PR Insider: How a Quick Trigger Can Kill Campaigns

Evan Zall
Evan Zall

Here’s something I run into every once in a while: clients that have Suddenly Great Ideas and expectations that their spur-of-the-moment genius will lead them to glory. They call it being spontaneous. I call it being unfocused. [Note: for all the clients reading this, I swear this isn’t you].

I want to be clear – I’m not eschewing new ideas. I love them. I want to test them all, and I want them to work. I want new ideas to hop the curb of conventionalism and break through the walls of conformity. A little dramatic, there, I know.

But new ideas help you win, which is why I love new ideas in the context of a broader vision. There’s a distinction between successfully tying your brand to an unexpected trend or event (“strategic opportunism”) and spontaneously thrusting your story into a conversation. Both can result in coverage, but I’m betting on the former to pay dividends. Spontaneity is outstanding for love, travel, and food, but please keep it off my strategic playing field.

My skepticism is rooted in a steadfast belief that PR wins are not accidental. Teams have an obligation to fully understand their client, their client’s competitors, and the markets they want to penetrate. They are watching the trends. They have a long-term goal in mind and a strategy on which to execute. Resources are directed to that strategy, and nothing feels better than watching the plan come together.

Enter the Spontaneous Redirection.

When this happens, plans are put on hold, pitches are reprioritized, and the focus shifts to the unforeseen event, even if only for a week. That week turns into two, then into a month - any strategic momentum is lost, and the team will most likely have to hit the reset button once the fire drill of fun is over.

Consider a financial client with a focus on emerging markets. They closely track themes coming out of Asia and the Middle East, and provide regular commentary to broadcast and online outlets. Their play is around the ability to forecast global impact based on regional growth trends out of these markets. When a tsunami and earthquake hits Japan, it splits apart a nuclear plant, and wreaks havoc in the country and disrupts the world’s supply chain.

Their Suddenly Great Idea? The impact of storms on investment cycles! They rally the team around the concept that more intense storms are becoming the norm, and investors need to gauge the potential fallout (nuclear pun intended) in emerging markets.

The pitch works. The team leverages its PR capital to earn exposure across CNBC, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, etc. And when the dust clears, the world has mostly forgotten – and the client has missed a window to be strategically opportunistic with other trends more relevant to their goals.

I made that case study up (oh yeah, I can make up scintillating financial PR stories to set the world on fire) but my point is there. It’s our job to act as stewards of the strategy and the brand. We need to assess opportunities against the backdrop of a strategy; without that, we’re just making noise.

A few tips on avoiding Spontaneous Redirection:

1. Have a strategy. Seems obvious, but we all know how quickly campaigns take on a life of their own. Map it out by quarterly goals, treat it as a living roadmap, and stay flexible so you can shift within the boundaries you lay down.

2. Create a simple, internal, strategic Q&A. Some new ideas are great, and a perfect match. But don’t make guesses about their viability. Create a list of questions that will expose an idea’s weakness, like:

- Will this appeal to our target audiences?
- Will the best-case scenario get us closer to our goals?
- Will the worst-case scenario derail our entire plan?
- Are we equipped with the insight or materials we need to execute?
- What other opportunities must be sacrificed to bring the idea to life?

3. Don’t be afraid to say “no.” You can push back against a client idea, and a good client should certainly value your counsel. If you have the answers to your Q&A at hand, that helps the conversation quite a bit.

4. Don’t be afraid to say “yes,” either. If the idea balances out across the Q&A, do a (very) quick analysis of how to go live in a professional, prepared fashion. When it works, show the client how it supported the strategy and build similar initiatives into their program for the future. They love knowing you’re just as collaborative as you are smart.

See how I took all the fun out of spontaneity by making it a strategic exercise? You’re welcome.

I love building campaigns (and a business, really) around great ideas. They are magical, inspiring, and help everyone grow – but without planning they can go awry fast. I’ll lean on a proven symbol for a final illustration: that light bulb balancing over your head captures the delicate nature of the Suddenly Great Idea. It is bright, shiny, attractive, and likely to shatter into darkness if you move too erratically. Think strategically to keep the light bulb on and be sure to tread carefully to illuminate the path ahead.

Evan Zall is president of Ebben Zall Group. Follow Evan: @evanzall