Monday, 3 March 2008

Esrever ni gnilletyrots

I recently met up with an old friend who I haven’t seen for a while. He’d been in that deep hibernation phase of early parenthood: the patch when any trip away from the house with his son feels as complex as leaving the Apollo lunar lander to have a stroll around the moon.

Time has moved on, his son is now walking, the contents of shelves have been moved higher, and the kid is no longer responding positively to perfectly reasonable requests.

I asked him whether he had yet used his “reverse psychology” day. He looked at me puzzled and I explained what most battle scarred parents know: that there is a one-day window when you can use reverse instructions to get your child to do something and give yourself a break from the drudgery of asking, asking, asking to no effect.

“DON’T eat that broccoli,” you insist. “Do NOT turn off the telly,” “I’m sorry but there’s NO WAY you are having a bath tonight.”

The response from the kid is predictably rebellious, thereby achieving the parent’s Machiavellian ends. Sadly, the tactic works for no more than 24 hours, as the kid wises up, generally at the point that he/she takes a mouthful of swede.

There are many different contexts in which the same principle of counter-intuition can work in a more enduring fashion, though the difference is that the deliverer and the recipient are co-conspirators. The world of PR and media relations, for example. What makes news, any journalist will tell us, is not “dog bites man”, it’s “man bites dog”.

When I was in-house as director of media relations for a large retailer, I developed a bit of a reputation for being the “grim reaper” in my sector, killing off a range of technologies, from the VCR, through the 35mm camera to the floppy disk and most recently the analogue television.

Many of my colleagues used to ask me why I was bothering to do something that was so patently anti-what the business was trying to do, ie, sell more kit.

The answer, of course, is that a press release headed “Company A sells flat screen tellies” is unlikely to make the Six O’Clock news or the front page or the leader column of the Guardian, the Times or the Sun.

On the other hand, an announcement that creates the conditions for nostalgic reflection (“RIP, XYZ”) has a much better chance of generating many pages of newsprint and hours of broadcast during which there are plentiful opportunities to wax lyrical about what you ARE selling.

Much of the art of successful PR, in my opinion, is about running in the opposite direction from the one that the audience expects. After all, whichever way you run, as long as you’re running in a straight line, you’ll end up in the same place. It’s just that one route is more interesting than the other.

Incidentally, I got a call from my friend a couple of days after I’d seen him. He said that he’d had a great Sunday with the reverse psychology trick up until lunchtime when his son, clearly thirsty, had unknowingly poured himself a neat glass of undiluted orange cordial. Spotting what he’d done, milliseconds before the glass arrived at his lips, my friend shouted across the kitchen, “Don’t drink that.”

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