Choose Controversy that Creates Positive News

How to Cause Reporters to Chase Your Story

by Rusty Cawley

Controversy is the secret ingredient that can turn your story from one that the media ignore to one that reporters clamor to own.

But controversy must be chosen wisely and carefully. Not just any controversy will do. You must pick a controversy that will serve you well.

To ignite a controversy, you must first point out a threat to the public. Second, you must identify the villain responsible for that threat. Third, you must position your company as the hero that opposes the threat and the villain.

All of this must be done subtly. The public must never see your company pulling the strings. If you appear to be setting up a straw man just to knock it down, you will lose credibility rather than gain it.

Let's begin with the task of finding, isolating and identifying a risk to the public. The place to start is with your product or service. What problem does it solve? Whom does it serve?

All business is a matter of solving a problem for someone. A plumber solves the problems of leaking faucets and back-up sewers. A tax attorney solves the problems of IRS audits and unsheltered income. A convenience store solves the problem of needing the quick purchase of a quart of milk.

Every company solves at least one problem. Spend some time analyzing the problems your company solves every day. Make a list. Go over the list with your employees or co-workers. Uncover every problem or potential problem that your company can handle.

Beside each listed problem, list the categories of customers or clients that would use your service to solve these problems. Include not only current categories, but also categories you believe you should be reaching, but aren't.

Don't worry about going overboard. Later on, you can always scratch out any categories that don't make sense.

For now, just brainstorm.

The next step is to weigh each of these identified problems as a true threat to the public. We do this by asking ourselves three questions about each problem:

  1. Is this a problem that will truly create an intense concern among our consumers?
  2. Is the probability high - or, at least, moderate - that the average consumer will face this problem at some time?
  3. Is your company clearly an expert in studying, confronting or solving this problem?

If the answer is yes to all three questions, you have a solid candidate for a threat that you can tackle in the news media.

To work as a news story, the threat must be something that will worry the average reader or viewer. To work as a news source, you or your company must present itself as an expert about the problem.

Here's a very important point to remember about the "expert" factor: It's not necessary for you to have an immediate solution to the problem. In fact, it's usually better that the threat not have an immediate solution.

Here's an example from recent history: the "energy crisis" from the summer of 2001. For weeks, the national news was dominated by soaring prices at the gas pump and by rolling electrical blackouts along the West Coast.

Judging from the intensity of the coverage, one might have thought civilization was about to end. Behind the scenes, the federal government took action to increase the supplies of both gasoline and electricity.

Prices fell. Blackouts ended.

Suddenly, the story was no longer a story.

Is the problem gone? Of course not. The United States remains far too dependent upon foreign oil. But the immediate threat was solved, and the news value was destroyed.

The threat remains news only as long as it remains a threat. A solution resolves the on-going news story, and thus kills its news value.

However, as an expert, it is good for you to propose a solution that is:

  1. Innovative. You identify a problem, then propose a solution that other experts are missing.
  2. In the works. You identify a problem, then propose a solution that is plausible, but that will require commitment from someone important - the public, the government, the private sector, etc. - to develop and produce. If you can demonstrate that your company is taking the lead in discovering this solution, that's even better.

The PR Rainmaker knows: When you choose a controversy, make sure it's one with a long shelf life.

Copyright 2003 by W.O. Cawley Jr.

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About the Author

Rusty Cawley is a 20-year veteran journalist who now coaches executives, entrepreneurs and professionals on using the news media to attract customers and to advance ideas. For your free copy of the hot new e-book "PR Rainmaker," please visit right now.

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