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Smashing Your Way Into the Media: 3 Striking PR Strategies Used by a UFC Superstar

By Rudi Davis 14 July, 2016

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I admit, UFC Featherweight champion Conor McGregor might not be your go-to source for advice on public relations. No stranger to controversy, ‘The Notorious’ regularly makes headlines for his arrogant, violent, trash-talking bravado. Once when speaking at a press conference in the heart of Rio de Janeiro about his upcoming bout with the hometown favorite, McGregor sneered at the irate, jeering crowd of Brazilians and proclaimed:

“I own Rio de Janeiro. I’m sitting up here with my feet on the desk (and) not one of yous are going to do anything about it… if this was a different time, I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone not fit to work.”

No, not exactly a role model for building a positive profile with the public.

But the fact remains that McGregor is the biggest draw in combat sports, and he’s only been in the UFC for 2 years. Despite his recent loss at UFC 196, McGregor’s record paycheck exceeded $1 million, and he is expected to make more than $10 million from his cut of the pay-per-view. What’s more, McGregor’s unprecedented star power turned a near disaster into the biggest event in the company’s history, according to UFC President Dana White, while establishing himself as the No.1 trending sports topic on Twitter as reported by Fox Sports. Conor’s unparalleled success all boils down to his ability to draw fans, attract international spotlight, and break out of his industry and into the mainstream. He does this, consciously or unconsciously, by leveraging powerful PR strategies that any entrepreneur or business professional can learn from. Here are 3 PR strategies that you can use to smash your way into the media like Conor McGregor.

#1 Raise brand awareness with multiple target audiences

McGregor builds brand awareness by promoting himself among multiple target audiences. As a result, he has been able to break out of his industry and into the mainstream media.

McGregor makes regular appearances in major mainstream media outlets including Conan, Esquire, GQ, and the Wall Street Journal. He has gone viral for sparring with The Mountain from Game of Thrones, publicly feuded with boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather, and dissed Donald Trump. Even the biggest star in the NBA, Lebron James, posted a McGregor quote that he draws inspiration from on his Instagram page, which has nearly 20 million followers.

McGregor’s publicity stunts are genius. All of these instances raise awareness with audiences who lie beyond the UFC’s normal demographic. The result is that people who would normally never watch the UFC learn about McGregor, and a fair portion of that crowd tune in to watch him fight. Whether they want him to win or lose is not the point. The point is that these audiences become aware of McGregor and watch his events, which ultimately contribute to the only thing he cares about, “the weight of them checks.”

Every business can learn from and replicate this PR strategy in order to boost brand awareness. First, identify the target audience you want to raise awareness with. If you aim to raise brand awareness with investors, then you need to target publications that your investors read, which often differ from the publications that cater to your customer base. Your target audience determines which type of PR works, and which doesn’t. Once you know who your target audience is, you can plan your PR strategy accordingly.

After you have boosted awareness of your brand with a specific audience, target a new type of audience who can potentially convert to becoming your customers, investors, or otherwise supporters. Just remember that different audiences follow different media sources. To gain coverage in different media outlets, your PR initiatives have to appeal to the interests of the media’s main demographic. Each publication has specific criteria, based on their reader’s interests, that allow them to determine whether or not a story is newsworthy. When targeting a new media outlet, do your homework and identify the patterns behind the content that they typically publish. Once you have figured that out, you can reverse-engineer your PR strategy. This is how you maximize the likelihood you will gain coverage with different publications and hence build brand awareness with multiple target audiences.

#2 Secure continuous media coverage

McGregor’s presence in the media is unrelenting. The fighter churns out a continual stream of juicy, media-primed soundbites.

“There’s two things I really like to do and that’s whoop ass and look good. I’m doing one of them right now and on Saturday night, I’m doing the other.”

McGregor knows that the more attention there is on him, the more people will tune into his fights, and the more money he will subsequently make. While most of his peers stay quiet after a loss to avoid the inevitably discouraging headlines, ‘The Notorious’ wasted no time in taking to social media to spark further controversy and hype future matchups after his UFC 196 defeat. Regardless of whether the headlines are positive or negative, it’s hard not to see McGregor’s face in the media these days.

In business, whether you’re in the UFC or running a tech startup, it is critical to capitalize on every opportunity that will keep the media train rolling. McGregor understands this principle so well that he schedules daily media sessions so they are habitual like his training. Famed American entertainment producer, marketer, and promoter Paul Heyman said, “McGregor can answer ‘hello’ with a 15-minute monologue.” Those monologues and continuous media appearances generate an unending flow of headlines that keep McGregor in the public spotlight, which allows him to sell his events better than anyone else in the fight business.

In business, it isn’t advisable to make controversial claims just to spark media attention. But you can leverage McGregor’s underlying PR strategy to great effect- to maintain a continuous presence in the media. You may not have the star power of McGregor, but that doesn’t mean you can’t follow in his footsteps.

Even an unknown entrepreneur can secure media coverage by authoring guest articles. Guest articles establish the author as a thought leader in their field, raise social proof for the organization, and blaze the trail for future media coverage. You don’t need a previously established reputation to make media headlines- just a valuable POV on an industry trend that you are an expert on. Become a regular contributor to as many media publications as you can. Make yourself known as the go-to expert for your particular industry. Doing so can set off a butterfly effect that profoundly impacts your business. This is how you can have a continuous presence in the media like Conor McGregor.

#3 Differentiate your business from the competition

This old business maxim is as true in PR as it is in entrepreneurship. But it bears repeating, as I am faced on a daily basis with new clients who do not understand that they will not make headlines by copying and ‘improving upon’ the same kind of products or services that already exist. When you are trying to get coverage in the media for a new product or service, ask yourself if what you are doing is newsworthy from the journalist perspective. News needs to be new. It’s not news if it has already been done by the competition, even if your version is better.

McGregor understands this principle and hence behaves in unprecedented ways that are guaranteed to attract media attention. Find another fighter who takes matchups with opponents 2 weight classes bigger than them, who challenges other division champions for their belt, who proclaims they will make their own division, or who spearheads movements that embrace radical MMA training methodologies. McGregor takes every opportunity to position himself as a unique standout from the competition, which makes him an easy sell to the media.

“I am in a league of my own here ahead of everyone in the game by a country mile. I am finding it hard to even engage with anyone in the game because they are not on my level, not one single individual in this company is on my level.”
Every business can learn from this PR strategy. Position yourself as disruptive to your industry. Make sure your products and services truly stand out from the competition’s. Doing so will make you newsworthy and greatly increase the likelihood that you will secure the kind of media coverage you are aiming for.