5 Ways to Co-Opt a PR Story

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People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories and magic. – Seth Godin

As a PR pro, you are responsible for the distribution of a message to your publics. This has historically never been an easy task, and also has never been more difficult than it is today. Here are some examples of how “loud” the noise around your signal has become:

Content ecosystems are increasingly noisy and customer interest is hard to come by. But you knew this already.

One tactic that marketers and PR practitioners use to generate attention for their messaging is to integrate messages into another brand or event story. For all intents and purposes, we’ll call this the PR “co-opting” of another story. And as I’ll explain later, it is a high risk strategy with the potential for big rewards.

In this post I want to discuss five ways that your can co-opt a PR story. We’ll define them and look at examples of good implementation and bad implementation of each.

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Post outline:

  1. Contextual Social Content
  2. Non-contextual Social Content
  3. Blog content
  4. Memes
  5. Co-promotion

1. Contextual Social

We’ll define “contextual social” as SoMe posts that can be easily found with a certain search term. Contextual social is easily accessed by anyone based upon topic and the hashtag is the usual convention for this contextualization (on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, Facebook and others).

For example, if #hellastorm were trending on Twitter (it was a month or so ago) and an industrious bike shop wanted to promote rain gear for bicycling, they might send out a tweet like this:





Good implementation: Charmin-brand toilet paper has a pretty kitschy Twitter account where they do some fun things around toilet activities. For example, Kobe Bryant recently ranted about the LA Lakers (his team) being as “soft as Charmin.” Charmin responded in kind. In a separate tweet, Charmin co-opts the “Elf on the Shelf” (who was hugely popular in our house over the holidays) and sent out this photo:


This example is a bit different as it uses the “Elf on the Shelf” Twitter handle as the context for its brand message, but the results are similar. They are able to highlight their product in a fun way, in a different context than it would normally be seen.

A quick caution that contextualized social can be used to obfuscate the messaging of your own hashtags:

2. Non-contextual social

In contrast to contextual social, non-contextual social is social among friends. You co-opt a message, but it’s not as easily accessible with a hashtag or other convention. An example of this might be if a brand were to send out a tweet related to a recent event, television episode or song, but without any contextual convention.

Good implementation: When the global partnership for education wanted to point out the gender gap for girls in secondary school, they used the term “lean in” to accentuate their point. It’s not discoverable by a hashtag, but it refers to Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In about gender equality in the workplace. It co-opts a very specific term to draw attention to its message of gender inequality.

There’s also the often-heralded Oreo tweet from the 2013 Super Bowl, in response to a power outage during the game:


3. Blog content

One of the most overused content co-opts is the “topical” blog post. Most of it is clickbait: “10 things you can learn about car sales from Steve Jobs,” “How often Katy Perry should wash the windows of her mansion,” “What Kim Kardashian can teach you about negotiation.”

It’s very easy for co-opted content to go off the rails, but when done thoughtfully, it can accentuate your messages in a very appealing way.

Good implementation: PRSA ran a fantastic article about Albuquerque, New Mexico’s tourism content around the television show “Breaking Bad.” Talk about high risk / high reward: Breaking Bad is a show about a teacher who starts making methamphetamine with a student. It also has a couple of things going for it: it is a critically acclaimed program and (not so coincidentally) takes place in Albuquerque.

What the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau (ACVB) did was to create content both digital and printed, and partnered with local businesses to create experiences that tie different aspects of the city to people to people’s affinity for the show. And their effort wasn’t only successful, it also earned them the PRSA’s 2014 Bronze Anvil Award.

Another really remarkable example of co-opting topical content is Sally Hogshead. Every once in awhile, she will use a convention (in this example Christmas) and use it to make points about modern marketing:

4. Memes

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Good implementation: In the 2014 World Cup, Uruguay striker Luis Suarez bit an Italian player and a flood of memes were created to commemorate the event. The most popular was created by Snickers:


5. Co-promotion

Finally, we come to co-promotion. This would be an instance where two parties agree to co-opt messages. This is probably more of a marketing tactic than a PR tactic, but an opportunistic brand may find mutually-beneficial synergy with a like-minded company.

Good implementation: It’s hard for me to concede something like this as “good,” but Taco Bell and Doritos are an example of great co-promoters. To launch their newest taco, they created 65 odd, homemade YouTube videos and unleashed them on YouTube and other social outlets. The results?

This collaboration has been so successful that Pizza Hut released a Doritos Pizza and Taco Bell is beta testing Fritos tacos. Bon appetit!


Co-opting tactics can get attention to your brand message. Hopefully, I’ve made a case that these tactics must be employed thoughtfully, and with strong consideration for how these messages are received. You can see that there are big rewards for brands that can accomplish this, and high-profile failures for those who can’t.

I’ll close with the words of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos discussing branding considerations:

A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.

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About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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