The PR BlogPublic RelationsPR StrategyThe Rebel Yell PR Strategy: Picking a Fight To Get Recognised

The Rebel Yell PR Strategy: Picking a Fight To Get Recognised

Controversy is a delicate balance between right and wrong.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

The rebel yell PR strategy is one of my favourites.

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 stick their neck out and risk their business. 

The rebels we cel­eb­rate 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 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.

The Father of PR: Edward Bernays

Edward Bernays (1891 – 1995) is con­sidered the fath­er of pub­lic rela­tions. His uncle was the fam­ous psy­cho­lo­gist Sigmund Freud, and Bernays, too, was inter­ested in beha­vi­our­al psy­cho­logy.

Bernays cer­tainly was some­thing of a char­ac­ter: His most fam­ous book is titled “Propaganda” — in which he out­lined how to man­age the per­cep­tions of crowds, much like mod­ern Niccolo Machiavelli or Sun Tzu:

The con­scious and intel­li­gent manip­u­la­tion of the organ­ised habits and opin­ions of the masses is an import­ant ele­ment in demo­crat­ic soci­ety. Those who manip­u­late this unseen mech­an­ism of soci­ety con­sti­tute an invis­ible gov­ern­ment which is the true rul­ing power of our coun­try.”
— Edward Bernays

PR Case Study: Torches of Freedom

When help­ing Lucky Strike, Bernays real­ised that cigar­ette smoking was mostly a male habit. From a busi­ness per­spect­ive, there was a golden oppor­tun­ity to add half the pop­u­la­tion to Lucky Strike’s list of poten­tial customers. 

No one had done this suc­cess­fully, not because no one ever had that idea, but because it was a tough nut to crack. But Edward Bernays suc­ceeded by tap­ping into anoth­er pre­vail­ing trend in soci­ety: The eman­cip­a­tion of women. 

Bernays posi­tioned cigar­ettes for women as “Torches of Freedom.” He placed the idea in art­icles, news­pa­pers, celebrity endorse­ments, and events. He planted the pub­lic per­cep­tion of women smoking not because it was enjoy­able but as a sym­bol of female independence.

PR Case Study: Eggs and Bacon

Have you ever had eggs and bacon for break­fast at a hotel? Well, you can thank Bernays for that idea.

Another PR legend is how Bernays helped the farm­ing industry con­vince people to eat more eggs and bacon. To make this hap­pen, he wanted to change people’s per­cep­tion of when it’s okay to eat eggs and bacon. 

Bernays cooper­ated with food sci­ent­ists to estab­lish that eggs and bacon should be part of a healthy break­fast for every American. And to mani­fest this, he col­lab­or­ated with chains of hotels to have them serve eggs and bacon for breakfast. 

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 fight with someone stronger than you to cre­ate your desired future. Not by exploit­ing what’s already wrong with society.

Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: The Rebel Yell Statement

Billy Idol - The Rebel Yell Statement
The man, the myth, the rebel. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

The Rebel Yell Statement

Copywriter Kevin Rogers pub­lished this simple yet effect­ive script to improve your storytelling, the rebel yell state­ment, named after the legendary rock anthem by Billy Idol.

Here’s the rebel yell state­ment script for you to try: 

My name is _________, I love _________ but was fed up with _________. So I cre­ated _________ that _________.

Here’s an example by Rogers on Steve Jobs:

My name is Steve, I love com­puters but was fed up with the snail’s pace of com­mer­cial tech­no­logy. So I cre­ated a user-friendly com­puter that pro­cesses inform­a­tion faster than any­thing else out there today.

Here’s the rebel yell state­ment I wrote for this blog, Doctor Spin:

My name is Jerry, I love PR, but was fed up with “social media experts” giv­ing cli­ents bull­shit advice. So I cre­ated Doctor Spin to share action­able insights based on aca­dem­ic research, hands-on exper­i­ence, and passion.

Learn more: 3 Ways to Improve Your Storytelling (in 15 Minutes)

PR Resource: How To Identify a Good PR Strategy

How To Create a PR Strategy - Spinning Top - Doctor Spin - The PR Blog
Spin for the win.

How To Identify a Good PR Strategy

Your PR strategy should answer one simple question:

  • Does this strategy provide a guid­ing prin­ciple for how our organ­isa­tion should win the war for atten­tion, trust, and sup­port in our com­pet­it­ive landscape?

If your PR strategy fails to answer this ques­tion, it’s just orna­ment­a­tion (i.e. cor­por­ate cringe).

Learn more: Your Bullshit PR Strategy is Cringe, Sorry

PR Resource: More PR Strategies

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.

The Cover Photo


Grab a free subscription before you go.

Get notified of new blog posts & new PR courses

🔒 Please read my integrity- and cookie policy.

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” The harder you attack someone publicly, the more you convince their fans of their existing belief, not yours.
Most popular