We could all use a good laugh, particularly in economic tough times and when the daily news headlines seem grim. It’s no coincidence that everyone’s favorite TV shows over time – from “I Love Lucy” in the early days to “Seinfeld” and “Friends” to today’s “The Office” – are comedies. We spend time online visiting and sharing funny websites, such as “Failblog,” “Awkward Family Photos,” “People of Wal-Mart” and “LOLCats.” And of course, a trait single people always seem to be looking for in their potential partners is a sense of humor. So, since comedy is overwhelmingly popular, why does the public relations industry – from matter-of-fact press releases and press conferences to business-like social media posts – often seem so serious?
Certainly, humor would be inappropriate and ineffective in handling some PR situations, such as crisis management in the aftermath of a serious oil spill, natural disaster or recall of a dangerous product. Further, most people would not appreciate a PR firm making light of a client’s past illegal activities. But day-to-day PR functioning surely could benefit from some lightheartedness. Humor can spice up a press release or editorial, attract attention to an issue or liven up an interview with a public figure. Social media also provides an ideal opportunity to build a following, banish boredom and demonstrate personality through witty updates. Of course, the use of jokes or satire in PR must be tasteful, avoiding being overly cheesy or offensive. But when executed appropriately, comedy can be a powerful tool for PR practitioners.
In a Forbes article published on April 26, “Humor can create engagements: PR outlets should lighten up,” writer Aaron Perlut analyzes how public relations firms can utilize humor to appeal to audiences, convey an upbeat, likeable tone, remove corporate stigmas and introduce a human element. Perlut describes the phenomenon in which satire news programs such as “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” are replacing traditional news shows, particularly among younger audiences, because they’re entertaining while anchored to current events. In the article, Perlut argues that the strong appeal of these shows could be a model for the direction in which public relations should move. Instead of taking themselves so seriously, companies can and should use humor, as long as they are able to strike a balance.
Humor must be effective without damaging a company’s brand. But in a world where corporate marketing executives use the word “viral” as if it’s going out of style, you’d think PR execs would recognize that campaigns and trends that indeed go viral are largely humor-based.” – Aaron Perlut
Humor can bring a story to life or attract attention to an otherwise ordinary occurrence. In a Business Life article, “Make ‘em laugh,” Steve Martin – ironically, not the comedian, but a business writer – explains that funny, inoffensive cartoons can aid the persuasion process. Researchers believe this is because the jokes build trust by breaking down barriers and displaying humanity, a trait often sorely lacking in stuffy, seemingly bureaucratic businesses.
Artful comedy can build appeal for an otherwise mundane piece, such as a product release, profile or feature story. Jokes and lightheartedness can also bridge barriers and add a personal touch. Compare Tiger Woods’ handling of his infidelity with David Letterman’s. While Letterman instantly began poking fun at himself and prompting people to laugh with him and not at him, Tiger Woods was apprehensive, solemn and grave. Despite being married with a young son, Letterman’s infidelity barely impacted his career, while Woods’ crippled his. Another timely example of an effective use of comedy to quell negative publicity is E!’s Chelsea Handler’s reaction to the “release” of a supposed sex tape that was actually created as an audition video. Instead of issuing a somber statement or conducting a stoic-faced televised interview, Handler animatedly explained the situation with a joke and a friendly, lighthearted tone.
If PR is the prescription, maybe sometimes laughter truly is the best medicine. What do you think about the potential for integrating comedy into PR? Should more PR firms utilize humor? What are some opportunities, benefits and possible pitfalls to effectively incorporating comedy in PR?