Free food vs. Tony Kornheiser: a study in virality

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 Often, people ask us what it takes to make something “go viral”. Some social media strategists will tell you that online virality, where thousands or millions of people are discussing and linking to a blog post or video at once, is too high a goal for PR and marketing professionals to attain. When the volume of conversations around a topic or event spikes into the stratosphere online, that’s an organic phenomenon that cannot be engineered, they say. 

Nonetheless, achieving mass exposure for a brand or product remains the goal of many professional communicators. The ability to position a campaign to spread by word of mouth is an important skill, and yet for most of us it seems elusive. Perhaps thinking about the role of conflict in storytelling is a good place to start.   

That conflict is compelling often is seen as a challenge for PR pros. Sometimes we feel that telling positive stories about our brands is made more difficult because some people are more interested in bad news than good news. For example, ESPN commentator Tony Kornheiser’s recent comments about colleague Hannah Storm’s attire is a more popular topic on Google Trends than free food. 

Both IHOP and Jack in the Box are offering free meals today as a promotional technique, and people are searching for and tweeting information about these promotions in large numbers today. But not as large as the numbers of people who are searching for Tony Kornheiser. 



Free food, beneficial and appealing though it is, has no element of conflict. People get excited about it, but not as excited as we get about controversy. 

Many PR and marketing pros use conflict to their advantage. PR strategist Geri Denterlein helped turn a massive IT meltdown at a Boston-area hospital into a story about the perserverance and dedication of the hospital staff. 

Writing in Inc. magazine a couple of years ago, she said: “Businesses that are willing to acknowledge adversity can reap enormous PR rewards.” 

Something to keep in mind as we seek that elusive “viral” quality.

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