Add Some Conflict to Make Your PR Programs Pop

George Torok

Conflict sells. Conflict makes the news, grabs attention and gets discussed at the water cooler. If you want to be noticed, fight a powerful and evil enemy. Who or what demon are you fighting? While planning your PR strategy, pick your enemy strategically. The tougher, meaner and more disgusting your enemy—the better for you. That positions you clearly as the hero.

The Joker taunted Batman with the phrase "you complete me" in the movie The Dark Knight. The public image of both Batman and the Joker were stronger because of their conflict. A champion needs a formidable villain, and vice versa.

The PR lesson is that the public defines you by your competition. If you are not well known maybe you need to pick a tougher, more visible enemy.

Make your enemy appear more frightening
The boxer Muhammad Ali understood this marketing principle and demonstrated it well. He built up the credibility and threat of each of his opponents before every fight. That made his victories more exciting. He promoted his third fight against Smokin’ Joe Frazier as the “Thrilla in Manila.” After the fight Ali said, "Joe Frazier, I'll tell the world right now, brings out the best in me. I'm gonna tell ya, that's one helluva man, and God bless him." In a brief post-fight interview with one of the commentators, Ali announced, "He is the greatest fighter of all time, next to me."

There’s no glory or fame in defeating a weak opponent
Superman was a bigger hero because of his treacherous enemy Lex Luthor. Sir Edmund Hillary would be nothing without the chilling challenge of Mount Everest. Wyatt Earp is defined by his fight with the ruthless Clantons. The 300 Spartans are defined by their stand against the unstoppable forces of the Persian Empire. David and his slingshot are only remembered because of his conflict with the unstoppable giant, Goliath. Buffy the vampire slayer would be unknown without the blood-sucking vampires.

Conflict captures attention and helps to define your position and value
When promoting your product, it would be boring and uncreative to position your company as the high-price fighter. That hardly captures media attention and public imagination.

Many consumer products are sold by fighting previously unknown enemies that were glorified by the marketing campaigns. Consumer products were promoted to fight morning breath, dandruff and ring around the collar.

Fight pain and embarrassment
Pepto-Bismol delivers a memorable marketing campaign that offers to defeat nausea, upset stomach, indigestion and diarrhea.

Present yourself as the alternative 
Avis could not defeat Hertz, the market leader in the car rental business, so it defined itself by the phrase, “We try harder.”

With blind taste tests Pepsi defined itself as the alternative to Coke. It worked so well that it unnerved Coca-Cola, and led to the creation of the doomed New Coke in the 1980s. The folks at Pepsi must have enjoyed it when they made Coke, market leader, blink and stumble.

Champion yourself as fighting the enemy of your clients
Pick the right enemy—one that your clients can recognize and vilify. The enemy is one who hurts or threatens the comfort of your clients. Don’t attack an enemy that only threatens you and your organization. That was the mistake that Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, made. He stopped thinking and caring about the enemy of the public (the oil spill) and lapsed into seeking pity for his pressure in the spotlight. A public champion never asks for tears over his personal sacrifice.

Announcements are boring
Perhaps you’ve seen a news release or memo with the phrase “ABC Corp. is pleased to announce...” Who cares? What could be more boring? Instead, send out a notice about how the Dark Lord Sauron threa to plunge Middle Earth into eternal darkness. And you have the cure.

Make fun of the enemy
With its clever “Hello, I’m a Mac. I’m a PC.” TV ads, Apple positioned itself as the alternative to the market leader, Microsoft Windows-based computers.

People love conflict. It’s entertaining, memorable and often vivid. Sometimes it can be funny. That’s why reality TV shows are so popular. Keep your sights focused on the enemy of your clients, get your team in place, practice, put your dukes up and come out swinging.

George Torok is an independent marketing/communications consultant and is the co-author
Secrets of Power Marketing. He can be reached at