What F. Scott Fitzgerald Can Teach You

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, was smart enough to understand and articulate one of the most powerful public relations (PR) techniques ever developed. The technique is “controversy” – getting attention for yourself, your business, or your product or service by focusing on an emotional, important, or timely issue … and taking sides.

It works best if your opinion is contentious – that is, if you disagree with the most widely held view. As Fitzgerald put it: “The cleverly expressed opposite of any generally accepted idea is worth a fortune to somebody.”

Marketing expert Marcia Yudkin gives us a great example of this principle in action. She writes about Bob Baker, who – with three colleagues in the music business – collaborated on a press release titled “What’s Wrong With American Idol?”

“Their press release criticized the popular U.S. talent show for misleading aspiring musicians and the public about what it takes to succeed in music,” says Yudkin. “Baker’s reward for stirring up controversy: five radio interviews that highlighted his status as an expert on careers in music.” So, how can you use this principle in your PR to get media attention? Yudkin suggests you can do it by taking issue with a survey result … disagreeing with a common belief … counteracting a stereotype … championing an underdog … exposing flaws in something assumed to be beneficial … or describing the underside of something popular.

Example: When desktop publishing software began selling in large volume, thousands of businesspeople gained the ability to design their own documents. During that time, a graphic design consultant self-published a little book titled The Awful Truth about Desktop Publishing. His premise was that amateurs who use desktop publishing software without proper training in design fundamentals risk producing sloppy, amateurish documents. And the book got him significant publicity, as well as a number of paid speaking engagements.

Another variation of this technique is to make a prediction that others disagree with.

Financial guru Doug Casey did this in his 1979 best-selling book Crisis Investing. The book, which took the position that the country was on the brink of financial disaster, was on The New York Times best-seller list for 29 consecutive weeks – taking Doug’s career as a financial editor and advisor to a whole new level.

I’ve used this technique myself, though on a more modest scale – and in my case, it was completely by accident …

In marketing, there are a lot of consultants who make a living selling unsuspecting clients on the hot new technology of the month – even if the technology is unproven and has not generated significant ROIs for any of the consultant’s clients. The consultant, of course, rakes in nice fees by speaking and advising clients on how to jump on this new bandwagon before others get wind of it.

Today, that new marketing technology is probably podcasting. But a year or so ago, it was blogging.

I wrote an article for DM News (the weekly trade newspaper of the direct-marketing industry) saying that blogs were an unproven marketing medium and nothing to get excited about.

Not knowing how evangelistic many bloggers are about their medium, I was completely surprised when my article generated a massive debate in the “blogosphere” (the nickname for the universe of blogs), with most people saying I didn’t “get” blogging.

Tad Clark, who was Editor-in-Chief of DM News at the time, said my article on blogging generated the most reader response of any article they published that year.

What I discovered (or, more accurately, re-discovered, since I had known it but forgotten it), was the corollary to Fitzgerald’s law about controversy being profitable – and I am sure you’ve heard it many times: “Even bad publicity is good publicity.”

And it’s true.

If you come out on one side of an issue, half the market will revile you. But the other half will think you wise beyond your years, and seek you out so they can do business with a person of your obvious savvy.

Should you worry about half the market rejecting you because of your strong controversial opinions? Well, if half think you’re all wet … and half think you walk on water … that’s a 50 percent market share. I’ll take that any day of the week.

If you disagree with my opinion, why not write an article for ETR to the contrary?

It just might make you semi-famous and a little richer.

“It can’t hurt, publicity is publicity, controversy and all
that, it’s all good.”
– Keith David

[Ed. Note: Bob Bly is the editor of ETR’s Direct Marketing University: The Masters Edition, a program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business. Sign up for his e-zine, The Direct Response Letter.]