running on the the wire services and USA Today's "Lifeline." (FYI -- #1 was Jefferson Starship's "We Built This City.")

Why do you think the late Mr. Blackwell became a cultural icon by annually releasing his clever "Worst Dressed List?"

Sometimes you have to embrace your inner troublemaker as your PR engine and get over the notion that Luke Skywalker is the hero to emulate, when Darth Vader can be a hell of a lot more fun and get far more press coverage.

In my book, there are two kinds of bad press coverage: 1) you've committed legitimate crimes, acted like a jerk and caused harm, so the press hangs you out to dry... and then there's there's the kind which requires a little more steady nerves but can have a big pay-off, 2) people passionately debate over the pro's and con's of what you're doing, causing an uproar... and a huge influx of attention, curiosity and ideally, revenue. To me, #2 is better categorized as "good bad press."

As you can tell, this is not a tactic for the meek. Utilizing controversy as a PR motif is based on the concept of creating a lot of conversation and curiosity about you. "Talk about me all you want, good or bad, just spell my name right and check out my product or visit my web site."

The poster child for this technique is, which when you come right down to it, isjust your basic Internet domain registrar. However, they decided that other than cheap prices, they were going to add some Maxim to their DNA and fill all their marketing, advertising and PR with gorgeous women, sometimes not fully dressed either. They signed up NASCAR driver Danica Patrick as a spokesperson, and not only can you see her on GoDaddy's home page, but you can watch her enter a shower semi-naked in a commercial that aired during the Super Bowl.

Needless to say, every time GoDaddy plays "the babe card," ad critics blast them as sexist, they are appalled, they get all kinds of "outrage" press. When the network broadcasting the Super Bowl turns down their ads as too racy, does GoDaddy hide in shame? Heck no, they leak it to everybody that the ad is so hot it didn't pass the censors! The buzz builds and builds until not only is awareness for GoDaddy completely heightened, they are taking the controversy right to the bank.

GoDaddy is a perfect case of a company that inherently has nothing controversial about their business, but uses self-created controversy as the center of their marketing and PR. But what about a company whose very nature invites debate?

As long as there is no harm or foul, embrace your inner troublemaker. Encourage bloggers and the media to argue about who you are, what you do, and if they like or don't like the way that you are doing it. You are who you are. If somebody says you're a cheater, then use that as an opportunity to write an op-ed about why you are not a cheater and keep the debate going.

Depending on the circumstances, I've straightforwardly pitched reporters that a client is controversial and I'll send them links to both sides of the argument. Getting in the middle of a genuine heated fight can be irresistible to the press as long as it doesn't turn into an inferno. The key is knowing how much to feed it and sensing when it may go overboard and out of control. Ideally, you light things up in peaks and valleys so the press doesn't overdose or the public burns out and moves on.

You want to be the catalyst for arguments and letting it go viral. You don't want to personally get in the middle of a pissing match either by yelling and screaming -- let others do the debating for you.

Can playing the controversy card help business? For one of my clients, we went that route for one story recently and they doubled their paid subscriptions and traffic from a year ago.

If you orchestrate your strategy right, and know when to crescendo and then subside, how far to go and when to stop, this can be a very productive out-of-the-box approach. Just remember that there is a fine line between rocking the boat and making it tip over.


Ray Hancart said...

Great post - it's nice to be "reminded" there are more options out there than the normal mode of operations.

Ray Hancart
Fahlgren Mortine Public Relations

Ryan Zuk said...

Hello Drew. Love this post. I also refer to this as Positive Controversy. Your encouragement for PR to be a catalyst for this, when circumstances are ideal, is a big help. Those who are willing to stir things up, bring about contrasting views, better inform and entertain us... usually deserve the extra coverage (well earned). Btw, "We Built This City" by Starship was an alright tune in '85, for about a week.