Three Ways To Stir Up Controversy Without Getting Burned

Startup controversy public relations CC wolfgangfoto Three Ways To Stir Up Controversy Without Getting BurnedBudget carrier Ryanair has a reputation for grabbing headlines worldwide due to outlandish cost-cutting antics of CEO Michael O’Leary.

Ryanair caused quite a stir when O’Leary proposed to equip planes with only one toilet, and charge passengers to access the facilities.

Would they actually charge people to use the loo? While it’s permissible under the law, as O’Leary said, the move was yet another way for the company to demonstrate their commitment to low airfares. Every journalist who buys the stunt helps Ryanair reach far more travelers, more cheaply than if the company had bought advertising.

As a startup controversy is a great way to cut through the noise and grab people’s attention. Most people are unwilling to take risks, and to effectively court controversy you must be creative, and be prepared for the fallout.

Controversy sells

Creating controversy is not a foolproof method of public relations, just ask Peter Shih. Founders and startup marketers are often afraid to put their necks on the line, because they fear the damage they might do to their brand, or they worry about alienating partners, investors and potential hires. These are valid concerns. But if you’re smart and you have a clear goal, controversy can be a great way to separate yourself from the pack and to increase your speed of growth.

Below are three ways your startup can court controversy and use it to your advantage.

Stake out a controversial point of view

It’s not difficult to create a controversy. Simply by promoting views that are unusual or different you will have people’s attention. If everyone says go left, all you have to do is tell people why they should go right. Being different means being noticed.


Use your corporate blog to collect your thoughts, and challenge the conventional wisdom. Once you’ve collected a decent amount of material you can approach other popular blogs and outlets and ask to contribute a guest post with your controversial standpoint.

But there are limits. No one will take you seriously if you’re making far-fetched or outlandish claims for their own sake. Controversy means shining a light on little-know practices within your industry, or potential areas of concern that need to be addressed. From here it’s your job to point to a better way forward, and to provide the best possible alternative.

Challenge your biggest rival

Payments startup WePay pulled off a legendary feat of Silicon Valley guerilla marketing/trolling when they dropped a block of frozen money outside the 2010 PayPal Innovate Conference being held in San Francisco’s Moscone Center.  Inside the ice was more than $600 cash, and the words, “PAYPAL FREEZES YOUR ACCOUNTS. Unfreeze your money.” This shot across the bow was relatively inexpensive to pull off, yet it struck a nerve with vendors tired of waiting days for PayPal to release their funds. The stunt also put PayPal on notice that there were challengers working to unseat them from the throne of electronic payments.

paypalfreeze 1 via TechCrunch Three Ways To Stir Up Controversy Without Getting Burned

Image via TechCrunch

If WePay had chosen to target rival payments provider, one of a similar size, the stunt wouldn’t have gotten nearly the attention. But because WePay went after the biggest fish in the pond, they elevated themselves to legendary status. This is why I always recommend to startups that you choose your enemies wisely.

Use data

Public relations stunts and outlandish acts are great ways to get attention, but the best controversy has real substance. Using data is a great way to provoke discussion while educating and informing. Data visualization and infographics are two great ways to use your proprietary data, or publicly available data to be controversial and thought-provoking.

It’s often said that numbers don’t lie. The book ‘How To Lie With Statistics‘ provides a pretty strong counter-argument that number aren’t infallible, but the point remains that facts and figures can make a very strong case for your point of view. Journalists love data, and one can safely assume that your competitors are committing lies of omission with their marketing data.

We all want to put the best spin on our product or idea, which leave us open for a valid counter-argument. The important data your rivals leave out of their marketing claims is an opportunity for you to demonstrate thought leadership and to prove your value. Use numbers to your advantage.

At the end of the day remember that controversy should be fun, light-hearted and intelligent. While you should have strong feelings about your market, and what is in the best interest of your customers, no one needs to get hurt. The larger your rivals, the more common it is for people to take shots at them, and they should have a thick skin. Just remember that creating controversy is a tactic, and nothing should distract you from creating products that delight your users.

What are some other ways startups can stir up controversy and build a little buzz around their product? Sound off in the comments section below.


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