Is it ever okay to court controversy, to stake out a social position, to fire at your opponents, and can it ever be effective? Conventional PR (and general) wisdom suggests it’s not best practice to risk alienating any section of the public, but is that always the case? We look a bit closer at the phenomenon of conviction PR and how the changed media landscape means that’s not necessarily true.

‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’

Oscar Wilde

Ten years ago if you asked could a man who publicly mocked a disabled person, suggested Mexicans were drug dealers and rapists, and talked about grabbing the genitalia of women be elected as President of the United States, very few would have imagined it as an even remote possibility, even those who would end up voting for Donald Trump.

Going out of your way to offend people was viewed, not so long ago, as an unviable – perhaps even insane – political strategy. Yet today, the Trump political brand continues on its trajectory, unabated.

This phenomenon runs contrary to all received wisdom in politics that you try not to accumulate too many hits while gaining some allies along the journey. Like a computer game, there is only so much life force a player starts out with in politics.

This truism about aversion to controversy has been doubly in the world of commerce. A corporation staking out a robust opinion a decade ago would have been seen its mastermind drawn, quartered and flayed. And yet in 2018 one of the biggest brands in the world, Nike, ran with a campaign spearheaded by the controversial NFL footballer, Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the Star – Spangled Banner before games, in protest at the treatment of black America.

Political strategists and PR wonks were left scratching their heads. On the face of it, what could be gained by alienating a large proportion of the population?

Quite a bit as it happens. But what’s going on here?

Preaching to the choir – it’s calculated

In politics it’s long been suggested that preaching to the choir is a waste of time. You already have their sympathies, so really you should be shooting at agnostics. This was supposedly the genius of Tony Blair in 1997; ignore the working-class and pitch your campaign to the British middle-class.

But ignoring your base can not only prove dangerous, as appears to be the case in a lot of countries where primary support has slipped from the low 40s to low 30s, but it fails to energise the people who are still believers.

These people, ‘the choir’, are the transmission belts for your messaging at the micro-level; at restaurants, at pubs, at work, in locker-rooms. The choir, or base, it turns out, are essential for carrying your brand message.

That’s where Trump has succeeded. He’s fired the base into a bunch of proselytisers and advocates for his brand and key messages. He’s happy to alienate 30% of the population who would never support him in a pink fit, and pitch for a politically inert 15-20%.

Nike made the same calculation when it ran its Kaepernik campaign. They looked at their brand’s ‘base’, which included 18-29 year-old males who are more likely to support socially active brands, and thought we can win more of that demographics while only losing a portion of our customers.

It was well researched because Nike’s online sales grew by 31% while their stock price reached its highest level immediately ever after the campaign.

Organisational stocktake – can conviction PR work for you?

The fact that politics – a highly risk-averse enterprise where broad appeal and motherhood statements have been mother’s milk – can leverage conviction PR successfully means a myriad of organisations can – from NGOs, not-for-profits, corporations, to government.

Now that doesn’t mean you need to run campaigns as controversial as Trump or Nike, but what it does mean is taking a stocktake of your current or hoped for demographic, and the concerns of those that you want win over, and construct some robust messaging.

Again, there is nothing wrong with staking out a strong position and taking on the people who vehemently oppose it.

There is a structure and method to this sort of campaign messaging. We’ll use the example of renewable energy here. The method of delivery should include the following:

  • Start with a universal statement nobody can disagree with, e.g. ‘we all want a safe and healthy environment for our kids to live in.’
  • Then a statement and affirmation of your organisation’s purpose ‘Renewable energy is here to stay and [our organisation] is fully-committed to that future’
  • Frame your foes ‘And while there are some groups out there who are determined for their own reasons to undermine a clean energy future for the people of [area].’
  • Remind audience who the constructive, active, good guys are ‘[our organisation] has a series of exciting, job-creating, clean energy projects we want to talk about today.’
  • Introduce your friends, ‘Alongside our partners [X, Y, Z trusted brands and organisations]…
  • Roll out the big guns, ‘we will be rolling out some [fantastic project details]…
  • Steal a march on opponents ‘that will create not only clean and cheap energy, but great jobs for the people of [area]. Good, well-paid jobs that we can be proud of and a healthy, clean environment that everyone can enjoy.’

If you want to learn more about conviction PR and if that would be right for your organisation, contact Good Talent Media.