The Art of War for PR Professionals

I’ve been in the PR game for thirty years.  On a good day – and there are many of them – I have the best job in the world.  When a story goes from 0-60 in five seconds I am at my happiest professionally, especially if it’s crafted for a client by a member of the Houston tribe.

Everything moves fast. Most days I am middle aged dog learning new tricks.  We’ve exchanged ‘one to many’ communications with ‘many to many’.  At some level we’re all broadcasters and reporters.  Twitter is an imperfect newswire with 300 million correspondents.

But there are some things that don’t change.  A lot of what we contend with today is largely a reskinned version of the past. History never repeats, it’s true.  But it does rhyme.

PR is sometimes lazily seen as flim flam, purportedly led by people with complex hair, a bottled glow and car doors that open unconventionally. But that’s rubbish. It’s a commercial discipline fighting to deliver, often successfully, viral messages that people act upon or feel compelled to share.  In an age in which advertising is skipped and ignored, PR is the best and most flexible weapon in the promotional toolkit.

Here is a cut-down version of some of what I have learnt over the years.  I hope you find it helpful.

Perception minus reality equals PR value.

Reality is the unvarnished truth of a business. Perception is the beeswax polish – important and protective if maintained. The gap between the two is the value that we PR professionals add. This is what we are paid to do.

What do we sell? Drills or holes?

A power tool business, under pressure from an ambitious competitor, famously held a marketing away day in the late 1980s. They asked themselves a fundamental question: What do we sell: drills or holes? The meaningful answer, of course, is ‘holes’.

For PR people, the equivalent of ‘holes’ in your client’s market is where you should aim your storytelling firepower.

Jargon: The cataracts of communication.

Avoid words that make a message opaque. There’s a company in the US that calls itself ‘A global leader in the adhesive labelling solutions sector.’ In other words ‘we sell stickers.’ The Houston PR Buzzsaw strips jargon from announcements.  The offending words are supplied by journalists.  Use it. It’s free.

The pledge, the turn, the prestige.

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.

Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.”

Christopher Priest – The Prestige
This is a great structure for consumer PR. Study it.

Turn phrases to catch the light.

Avoid jargon, but don’t be afraid to use language that sheds fresh light on an idea. Clive James is a modern master of this, and ‘turning a phrase to catch the light’ is his phraseology.  He is also a great guide to breaking the laws of physics in a sentence. He described a youthful Arnold Schwarzenegger as a ‘brown condom stuffed with walnuts’ and Dame Barbara Cartland’s face as looking like two crows had smashed into the white cliffs of Dover.

Confirmation bias.

On social media, debates are binary and positions rarely shift. We ignore the opposite view and seek out tweets that reinforce our thinking. No one changes their mind on Twitter. Understanding this, and not fearing it (on the contrary, embracing it) will save you time, money and a lot of miserable effort.  Spend your time on your tribe.

The narcissism of small differences.

Be sensitive to the nuances of small tribes. The narcissism of small differences, a term coined by Freud in 1917, is the thesis that communities with neighbouring territories and close relationships engage in constant feuds and ridicule because of hypersensitivity to the minutiae of differentiation.

In PR, this means thinking hard about the possibility of damaging potential customers through inadvertent alienation, whilst at the same time remaining interesting.  This is the modern equivalent of the risk of trying to be ‘all things to all people’.

Tribes are now global.

In 1994, Desmond Morris said on his BBC documentary The Human Ape, that our tribes are no longer living around us. With a flourish, he took a Filofax out of his pocket and said ‘this is now our tribe’. That year, the World Wide Web was launched. He was right. Tribes are now global and we have the tools to keep them close. Nothing needs to be niche anymore.

The best announcements are Trojan Horses.

Announcements can’t always be self-serving. If they reek of self-promotion and offer nothing new, they are worthless. Try changing the lens and thinking about the wider context. A fundamental requirement of a good story is relevance and territory. Find it and explain it and your own messages will be the Greek soldiers inside the Trojan Horse.

The dead cat manoeuvre.

This one belongs to the political strategist Lynton Crosby. If the news agenda is stubbornly against you specifically, drop a ‘dead cat’ on the table. The cat is metaphorical. The point is, assuming ethics are on your side, you’re well advised find something surprising and noteworthy and shout it as a diversion.  If you do it well, no one will remember or care much about what happened before.

Check your ego at the door.

There’s nothing more stultifying in PR than hierarchies, real or imagined. If you are ‘conscious of your own uniqueness’ or the type of self-proclaimed innovator who is more at home critiquing ideas than offering them, step outside, take three deep breaths, a big swig of humility and come in again.

Your most jaded friend is your best critic.

If you’re unsure about something, once the idea is formed, test it out on a cynical friend. This will always be a matter of judgement. Sometimes this process can kill a perfectly good idea. But have it as your emergency brake and feel reassured that it is there if you need it.

The half-life of stories.

The news cycle used to be 24 hours long. Now it can last for an hour or less.  Never rest on your laurels.  Paranoia is good.  Make sure your story has the right elements.  We have a Periodic Table of Story Elements.  Try and get two or three of these elements into your story.  [Insert periodic table here]

First be.

If you are planning an announcement, you’re planning to be first and you have a feeling that you’re going to miss the boat, do everything you can to go now.  Thirst for first.

The memeing of life.

Meme, NOUN, An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.  Can you create a meme to help a story along?  Go on then.

The press release will never die.

Two hundred lovingly-crafted words will always be one of the best ways to get a story across to a big audience.

Rupert Bear, social media manager.

Any page from a Rupert Bear Annual will tell you everything you need about social media. Look at the layout of the page: the tweets, the Instagram posts, the headline, the blog.  All carry the same story individually.  Collectively, they round the story out.

Stop doing something.

Define yourself by what you won’t do, as much as you do by what you are doing. Killing something off evokes nostalgia, the Heinz Salad Cream Effect (ie, ‘buy it while you can’) and a fascination with what you’re doing instead.

Find your client’s enemy’s fattest margins and attack them there.

It is where they are weakest, most reliant on the status quo and most defensive. With worldwide competition and better competition rules, fat margins are increasingly a luxury of the past. If your enemy is too reliant on their margins for a certain product or service, this is a great battleground for PR. Can you beat them – or shine a light on their vulnerability?

Check your client’s enemy’s small print and find their weakness.

Small print can hide significant vulnerabilities. Do you do a better job for your customers? What isn’t in your own small print? Can you turn this into a virtue?

If you see a bandwagon, run in the opposite direction.

James Goldsmith once said that if you see a bandwagon it’s too late. That’s true, but it’s also a bit ‘Glass half empty’. Think about what the bandwagon is doing and consider whether there is anything interesting or virtuous in the opposite. There isn’t always, but it’s a good challenge. And if there is, you can clean up.

When you think about stunts, try and stick to a £20 budget.

There’s probably a formula in this: The more you spend on a stunt, the lower the chance of success. Complex and expensive stunts tend to get further and further away from a commercial benefit. Remember that building on the Thames that wrapped itself with a giant royal balcony scene during the jubilee? Remember the brand behind it? Remember the floating house on the Thames? Remember the company behind it?  Often the best stunts are the ones that become part of what a business does rather than something that is staged on that field near Tower Bridge.

Wherever possible, roll in a joke.

Don’t be too earnest.  Over the years I have written a zillion quotes for CEOs.  The best ones are the ones where they’ve made some sort of an appropriate joke.  Most of the time, the jokes are rejected.  Their loss.

Never forget that journalists, opinion formers and (eugh) influencers like to entertain as well as inform.

The stories that travel furthest are the ones that entertain as well as inform.  Social media platforms succeed largely because they are Pavlovian reward systems.  There is nothing that people like more than having something they have said (or reported, or built on, or found) shared, liked, favourited, etc.

Face value

Your advisors’ faces might be part of the small print of your agreement.  A combination of frown lines (concentration) and crow’s feet (a sense of humour) could be a guide. Remember, though, that the way your agency team look is not necessarily a good guide to the way they think. Sparkly-eyed millennials with complex hair and ice-cream cone trousers may be your target audience. Life, though, doesn’t always imitate art.

Audaciousness is eye-catching, but is it sustainable?

Twitter is a great canvas for the provocateur. But, unless the message has an underpinning, audaciousness is an Icarus strategy. Your wings will eventually melt.  In the 1800s, an Australian landowner, keen to turn his lovely beach-front property into a tourist resort, changed its name from Shark Bay to Safety Beach.  Great move, but always consider the consequences. A US entrepreneur decides to market a consumer flamethrower, generates a tonne of publicity and it sells out. Let’s see what happens next.

$1 to move the valve

Your PR £, $, € or ¥ are best spent on advice and ideas. They are the most important part. The means of delivery have been democratised. Look at where your money goes.  That caravan and pinball machine in reception might not be a great sign. At the turn of the 20th century, Henry Ford recruited an advisor to fix a problem with his production line. The advisor visited and within 10 minutes had the answer. Production, which had been halted, quickly resumed. He invoiced Ford the next day. Baffled by the $1,000 invoice, Ford asked for an itemised bill. The response, by return, was as follows: ‘$1 to move the valve. $999 to know where to move the valve to.’