How to provoke: Lessons in engagement from Richard Branson

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

I recently came across a retweet of one of the most unappetising images I've seen in a long time – a shirtless, smiling Richard Branson holding a fish. Has the master of PR gone too far this time? And what can we learn from the Virgin mogul?

The sight of Richard Branson holding a (presumably) dead fish whilst (allegedly) naked is something that will remain seared to my eyeballs for a long time. Not seen it? Look away now if you're of a nervous disposition:

The purpose of this haunting black and white photo was to raise awareness of World Oceans Day. And because I'm writing about it, it seems to have worked jolly well.

Engage at all costs

Love him or loathe him, Sir Richard Branson is a master of publicity. He knew exactly what he was doing with the World Oceans Day stunt and the reaction it would get – that he would be exposed to a mass of ridicule about his body.

Also, what does it say that the fish in question is actually a pike, which doesn't live in the sea at all? And is it wise to raise publicity for a day that aims to 'celebrate and honor the ocean' by shoving a dead fish under your arm?

With a slightly closer look, this appears to be a perfectly crafted attempt to provoke. With hundreds of retweets and favourites, it's done a pretty good job.

Can bad publicity be good?

If you're Richard Branson, it seems there's no such thing as bad publicity. But what about others in the public eye?

An article by Stanford University Business School on the subject makes interesting reading. The authors say that bad publicity, particularly for relatively unknown product or cause, can be a good thing.

Either companies are trying to figure out how to get the public to think their product is a good one, or they're just trying to get people to know about their product. In some markets, where there are lots of competing products, they're more preoccupied with the latter. In that case, any publicity, positive or negative, turns out to be valuable.

They quote the 2006 movie Borat as an example of this. The mockumentary poked endless fun at the nation of Kazakhstan. However, Hotels.com reported a 300% increase in requests for information about the country in the film's wake.

Whether those enquiries led to any real bookings or not is irrelevant – the level of 'engagement' with the idea of visiting Kazakhstan went through the roof.

So, the lesson here is simple. People are willing to engage with a new idea even when the publicity it generates is less than flattering.

Got something new to show your audience?

Don't be afraid of controversy and provocation.

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