In 2009, Ryan Holiday purchased a series of billboards scattered throughout Los Angeles to promote his client Tucker Max’s film “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell,” but this was no typical promotional campaign. Shortly after they were put up, Holiday defaced the very billboards he purchased with obscene, 2-foot-long stickers implying that Max should have something despicable done to his genitals.
After snagging a few photos of his pseudo-vandalism on his cellphone, Holiday emailed the pictures under a fictional name to two local blogs with the message, “Good to know Los Angeles hates Tucker Max, too.”
“You’re not lying, are you?” the blogger asked.
“Trust me,” Holiday replied, “I’m not lying.”
After the blog ran the story, the subsequent barrage of social media outrage and protest groups resulting from Holiday’s stunt attracted millions more eyeballs for the movie than any billboard could have done alone.
This is just one of several eccentric publicity stunts that Holiday features in his controversial book “Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” (TMIL). But it’s more than a playbook for swindling the media. Holiday acts as a whistleblower, pulling back the curtain on the modern media and exposing how Web 2.0, saturated with micro news outlets, has corrupted traditional journalism.
In TMIL, Holiday describes how he lied, cheated, and bribed the media to get press for his clients, and in the same breath provides a brutally honest but vital look into the labyrinth of online media that dramatically influences the fields of PR, advertising, and strategic communication.
So what can you learn from TMIL that isn’t covered by professors or gray-haired executives?
A common trend exists to think of public relations as some vague, corporate term that involves paying big bucks to guys in suits that write press releases. But, as you will quickly learn from Holiday, the paradigm has shifted.
In a culture where journalists and bloggers are slaves to money and pageviews, Holiday argues that “news” can be created based on tips from manipulators like himself. The stories that will generate the most clicks, which inevitably generate cash, are the ones that get published. Whether they’re true or not is irrelevant.
It’s a disturbing thought: you or your client loses millions of dollars because of a malicious rumor started by a tipster looking for a big scoop and a quick dollar. The web has enabled virtually anyone to pull the levers of blogs and news sites to twist what we read and watch. With the mass media no longer being the main conductor of news, we are forced to adapt to this chaotic environment that requires skill to navigate.
Crisis management is now a full-time job.
At surface level, TMIL challenges standard presumptions about how publicity and news are generated. But more importantly, it serves as a sharp reminder that the old rules for media relations have been thrown out the window: the media is a pliable, workable substance that can and is easily manipulated.
Although it’s not often that a Wall Street Journal bestseller needs any additional praise, TMIL is an exception. Holiday’s lessons have stood the test of time since the book’s 2011 release and are indispensable for anyone in the communications field. Whether you simply want to be informed for the sake of defense or actually implement Holiday’s tactics at your own risk is up to you.