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Controversy: The Badass PR Strategy for Every Comms Rebel

Controversy is a delicate balance between right and wrong.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

Controversy is one of my favourite PR strategies.

There are some brands we love a little bit more than others.

We love the brave. We love the rebels. We love the misfits. We love the underdogs. We love the smart minority. We love those who dare to stick their neck out and possibly risk their business.

The rebels we celebrate are those who manage to come out in front of a significant shift in our societal value system. Yes, it’s a question about timing — and sometimes blind luck.

Sparking controversy as a PR strategy is often frowned upon. It’s seen as a cheap trick to attract attention.

Still, brands can reap significant benefits; controversy creates a rift in public opinion between them and us.

Rock and roll were considered devil music by the late majority for quite some time. Unethical, even. It was pushing the boundaries of what was socially acceptable. And more importantly, rock and roll are still around today.

After all — Elvis Presley was a rebel.

If being controversial is a powerful PR strategy, what’s the catch? Because there must be a catch, right?

In 1928 George Washington Hill, the president of the American Tobacco Company, hired Edward Bernays, today is known as the father of public relations, to help him recruit women smokers.

Edward Bernays, the father of public relations
Edward Bernays, the father of public relations. Photo: Bettmann / Getty Images.

As a way of displaying a burgeoning movement of women’s rights in the US, female celebrities and influencers started smoking cigarettes out in the open as a sign of emancipation since smoking cigarettes in public was something only “fallen” women did.

Bernays hired women to march while smoking their “torches of freedom” in the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929, a march traditionally well-covered by the media. Of course, this controversy sparked lots of publicity for the cause.

The campaign helped push the women’s movement forward. That’s good. But it persuaded more people to take up smoking. That isn’t good.

Don’t get me wrong. Someone might think that smoking is good or that grown-ups should be allowed to decide what’s best for themselves. I respect that.

But the critical point here is that it’s possible to spark controversy for controversy’s sake. It’s possible to scare people senseless. It’s possible to shock or gross people like American Apparel, who face lots of public outrage for their sexist ads.

Yes, it’s controversial, but there’s nothing rebellious about reinforcing old stereotypes or making people feel bad about themselves.

I could argue that American Apparel is deploying a controversial PR strategy. They want to piss off an establishment of prudes that we shouldn’t be so afraid of sexual innuendo.

Such arguments don’t hold up; women have been objectified in the media for as long as mass media have been around.

Rock and roll was a step forward. Objectifying women — isn’t.

This is especially regrettable since there are thousands and thousands of meaningful rebellions for brands to participate in.

Why not come out before gay marriage — because the company doesn’t even want money from homophobic customers anyway? The middle class is taking over everything, from living to thinking. Why not rebel against this?

There’s consumerism to rebel against. Capitalism. Communism. Climate. Religion, even. Heck, you could even rebel against technology taking over our lives. Whatever.

But here’s the key to using controversy as a powerful strategy:

You pick a fight with someone stronger than you to create the future you want. Not by exploiting what’s already wrong with society.

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.


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