How to be the right kind of ‘edgy’ in your PR campaign

PR pros are constantly looking for an edge to lift their message above the competition, but some risks aren’t worth taking. Here’s how to know whether to take the plunge.

Working in public relations can be like tending a bonfire.

You have to feed the fire just enough to keep everyone warm and happy but not so much that it gets uncomfortable or out of control.

We all know how easy it is to toss on one too many logs. A while back, I was working at a PR agency that had just started to sign some high-profile clients, including a popular food and beverage brand. The client came to us feeling outgunned, attacked by a well-known celebrity who had joined forces with an equally prominent activist organization.

We went on the offensive — literally, in my view. While I was confident our strategy would work, I still wasn’t on board. Our campaign invoked sexual innuendos and gender stereotypes that I simply couldn’t support. Beyond the immediate ethical issues, I worried that the strategy could spark backlash from other interest groups.

In the end, the campaign worked. The celebrity went on the defensive, and shortly after that, the attacks on our client ceased with no disruption to the brand or its business.

Yet, for me, the “win” was bittersweet.

I began to question a lot about my job. Where should I draw the line between my personal beliefs and my work? How far should I go to promote a controversial campaign? There’s no easy answer, I soon realized, but I did decide to set standards about what sort of campaigns I could support.

Be edgy, but ethical

“Edginess” doesn’t have to be about being risqué, sexual, confrontational or rude. In business, edginess should be about being innovative and bold. Yes, it should get a reaction, but it shouldn’t serve only to get a fleeting reaction.

If anything, an edgy PR campaign should be built on a better understanding of the brand’s values and audience’s needs. It should start with the brand’s promise and work outward to an exciting, awe-inspiring or otherwise surprising finish.

Here are three imperatives for creating an edgy campaign that won’t burn bridges for your brand:

1. Stay true to your values and those of your company.

With social media and nonstop news, everything your company does is put under the microscope. Veering away from your company’s value system, even for a single ad or announcement, risks more than a failed campaign. Dove’s latest crisis, for example, happened because of a three-second video clip that many considered to be racist and offensive.

Three seconds was all it took for consumers to question Dove’s commitment to its vision of a world where all women see themselves as beautiful. It goes to show how quickly things can go sideways when campaigns aren’t thought out, despite Dove’s undoubtedly good intentions.

Fortunately, this works both ways.

One example is how Burger King gave credence to its “commitment to people” with an ad about bullying. The campaign featured actors and a hidden-camera view of a young person being bullied at one of the company’s restaurants. A WHOPPER JR. burger was also “bullied,” and the smashed burger was served to real customers. Most of the real customers reported the bullied burger, but only 12 percent notified staff about the bullied boy. The company released the video, along with a social media campaign about the issue of bullying.

2. Know what your audience expects.

Like never before, consumers care about authenticity. A whopping 91 percent of people are willing to reward brands for being authentic with their loyalty or purchases, according to Cohn & Wolfe’s 2017 Authentic Brand study. Amazon, Apple and Microsoft — all consumer favorites — are Cohn & Wolfe’s top three most authentic brands.

Authenticity in practice is a rather simple concept: In a corporate context, it means ensuring your beliefs, words and actions align in a way that’s true to your brand. So if you’re planning to create an edgy campaign by doing something your customers and employees won’t expect, be careful. Are you surprising your audience by violating your brand’s beliefs or prior promises? Or, are you surprising them with a fresh, innovative idea that could only come from your company?

3. Apply the “dinner table” test.

The “dinner table” test is an easy way to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. If you can’t show and explain a campaign at the dinner table with your parents or children, you should seriously question the campaign. This isn’t just about profanity or nudity, either. If a campaign implies something racist, sexist, or otherwise derogatory, skip it.

Ultra Tune, an Australian auto service company, should have thought twice before rolling out its “Unexpected Situation” ad last year to Aussie viewers. The ad prompted at least 357 complaints to the country’s Advertising Standards Bureau. Viewers took particular issue with a sexually suggestive scene in which two women used a fire extinguisher to put out a car fire. Well-intentioned or not, the ad’s fictional fire became all too real for Ultra Tune.

Edginess isn’t about winning awards or creating controversy. It’s not even about getting a bump in brand recognition or sales.

An edgy campaign should generate sustainable attention from your audience for the right reasons. The ads or messaging could be avant-garde, but they should still scream your brand’s name and company values.

Done right, consumers will reward ethics and authenticity over edginess every day of the week.

Emile Lee is a senior vice president and the global head of communications at a global leader in commercial data, analytics, and insights for businesses. Emile has also served as a communications executive at Johnson & Johnson, SAP, and EDS.

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