The Surround Strategy

Creating more buzz with less time and resources.

The Surround Strategy is one of my favourite PR strategies.

I was in Italy in the middle of summer, and it was hot.

I was meeting up with an Italian fashion brand. They had gotten the idea that it would be great to add some “PR and digital marketing” for their new collection launch.

The problem was that the launch was less than a week away. I wanted to help them get the word out, but how?

Let’s dive right in:

Table of Contents

    A Strategy for When You’re Out of Options

    The Italian fashioned brand had brought me on board late in the process. The campaign was less than two weeks away. No PR and no digital activations were prepared.

    The only thing that stuck with me was a single item in the collection—an iconic handbag that was being re-launched.

    Since there wasn’t enough time to create any fancy campaigns, I decided to stick with the handbag.

    So, I proposed another strategy:

    “In all digital channels at your disposal, for four consecutive weeks, you won’t talk about anything except for your iconic handbag. No talking about the rest of the collection, okay?”

    Not a single tweet, not a single post on Instagram, not a single press release, not a single interview with the media, not a single blog post, not a single Facebook update, not a single live event, not a single influencer activation, not a single email list send-out, absolutely nothing went live during these four weeks unless it was about the product.

    The regular marketing calendar had to be wiped clean, and for four weeks, the marketing team had to come up with whatever—as long as it was only about the product. We even added product messaging to every employee’s email signature.

    We did put all regular brand messages on hold, which took quite some convincing on my part, all up until the end of those four weeks.

    The strategy worked like a charm. Without adding any specific online campaign activities, the message got through to their community, and people started talking and sharing about the brand’s iconic product again.

    I’ve since tried this approach many times with much success, calling it the Surround Strategy.

    The Art of Relevant Variation

    “But won’t people get sick and tired of being exposed to the same message over and over again? And in every channel, no less? I know I would be.”

    Yes and no.

    Bombarding the email list with the same message over and over again (spray-and-pray) wouldn’t work.

    However, the Italian fashion brand wasn’t sending out the same tweet five times a day for four weeks; it always had different types of updates with different images, copy, and call-to-actions. The only thing these updates had in common was that they all talked about the re-launch of their iconic product.

    It can be a creative challenge to put together so many variations of the Surround Message, especially if the brand hasn’t tried this strategy before. But I’ve also seen how adding these types of constraints actually can spark even more creativity.

    Content Variations - Content Theme - Surround Strategy
    Finding relevant content variations on a single topic is not as difficult as it may seem at first.

    The Surround Strategy: Keeping Everything Else Quiet

    It’s not as if every person in a brand’s online community is exposed to every brand update. Most online campaigns end before most of the community have even seen it.

    Only a small percentage of a brand’s online community are exposed to single updates.

    As it turns out, most online campaigns are too short:

    Due to algorithms and social graphs, a brand community often has zero chance to keep up before the brand decides to talks about something else—or several things at once.

    The real challenge, therefore, was to stop the brand from talking about the things they, according to the strategy, shouldn’t be talking about.

    The problematic aspect of this strategy is being disciplined enough to go dark on everything but the actual topic you want to push. Communicators like to communicate, and sometimes over-communication can be a problem.

    The Surround Workshop

    I’ve tried the Surround Strategy many times for different brands. To get started, I like to run a Surround Workshop. It sounds fancy, but it’s just a coordinated brainstorm to find that special something within a larger campaign.

    Surround Strategy - Surround Workshop
    Do a Surround Workshop to brainstorm your next Surround Strategy.

    It’s not helpful to always think outside the box in communication—sometimes, you have to make that box incredibly small instead.

    Focusing on one Surround Message for a set period is closely related to using Content Themes in your content strategy. It takes a bit getting used to for sure, but the results make it worth it.

    Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)

    Bonus Resource: The 1-Page Strategy

    How to Write a 1-Page Strategy

    My inspiration for writing no-bullshit strategies comes from the classic Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt. This is how I set up strategies that fit on one page — using the mythical battle between David and Goliath as an analogy:

    1. Analysis

    • David can’t beat Goliath using his size or raw strength, but he has an advantage in speed and accuracy from a distance.

    2. Guiding Principle

    • David shouldn’t engage in close combat but rather use tools that will allow him to strike from a distance.

    3. Coherent Actions

    • David shouldn’t use any heavy armour because that would slow him down.
    • David should use a slingshot, a weapon he is familiar with and can strike from a distance.
    • David should leverage the element of surprise and don’t advertise his advantage beforehand.

    If you write 1-2 clear sentences per bullet, your strategy should fit nicely on one page. Please note: This is not a plan — the plan comes later based on the strategy.


    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer, aka 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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