It’s your garden-variety PR: To get the media blood flowing about an upcoming campaign communicators reach out to some key reporters and/or influencers who cover their sector to see if they might be interested in the story; stoke their social-media channels with some selective Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter posts related to the campaign and tease some of the content about the project on their website with the hope of sparking some initial buzz. But when pop-music sensation Beyoncé released her new self-titled album the artist pulled a George Costanza, albeit from a communications standpoint: She did the complete opposite of what was expected.
In what could best be described as a PR coup, Beyoncé released the CD unnannouced on December 13, via iTunes, accompanied by a simple press release. Prior to the launch there were no commercials plugging the CD, no ad buys and no late-night kibitzing with Kimmel, Leno and Letterman. Not a peep. Once the album was released, however, it was accompanied by a strong social media component, with Beyoncé’s team tweeting, posting and pinning information related to the CD.
Soon after the iTunes release Beyoncé paid a surprise visit to a Wal-Mart store in Tewksbury, Mass., and reportedly offered to pay the first $50 of every customer’s Christmas purchase via a gift card.
So far, the strategy has paid off nicely, with 600,000-plus first week sales. Of course, most brands can’t match Beyoncé’s popularity and avid fanbase. At the same time, however, the release offers valuable lessons for PR managers and directors grappling with how to make their content cut through the noise and transcend the status quo.
“Smart PR people in several industries are watching and studying what Beyoncé and her team did in hitting it out of the ball park,” said John Deveney, president of Deveney Communication.
He added, “As strategists we need to take a more cynical eye to the tactics that we now use. In terms of having a ‘Surprise’ to a PR campaign, you need to ask: Can we do this? Can we pull this off? Who is our ‘Wal-Mart’ that we can secretly partner with?”
Raging popularity aside, Beyoncé may have done the PR field a favor by demonstrating the diminishing returns of protecting the status quo.
“Organizations really have to take a hard look at whether stealth PR is suitable for their brand and can generate results they want,” said Sandra Fathi, president and founder of PR and social media agency Affect.
She stressed that in a hypercompetitive age communicators need to have a bigger threshold for risk. “Thriving on risk is what makes the difference between break-out success versus consistent mediocrity,” Fathi said.
She added, “If PR pros are open to taking risks, then they have a greater chance of putting out something that’s going to stand out in the market. With marketing budgets getting scarce you have to be more creative and take a different approach. We’re in an era of big successes and big fails.”
From a PR perspective, Beyoncé’s release supports the growing desire for novelty and discovery in brand experiences, particularly with product launches, according to Melissa Melms, account supervisor at DKC Connect.
“Forget the middleman or anything overly produced and too commercialized,” she said. “Communications and social media strategies need to give fans the opportunity to feel like they have ‘inside access’ to their favorite products, while providing a bigger payoff in the discovery of these products, rather than relying on the purchase of the product to be the primary source of gratification.” PRN
John Deveney, email@example.com; Sandra Fathi, firstname.lastname@example.org; Melissa Melms, Melissa_Melms@dkcnews.com.
One thing that builds interest and excitement in a story is limited access to information. Beyoncé chose to take stealth to the fullest extreme, surprising everyone with her newest album. While the release was unconventional, it made music history, and headlines. Beyoncé took a risk, and it worked. Stealth PR and limited information access are strategic tools that PR people can use in their favor. If these are strategies you want to employ, it’s critical to implement an information protection program so the news is released on your terms. Here are a few tips on cultivating the strategy.
▶ Guard the news. Steve Jobs was best known for his maniacal secrecy about new and future products for Apple. To make this strategy work, you need to guard the news as you would a pile of gold. Limit the number of people involved. Use code names. Shred important documents. Issue NDAs to everyone along the food chain and ensure there are no leaks.
▶ Give ‘just enough’ information. Some companies publicize the fact they are in stealth as a way to attract followers. It’s a popular tactic in tech circles, where companies want to build awareness for recruiting and fundraising purposes, but don’t want to tip off competitors until they are ready to ship the product. In these cases, companies put up placeholder websites and provide just enough information to interest followers. Sites often encourage registering in order to get information early. This strategy helps curate a list of interested customers and influencers well before the launch date.
▶ Get social. One strategy is to build awareness or followers via social channels and branded content well before coming out of stealth, but under a pseudonym. Content on these social channels is usually focused on the problem the company will eventually be solving, or provide a point of view on a related industry issue. Once the company is ready to come out of stealth, the audience it has attracted to the pseudo site can be early advocates and used to amplify the new brand at the time of the launch.
Not many people can pull off what Beyoncé did. The key is whether you already have an audience or need to build one.
Barbara Bates is CEO and founder of Eastwick.