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11 PR Lessons We Learned from Banksy

Didn’t see this one coming, did you?

If you’re a big media hound, then you’ve been up to your eyeballs in Banksy this month—and given his ability to dominate headlines with PR stunts, we felt compelled to comment.

Love him? Hate him? Sick of hearing about him? Whatever your opinion, you have to admit he’s a brilliant self-promoter. Here are eleven lessons we took from his wildly successful monthlong “Better Out Than In” campaign:

1. Don’t be too obvious. Tease your audience.

While Banksy did establish an Instagram account, a Twitter feed and a website just for the campaign, he didn’t coordinate any announcements with major outlets or saturate social media before the event began. He simply told fans on his site via blog post and audio guide that his New York “residency” would last the entire month of October.

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Most of our clients don’t have Banksy’s name recognition, but the point stands: no one likes to be barraged with promo messages. They prefer to “discover” your stuff on their own.

2. Address both traditional and digital media—and choose your outlets wisely.

Banksy did engage in a little traditional PR. His representative Jo Brooks of Jo Brooks PR contacted the Village Voice in mid-September offering an exclusive interview with the famously reclusive artist.

VV is New York’s best-known counterculture rag, and an interview with The New York Times would seem at odds with Banksy’s “underground” ethos. Also: the interview didn’t appear until the second week of October, when the hype had already reached a fever pitch.

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He didn’t ignore the bigger outlets, though, making headlines by pitching an op-ed to the NYT. A spokeswoman said that his article, which lambasted the “Freedom Tower” at 1 World Trade Center as “an eyesore”, didn’t quite make the cut and that the version he later posted on his site didn’t match the one he submitted. It didn’t matter, though, because the very fact that the paper rejected him made for a more compelling story.

3. Hype your exclusivity.

Part of the project’s appeal was the search. Lots of New Yorkers wanted to be the first to find the latest Banksy piece, because the artist never announced ahead of time where the next one would be.

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Local blogs like Gothamist rushed to be the first to report on each one as well (for the clicks). It’s the same basic principle that Google used with Glass by giving prototypes to a very small group of tech influencers.

4. Cast yourself as a brand for the common man.

Lots of people with perfectly good taste are a little turned off by the art world, and Banksy showed them that he “gets it” by mocking the establishment with pieces like this one, illustrating the fact that snooty high society types go gaga over street artists.

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Then there was this one, which we see as a statement of solidarity with the working classes:

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In other words, you can be exclusive without seeming like you’re “above it all.”

5. Don’t be afraid to take a risk.

Before he pitched the Times, Banksy made clear, in one of his boldest statements, that he doesn’t much care for the building that replaced the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He even wrote that the structure “clearly proclaims that the terrorists have won.”

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Lots of people rightly took offense at that statement, calling it an “obscene bid for attention“. PR should never be quite so bold, but depending on your sensibilities and those of your clients, you can either take this as a warning not to tread into such hostile territory or a sign that exposure is always good, and that controversy will draw attention. He made no apologies, of course:

6. Accept the fact that there will be haters.

You’ll never please everyone. New York magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz was just itching to tell readers how much he loathes Banksy and spent much of October doing just that. But Banksy’s OK with it. Saltz isn’t hurting him in any way, just confirming the image he projects.

7. Be ready to make fun of yourself.

The most clever event in the campaign may have been the “pop-up” sale he staged outside Central Park.

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Someone sold his pieces for $60, which is funny given the fact that others pay millions for the tags he leaves on walls. It was a brilliant PR stunt, especially because it was over by the time anyone realized it was legit.

8. Pay respect to those who came before you.

While Banksy always courts controversy, he’s not disrespectful to his predecessors. For one of his last pieces, he left this very traditional tag on a wall in Queens. It’s like borrowing someone’s concept while giving them a shout out.

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He also took the opportunity to support Five Pointz, the classic New York graffiti mecca now scheduled to be destroyed.

9. Play off someone else’s meme.

This one’s self-explanatory—he took a common meme and offered his own cheeky take on it. He also waited until it was old news so he didn’t seem like another hanger-on.

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10. Confound expectations.

Few know Banksy as a sculptor, which made this found-object sphinx even more compelling. People take notice of things that surprise them in a good way, and unusual content is a lot stickier.

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11. Always hit the charity angle.

For his final big stunt, Banksy bought a generic landscape from the non-profit/thrift store Housing Works, which provides support for the homeless living with HIV/AIDS. He then returned it after adding…a Nazi. It wasn’t incredibly original, but it did get lots of attention, especially when it sold for more than $600,000 at an online auction (all the money will go to to the foundation).

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Banksy made some choices that we would strongly advise against, primarily with his WTC op-ed. But by creating a unique experience that was both exclusive and universal, he earned more attention than ever before. And despite his claims to have no overarching strategy, he knew exactly what he was doing.

What are your thoughts on Banksy as cultural phenomenon and PR case study?

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