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Can a Press Release Be Controversial? Publicity Dilemma 7

by Marcia Yudkin

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Published on this site: April 17th, 2009 - See more articles from this month

Recently a client asked me whether she might be able to get media coverage for a procedure she'd invented and tested that circumvented established practices in her industry. "Companies are spending money on steps that they no longer have to take, because they aren't aware there's an alternative," she told me. "But consultants who think they have a lock on the market are going to cry foul and accuse me of all kinds of things when I go public with what I'm doing."

Go for it, I told her. Controversy gets attention.

From the standpoint of publicity, the best kind of controversy is a position or practice that goes against a habit or belief shared by the public, a profession or a niche population, yet has a solid rationale in its favor. For example, an organization like Victim Families Against the Death Penalty comes across as controversial and publicity worthy because most people believe those who lost family members to criminal violence should be in favor of executing those responsible. Yet they are able to explain why putting murderers to death merely perpetuates the cycle of violence.

Why does controversy get attention? First, it contains the power of surprise. The media want to stir up conversation and get people talking. This has always been true, but takes on added significance where radio shows hope to get people calling in, magazines try to sell more issues and subscriptions, and newspapers want to inspire readers to comment on their blogs. If something goes against what most people believe, many will be expressing disbelief or disagreement, despite what they read or heard in the media story.

Second, journalists are trained to find two sides to every story, even going to great lengths to create a pro and a con position where they are not obvious. For instance, a hardware store owner in Massachusetts once got publicity because he would feed the parking meters up and down Main Street to encourage shoppers to keep coming downtown. While this seemed like an altruistic act, the newspaper that reported it injected controversy into the story by finding someone who criticized the store owner for depriving the city of revenue from parking tickets.

When you put out a controversial press release, this spares reporters the effort of creating another side to the story. The accepted position is super-easy for them to document and the counterpoint comes from you.

Controversy for the sake of controversy works less well because it lacks the twist that explains why, contrary to first impressions, the crazy idea makes sense. So make sure you have documentation, experience, evidence or some solid reasoning on your side along with your surprising statement.

Three wrinkles in a controversial publicity angle can doom it, however. First, beware of trying to get publicity for an accusation that might be considered libelous - that is, that damages the reputation of a person or an organization. Mainstream media often set a high standard of proof for such charges, and press release distribution services usually refuse to transmit publicity materials that they consider libelous. For instance, when a client of mine wrote a press release headline predicting the death of a popular social media network, the distribution service I submitted the release to said that was defamatory and refused to circulate it.

Second, if it looks like your controversial claim is a result of a grudge, the media usually take a pass on reporting it. An obvious example would be where you got fired and then you tried to rally the community to shut down the company that fired you, unless you could credibly claim you were fired for blowing the whistle on the company's misbehavior or polluting activities.

And last, watch out for the possibility that publicity seeking exposes you to prosecution for illegal activities. Although this sounds stupid and self-sabotaging beyond belief, we often hear in the news about someone celebrating a huge lottery win one day and then being arrested for delinquent child support the next, or winning a reality show or pageant and then being exposed for bigamy or tax evasion. In such instances, what gets doomed during your publicity seeking is not the publicity but you!

Marcia Yudkin: Is the author of 6 Steps to Free Publicity, Persuading on Paper, Web Site Marketing Makeover and eight other books. She has engineered coverage for herself or her company in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Success, Women in Business and dozens of newspapers around the world. Get free access to a one-hour audio recording in which she answers the most common questions about getting media coverage at

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