Want Positive PR? Try Breaking The Rules

Originally published on Inc.com on Mar 11, 2015 By Jayson Demers
Want Positive PR Try Breaking The RulesPhoto: Getty Image
Every business wants positive PR, but how likely are you to get noticed if you follow the rules like everyone else? Instead, try breaking the rules — you just might get noticed more easily.
It may seem like there’s an infinite scope of online areas for PR development. You could gradually build your rankings on search engines with quality content publication, engage and nurture an audience directly on social media, submit offsite pieces like guest blogs or press releases, or some combination of these and other strategies.
All of these channels and strategies share one thing in common; they are all governed by a system of rules. While these rules aren’t necessarily rigid (that is, you can still engage in the strategy without following them), they do represent best practices, and failing to follow them could compromise the results of your campaign. Most business owners who have achieved a successful online brand presence have done so by adhering to these rules consistently across all mediums, remaining patient and focused on their end goals.
However, there are a number of cases where the opposite is true. Companies have broken the rules egregiously–sometimes intentionally–and have gotten more visibility than they ever would have had they followed the outlined rules. As such, breaking the rules can be a risky strategy–but the payoff can be enormous for your online visibility and relationship with your target audience.
The Content Problem
The core reason why these rule-breaking practices can generate substantial attention lies with the content problem that currently faces marketers. We all know that content marketing is one of the best online strategies available–it’s free, and helps with your SEO, brand reputation, and audience engagement all in one fell swoop. But this widespread practicality and popularity have led to an unfortunate side effect: an overabundance of content.
Content is still viable; people still read and access content in high volumes, and if you have what people are looking for, you’re going to get great results. However, the sheer volume of content available has weakened the uniqueness of each individual piece. Essentially, if you follow all the rules of creating great content, you run the risk of succumbing to the collective white noise as thousands of other businesses follow those same rules just as precisely. While in theory, you’ll be generating great, high-quality content that people would want to read, it becomes too much like the others to get noticed.
This curve can be glimpsed in the recent rise and decline of “listicle” articles, which features numeric lists such as “The Top 7 Strategies” or “The 5 Most Important Reasons.” As this style of headline rose in popularity, the inclusion of a number became something of a rule–at least an occasional rule–for marketers. As such, the prevalence of these articles skyrocketed and news feeds were filled with them. But over the course of a year or so, the appeal seemed to wane, likely because audiences were tired of seeing them. Listicles still generate a decent share of attention, but they’re no longer the powerhouses they once were.
Why Breaking the Mold Attracts Attention
There are many reasons why someone would pay attention to a given article or feature, but none so important as this one: the feature stands out from the rest. How and why it stands out are important motivators that lead to the development of rules–for example, an article with a picture stands out from others that do not, so the rule has now become to always include a picture with your articles.
The problem, as evidenced by the greater “content problem,” is that once a rule becomes popular enough, nobody following it exactly can stand out. They’re simply doing what everyone else is doing. As a result, the best strategy to stand out is to break or alter those rules, though doing so can have consequences.
Case Study: Botto Italian Pizza
Botto Italian Pizza is a local restaurant whose owners aggressively protested against the policies and dominance of Yelp in the context of local businesses. After Google’s Pigeon algorithm update in 2014, the number and quality of Yelp reviews for a given business began having a substantial impact on that business’s rankings in searches. Combined with Yelp’s dominance in the local directory landscape, most local businesses felt obliged to encourage positive reviews however they could.
Instead, Botto’s owners decided to take an opposite approach in protest of the system. They started offering a discount to any customer who left a negative review for their business on Yelp. Within a few weeks, their approach exploded in popularity, and they were getting negative reviews from people all over the country. They were the subject of countless news articles and social media mentions, and their business increased significantly. In effect, they did the exact opposite of what they were “supposed” to do to improve visibility in their business, and they saw massively positive results.
Botto’s strategy was successful because it was new, it was defiant, and it was interesting for customers, marketers, and average social media users. They broke the rules in a big way, and people celebrated it. Fortunately, you don’t have to take that big of a gamble–you can break the rules in smaller ways for increased attention and exposure.
Be careful, though; being defiant of the system can have negative consequences just as easily.
Formatting Rules
Formatting rules tend to dictate the structure of your content. For example, blog posts tend to be at least 400 words with catchy titles and subheadings, at least one associated image, and links to other pieces in the body. This format has been successful in the past for thousands of companies, but changing up this format could make you stand out from the others.
Medium Rules
Medium rules tend to dictate what type of medium you’ll need to use for what occasion. For example, if your company hits a major landmark, you’ll likely submit a written press release. If you attend an event, you’ll likely use images to document your presence. These rules aren’t set in stone, however, and experimenting with different mediums could be a key opportunity to win a wider audience.
Engagement Rules
There are also rules for engagement with your fans and followers, dictating the means of responding to inquiries on social media and other platforms. Strictly adhering to these rules is always a safe play, but they can make you seem robotic or at the very least unmemorable. Try stepping out of your comfort zone to make a real impact.
Striking the Balance–and a Note on Brand Consistency
As I’ve mentioned, breaking the rules isn’t a surefire road to success. It’s simply a means of getting your content to stand out. Oftentimes, breaking the rules will have consequences–in the Botto example, they generated tons of new attention, but they also sacrificed their rating on Yelp. This was a minor price to pay for a great reward, but not all rule-breaking opportunities carry the same risk-reward balance. You’ll have to examine each situation independently and hedge your bets to avoid a catastrophe.
It’s also wise to evaluate the consequences of rule-breaking against the characteristics of your brand. For example, if your brand is conservative and professional, you wouldn’t want to break the rules if it illustrates your brand as edgy and daring.
The best path forward is to carefully balance the art of following the rules with the opportunities that come with breaking them. Like with investing in stocks, you’ll need to diversify your strategy and wait for key opportunities to strike.