Use a euphemism whenever possible. Take a neutral position on anything controversial. When in doubt, say “no comment.”
Most public relations professionals are well-trained in defensive PR tactics that keep our organizations on the safe side of the public. Just as all doctors learn that the cardinal rule of medicine is to “first, do no harm,” PR practitioners typically believe that it is better to say nothing at all than to risk offending someone.
With these principles in mind, it may seem like an odd choice for PRSA Pittsburgh to invite Jenn Bane, the community manager from the popular game Cards Against Humanity, to speak at our inaugural PR Summit. Branded as the “Game for Horrible People,” the company was founded entirely on the idea that it can be fun to say things that are inappropriate, controversial, absurd and downright shocking.*
The game goes against every PR principle in the book. So what can Cards Against Humanity teach us about public relations?
Above all, the success of the game is based on trust and authenticity. As my colleague Nick Paradise noted in his recent blog post for ethics month, the world is currently experiencing a crisis of trust. Many people have lost trust in the media. They’ve lost trust in corporations. And they’ve lost trust in our institutions. In the age of information, there’s a deep fear that the public isn’t being told the entire story.
As people crave more authenticity, PR messages that paint a rosy, picture-perfect view can fall flat, leaving people wondering if there’s something to hide behind the scenes. Cards Against Humanity takes the opposite approach. They lay out the worst and darkest sentiments from the beginning, with nothing left to hide. But behind the scenes, they give vast amounts of money to charity.
The game’s audience is delighted by this subversive approach that makes light of words but delivers above and beyond what it promises. As a result, the audience has become incredibly loyal, trusting the company to make them laugh no matter the cost. As a result, Cards Against Humanity has been able to pull off incredible stunts. They charged an extra $5 for their game for a Black Friday Sale, and made tens of thousands of extra dollars. They raised more than $100,000 to dig a giant, pointless hole. They even sold more than 30,000 boxes of actual bullsh*t. Each time, they were clear and direct about what they were doing and why. And their audience appreciated it so much they paid for it.
The brand is, as promised, incredibly controversial. But whether you love the game or absolutely hate it, our point in bringing them to the PR Summit is to challenge how you think about risk in PR. Like every other industry, the public relations field is now under constant threat of disruption. To innovate and adapt to change, we have to be willing to consider that our tried-and-true techniques might no longer be effective, and that previously unheard-of tactics may work in a new context.
PRSA Pittsburgh is taking this theory to heart with the launch of the PR Summit this year. The Summit replaces our annual Professional Development Day, which has typically been geared toward helping younger professionals network with others in the PR community. While the PR Summit will still accomplish this, we wanted to broaden our approach and provide more valuable insight that will spark big ideas for experienced practitioners, young professionals and students alike.
In addition to featuring Cards Against Humanity, we’ll also hear from Steve Radick, VP & Director of Public Relations at BRUNNER, on how creating a bold and controversial Super Bowl ad put a southwestern Pennsylvania company on the map and earned the spot as AdWeek’s #1 Super Bowl ad. Carnegie Mellon professor Ari Lightman will also speak on how artificial intelligence is disrupting social media. And for practical tips on getting media attention, we’ll hold a panel discussion with several journalists who will talk about what it takes to grab their attention.
No matter what industry you work in or the stage of your career, you will leave the PR Summit energized to try something new. You might walk away ready to revolutionize your PR strategy from top to bottom. Or you might gain the courage to execute a bold new PR tactic that you’d been afraid might fail. You might even leave the event outraged and ready to prove that your existing PR strategy is the best in the business. But you won’t leave without feeling a renewed passion for your career.
Join us for the PR Summit on October 19 from 6-9 p.m. at the Carnegie Science Center. Register here.
*If you aren’t familiar with the game, it’s played by one player reading aloud a black card that asks players to fill in the blank. Each player then submits a response from their hand of white cards. The reader shuffles all the response cards, then reads them aloud, choosing the one that he or she likes best as the winner.