What Breaking Bad’s Walter White Teaches Us About PR
Written by: Scott Baradell
If you were a Breaking Bad fanatic like me, I’m sure you remember the moment when Walter White, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned criminal mastermind, reacts to his fearful wife’s concerns by saying:
“No, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger … I am the danger.”
When I heard that, I instantly made a parallel to my world — running a PR agency. You see, as the traditional news media has declined over the past decade, with thousands of newspaper and magazine staffers losing their jobs, an assumption among many observers has been that the PR profession would struggle as well. The naysayers doomed PR to the same fate Walter White’s doctor doomed him.
But guess what: PR is not in danger. PR is the danger when it comes to competing in the world of content creation and inbound marketing.
Applying Core Skills in New Ways
Look at poor Walter White. He was a high school chemistry teacher making $43,000 a year. He had a teenage son with cerebral palsy, a needy wife who had unexpectedly gotten pregnant, and a doctor who had just lowered the boom with a devastating diagnosis: Walter had terminal lung cancer.
To make matters worse, Walter had no savings set aside to take care of his family after he was gone.
Some people might have just rolled up into a ball and given up; that’s certainly what everyone expected him to do.
But Walter was resourceful. He thought about what he was good at — really good at: chemistry. And he figured out a way to apply that core still to his new circumstances.
He became a meth dealer. And he distinguished himself from the other dealers by using his superior knowledge of chemistry to make a better product. He could make meth at 99.1 percent purity when his competitors topped out at 60 to 70 percent. That made his meth worth far more than everyone else’s.
And he became a very wealthy man — at least until his evil deeds caught up with him.
PR Starts with Story Ideas
So, how does this relate to public relations? Just as Walter White’s core skill was chemistry, PR’s core skill is the creation of story ideas.
For more than a century, PR’s driving force has been developing story ideas and getting those ideas published. PR’s gift is finding organic ways to appeal to an audience without having to buy advertising. PR earns media exposure by sharing something that is relevant, something the audience cares about — which also happens to align with a company or client agenda.
The transition from a world of media gatekeepers (those newspaper reporters, for example, who have lost their jobs over the past decade) to a world of direct communication through blogs and social media has changed the landscape for PR. But at the same time, it has made PR’s unique gift more important than ever.
When it comes to driving inbound marketing success, many of the most effective practices are just reinventions (or renaming) of tried-and-true PR techniques.
- PR people have always pitched stories based on topical angles, such as seasonality, trends or breaking news. The same idea extends to social media (e.g., the famous Oreo tweets) in a practice now known as “newsjacking.” What’s old is new — the only difference is, now you have to react more quickly than ever.
- PR people have always been great at building relationships with media to pitch ideas — we call it “media outreach.” Today the same idea extends to finding online influencers based on keywords and topics that they use, attracting meaningful inbound links from high-authority sites, and more. Just call it “site outreach” — the principles, and many of the practices, are the same.
- PR people pioneered “thought leadership” marketing; traditionally, the goal was to get your company’s subject-matter experts in the Rolodex of top journalists. Now the goal is to get your SMEs’ blogs read and social media accounts followed as well. Thought leadership even extends to the world of SEO with the emergence of Google Authorship as a factor in search rankings.
Story ideas are what drive the inbound marketing engine. Which means PR has the opportunity to reinvent itself like Walter White did.
Just without the deadly consequences.