Can you take risks while playing it safe in PR?

Oprah Winfrey, perhaps the most famous woman on the planet, has not got where she is by playing it safe. She once said: "I believe that one of life's greatest risks is never daring to risk." Yet how many brands, when it comes to their publicity, dare to do anything different? 

If you want to be noticed, you have to do something noticeable. Graham Goodkind, founder of PR consultancy Frank PR, believes that the best ideas often have a slight element of risk associated with them, and so tries to encourage clients to be brave. Albeit with a safety belt on. He says: “We always try to think through and then go through with the client, a risk-reward analysis, and if we go with an idea that has an element of risk, we have all the potential scenarios planned in advance.” Goodkind understands that big brands are never going to be comfortable with the idea of being controversial just for the sake of it: “We’ve got to be expert enough to see that and advise what is a risk worth taking and what is not. We always strive to challenge clients with ideas, but that doesn’t mean that every idea has to be controversial or risky to do that. There are other ways!”

As their image is so precious, jeopardising this is never going to appeal to brand leaders. Like Goodkind, Caroline Allen, account director at PR agency Speed, believes that a risk is only worth taking if it is carefully calculated: "It's not that big brands are necessarily scared to do anything controversial with their PR, but they've got to understand why and how the campaign is relevant. If an idea is insightful, smart and ties back to their brand values the perceived risk is much less. On the other hand if it's totally random and as an agency even you can't really explain it, then you shouldn't be surprised that the end result is a big ‘no‘."

But how exciting can a campaign be, if so much time is spent trying to anticipate every possible outcome? Following this path means that the only way to be confident of likely results, is to copy what has gone before. Cindy Heidebluth, associate director at PR and marketing communications company Tannissan Mae, says that in their search for predictable results, too many PR firms simply replicate what has been successful. Heidebluth believes PR-by-numbers may have worked for agencies so far, but this can't continue, especially with the options that new technologies offer: “Now more than ever, PR strategies must be daring and comprehensive; it goes without saying that they must include social media. The challenges posed by both the online information overload and indirect feedback on a PR clients' products and services on online platforms ask for an honest, creative multi-way comms strategy.”

Just because it is inspiring to work in an innovative sector, it doesn’t follow that traditional sectors need to be dull. Tight restrictions can actually encourage creativity, because strict rules force PROs to invent new ways of approaching a subject, while having unlimited freedom can actually be overwhelming. So if your campaigns are boring, it is a poor excuse to blame the subject – as agencies confirm, a better excuse is to always blame the client ...

Case Study

Independent PR consultant Jeremy Walters, who contributes to Chelsea's online fanzine CFCnet.co.uk, says that leading sports brands are terrible cowards when it comes to PR:

“I'm astounded at how many sports brands ignore our website CFCnet, which is the biggest unofficial Chelsea fans website. The site has upwards of 120,000 unique Chelsea fans visiting each month and is run by a team of fans on a voluntary basis. Given that the people running the site all work in media and marketing, we understand the language of brands and what they're looking for.

“Yet, despite going for 12 years, we've been ignored by every major brand, including Chelsea's sponsors, Samsung, which spent £55 million sponsoring Chelsea yet wanted a document from us proving that giving away mobile handsets would be a good return on investment. Our response? If you can't see the potential ROI then you shouldn't be in marketing.

“Just this year, we heard Greene King Brewery were doing a PR blog promotion of their beers. We asked them if they wanted to run something with us, yet months later we've heard not a peep – despite them saying that 'we accept your challenge'.

“Sports PR is, from our eyes, an absolute joke. The only brands that have embraced fans are those that aren't scared, including Electronic Arts, Irn Bru, and SEGA. “