PR plays an important role in getting your consumers talking about your brand. Acting as a catalyst for promotion, brands that craft a powerful PR strategy can expect new engagement highs and a top spot within their industry.

The question is, how do you create a PR campaign that drives conversation? With so many players to compete with, 7 in 10 marketing teams struggle to create effective content that encourages engagement.

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In 2024, it’s important to prioritise an out-of-the-box PR strategy. The key to generating some noise surrounding your brand is to find a unique gap within the market. This helps start a new conversation with your consumers.

Whether you disrupt traditional stereotypes or pursue a new angle on a hot industry topic, taking on a controversial narrative within your PR campaign could make it more sharable and increase your chances of going viral.

With this in mind, let’s have a closer look at the basics of controversial PR before we tech you how to create your own noise-worthy campaign of your own.

What is Controversial PR?

Controversial PR, otherwise known as controversial marketing, is a campaign or advertisement that intentionally supports a controversial narrative. A controversial PR campaign aims to attract attention and create a buzz amongst a brand’s demographic. All of this in the spirit of raising engagement and awareness for the company.   

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“Controversial marketing is one of the most cost-effective marketing strategies because one courageous campaign can also generate high levels of awareness and drive conversions — especially if your topic or content breaks through the white noise of the internet and goes viral,” says Serenity Thompson, Managing Director for A23 Advisors.

“This may come with some risk, but marketing isn’t about being risk-averse; it’s about mitigating risk and taking smart risks.” 

While controversial PR comes with its risks, when crafted well, it can help spark conversations among potential leads. This can help a brand stand out from its competitors.

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The Power of Provocation

As a popular PR strategy, controversial PR has been used by a number of big brands such as CALM. Their 2018 Campaign Against Living Miserably campaign saw 84 male mannequins stand on the ledge of London’s Southbank buildings to boost awareness of male suicide.

CALM controversial PR campaign against suicide among men
Image Source: PR Week

Each mannequin represented how many men took their lives via suicide every week. It quickly became a controversial talking point on social media.

“Eighty-four men a week was so powerful for us. It’s one of those numbers which is utterly shocking, but totally understandable to the human brain”. “It’s the ‘Holy shit!’ number, and the statues were the most provocative, incendiary, conversation-worthy way we could get that number out into the culture and get people talking about it., said campaign planning director Will Grundy.

In response, CALM reported that a staggering 34% more men reached out for help after witnessing the PR stunt. 400K signed the brand’s petition for new suicide prevention measures within the UK health service. 

However, while this controversial campaign was a success, it is important to weigh up all possibilities of your campaign’s message before you send it live within your demographic. 

Should Your Brand Run A Controversial Campaign?

Before running your own controversial PR campaign, it’s important to consider whether this strategy is right for your brand and its consumers.

While controversy creates conversation, this engagement should ultimately still be positive for your brand. Before you start crafting your campaign, let’s delve into the dos and don’ts of using controversy as a PR tactic.

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You Should Run Your Controversial Campaign If: 

  • The Campaign Reinforces Your Brand Values: If your controversial campaign supports your company’s founding values, it should resonate well with your target consumers. While some may disagree with your messages, it’s important to stay true to your own beliefs and start a conversation surrounding them with a like-minded demographic. 
  • The Campaign is Unbiased: Before releasing a controversial PR campaign, ensure that it is well-researched and does not simply choose a side of an argument. This could divide your demographic rather than unite them, therefore alienating some of your audience and cutting your brand following in half. 
  • The Campaign Will Make A Difference: If you risk a controversial campaign, do it for the right reasons. In doing this, you may make a difference and successfully change perceptions for the better. If your campaign is successful, your brand will be known as the leader that sparked the change within your industry, rendering it an authoritative player moving forward. 

You Should Not Run Your Controversial Campaign If:

  • The Topic Has Nothing To Do With Your Brand: While you may feel passionate about something personally, you must only run a controversial ad that can be linked back to your brand’s values, products or services. If not, you’ll struggle to get the engagement you’re looking for from your target audience. 
  • Your Brand’s Recently Come Under Fire: If you’re on thin ice already with your demographic, it might be time to cool down the controversy. Controversial PR is a risk, so if you’re already receiving bad press, we advise that you give it a miss.
  • You’re Not Doing It For The Right Reasons: If you’re simply creating controversy to improve exposure for your brand, your audience will see right through it. Only risk a controversial campaign when you are genuinely passionate about a topic and can confidently lead a conversation for your consumers. 

How To Create Your Own Controversial PR Campaign

Once you’ve weighed up the risks surrounding your controversial campaign idea, it’s time to strat bringing your vision to life. 

We’ve listed five things to consider when crafting your first controversial PR campaign for a clean shot at success in 2024.

Think About The Message You Want To Send 

Before you start crafting your campaign, make sure you think about the message you want to send to your audience.

In a competitive online world, your campaign must make a powerful statement if you want it to generate conversation. To do this, avoid copycat ideas and think creatively.

Aim to blatantly challenge or question something important with your campaign or reframe a hot topic of current conversation. 

The bolder your message is, the more shares it will generate.

Is It Time For A Rebrand?

One of the most powerful ways to release a controversial PR campaign is to also temporarily rebrand your entire brand design. This could be as easy as changing your website colour scheme or even going as far as changing your logo to support your campaign.

If you’re looking to temporarily rebrand in line with your controversial campaign, there are plenty of ways to go about it without completely re-designing your website. This could be as easy as changing your website colour scheme or even going as far as changing your logo to stand out and support your campaign.

Read 10 Key PR Campaign Metrics for Measuring Campaign Success

McDonalds' PR campaign for International Women's Day in 2018
Image Source: McDonalds

Take McDonals, for example. In their campaign to support International Women’s Day in 2018, the fast food brand not only released a number of powerful, controversial statements surrounding the unfair treatment of women across the globe, but they also flipped their famous ‘M’ logo to create a ‘W’ for ‘women’. 

Also, by updating their logo on their social channels, including Instagram and Twitter, the brand encouraged their consumers to share their logo across their own social feeds. 

Make Your Campaign Shareable

Once you’ve chosen your controversial topic, it’s important to ensure that the campaign will be easily sharable across social media, as this is your catalyst for virality. 

To do this, you must understand your audience. Not only does your campaign have to generate conversation, but it should also include an easily sharable element, such as a video/image or a hashtag, that can be linked back to your brand.

A great example of a sharable controversial PR campaign comes from Gillette. Their 2019 #TheBestMenCanBe campaign followed the #MeToo movement and aimed to challenge traditional male stereotypes.

Source: Gillette

Centred around the hashtag #TheBestMenCanBe, the brand gave its audience something to share and reference when talking about the campaign, which helped boost engagement across social media. 

In fact, the campaign was so successful that the initial powerful YouTube video received 3 million views, and the accompanying hashtag was retweeted and shared more than 203,000 times on Twitter.

When creating a controversial campaign, many brands get so carried away with sending a powerful message. Sometimes so much that they forget to link the campaign back to their own products and services. 

The direct focus of your campaign should be on the controversial topic. But don’t forget to find ways to slot your brand’s voice into the content.

“When it comes to implementing controversy into your team’s marketing efforts, it’s critical to emphasize the values that align with your brand and find your “controversy comfort zone.” What’s true to your company, important to your team and relevant to your audience will all dictate how resonant a controversial marketing campaign is,” says Thompson.

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“As you work to pepper more controversy into your marketing efforts, remember that authenticity is rarely forced. For this reason, it can be very effective to identify potential controversial subjects through organic company conversations.” 

Gather and Monitor Feedback

Last but not least, it’s time to think about what comes next after releasing a controversial campaign. 

Once your campaign is live, it’s crucial that your team start social listening straight away. Using tools like Determ to monitor brand sentiment amongst consumes is a great way to establish whether your controversial campaign is resonating positively with your target audience.

Sentiment analysis is important when analyzing PR campaign results

While it is likely to stir some viewers, the overall sentiment should be positive within your demographic. That is, if your brand is to see success moving forward.

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Take time to gather feedback and adjust your campaign accordingly. Our advice is to test the campaign with a smaller, diverse sample of your target audience before it goes live. This will help establish whether the message hits exactly the right spot. 


As we step into a more competitive era of PR, controversial campaigns are becoming all the more common. Finding new ways to create a buzz amongst your audience is the key to driving engagement and improving brand awareness.

However, controversy should not be used purposely to gain exposure within an industry. Consumers are smarter than that. If you want your campaign to succeed, it must be authentic and link back to your brand values. 

In fact, over 90% of PR experts rate authenticity as the key driver of campaign success.

With this in mind, enjoy creating your next controversial campaign. Your brand won’t be heard if you don’t make some noise.

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