By Bill Greenwood
The most interesting part of any season of Survivor, especially from a PR perspective, is the final tribal council. After spending 39 days scrapping, backstabbing, and betraying their fellow competitors, the final three (or, in some cases, two) must convince a jury of those same competitors to give them $1 million. There’s usually a lot of bitterness (see Susan Hawk’s infamous “Snake vs. Rat” speech from season 1) and always more than a few bruised egos that need to be massaged. In short, it’s a PR nightmare for the finalists, which is why it’s always so refreshing to see someone traverse the minefield with aplomb and come out on top.
This year’s winner, 26-year-old Harvard law student John Cochran, did exactly that during Sunday night’s season finale, answering each question thrown his way calmly and thoughtfully, ending up with a unanimous vote in his favor. But he didn’t just turn it on for the final tribal council. In fact, the whole season was filled with teachable moments for PR professionals, both of the do and don’t variety.
1.) Branding, Branding, Branding!
For those who watched the show, you’d be forgiven for not recognizing Cochran’s full name in the previous paragraph. That’s because as soon as he stepped on the beach during his first season, he insisted on being called by his last name only. A Survivor superfan for the show’s entire 13-year run, he had noticed that the show’s host, Jeff Probst, typically calls his favorite players exclusively by their last name and wanted to be in the club. The name stuck, and Cochran became one of the most popular players in the show’s history. When the cast announcements were made for this year’s “Fans vs. Favorites” season, even some of the biggest Survivor buffs probably needed to do a bit of Googling to remember who Brenda or Erik were, but everyone knew who Cochran was immediately. It’s the goal of every PR pro to create an instantly recognizable brand, and this case shows that simply picking a name and sticking with it is half the battle.
2.) Timing Is Everything
As Cochran stated over and over during the final tribal council, the key to his game was timing. Whenever he got an inkling that another player, even those in his alliance, was planning to vote him out, he jumped one step ahead and did it to them first. In the PR world, this manifests itself in the pitching process. Some story ideas have an expiration date, and to pitch them past that date is an exercise in futility. Case in point, if you’re reading this now, it’s because I stayed up until 2 a.m. Sunday night getting it finished in time for Monday morning. Watercooler topics have a very short shelf life, and it’s unlikely that anyone will be talking about Survivor later in the week. So while I’ll have bags under my eyes, it’ll be worth it.
3.) Don’t Be Pushy
Following on the previous pitching advice, Cochran’s fellow contestant Dawn, the season’s runner-up, gave us a crash course on what not to do when trying to sell a story. Throughout the finale episode, Dawn, who had been in an alliance with Cochran since the beginning of the season, continually pressured him to reinforce his commitment to her both before and after he won immunity. It got so bad that he considered voting her out, though he ultimately did bring her along to the final three. In the same vein, many PR people are often overly aggressive with reporters, in many cases turning sure-fire coverage into dust. So it’s important to know your limits with those you’re pitching. Sometimes, it’s better to just let go and move on rather than endangering your reputation by beating a dead horse.
4.) Acknowledge Your Weaknesses and Play to Your Strengths
Cochran is, by his own estimation, a pretty scrawny guy. Yet, he was able to win four individual challenges against a variety of far more athletic competitors. How did he do it? First, he went all-in on the challenges that didn’t require brute force to win, such as a speed-eating competition and a card-stacking challenge that earned him an advantage in the final battle for immunity. And therein lies the rub. Cochran’s other two wins were largely the result of his ability to obtain tactical advantages that compensated for his physical weaknesses. For example, in the final immunity challenge, the contestants had to race up a series of stairs to reach three bags of puzzle pieces, untie a series of knots to free them, then race back to the starting line and use them to solve a puzzle. Because of his previous win, Cochran’s bags were simply waiting for him, allowing him to skip untying the knots and get to the puzzle portion of the competition faster. It’s an illustration of the old saying “know thyself,” and those in the PR business would do well to remember it. Keep tracks of your assets and know your liabilities, then use your strengths in creative ways to neutralize your weaknesses. It’s how small agencies become big and big agencies get even bigger.
5.) Choose Your Words Carefully
In one of the best answers I’ve ever seen someone give at the final tribal council, Cochran managed to turn a seemingly no-win question from jury member Malcolm into a resounding victory. Admitting to being a bit of a narcissist, Malcolm asked what quality Cochran possessed that he didn’t that allowed him to make it to the final three. Cochran’s answer, that his heightened sense of insecurity helped him to pick up on threats more easily than the stronger and more confident Malcolm, both flattered the questioner and made a strong case for Cochran’s own strategic mastery. The PR business, as we all know, is heavily dependent on choosing exactly the right words, and this answer is a textbook example of how to do that correctly. It takes into account the recipient’s motivations and delivers a message that speaks to them personally, then weaves that direct address seamlessly into a more general pitch. It’s the line we try to walk every time we reach out to a reporter, so keep this in mind for motivation the next time you’re out there on the tightrope.