Lessons from the chess board: avoiding checkmate in your PR strategy

Article by:Ryan Seller


It seems almost everything, from politics to football, has been compared to a ‘finely poised game of chess’ at some point, often with varying degrees of accuracy. But what about PR? For those of us who don’t know our poisoned pawns from our Nimzo-Indians, what can Magnus Carlsen and his recent triumph over Fabiano Caruana in the world chess championship teach us about PR strategy in 2018?

‘Pressure players’ have the edge

The first 12 games between Carlsen and Caruana lasted around four or five hours each. Enough to put even die-hard fans to sleep when one of the players considered a single move for 30 minutes.The rapid tie-breakers were a different kettle of fish, with just 25 minutes each for the whole match. Under serious time pressure, it was the decisive and assured Carlsen who took the initiative and won three in a row to seal victory.In the PR world, we rarely have the luxury of too much time. So being able to respond quickly, whether that’s to a media request with a short deadline, a sudden client internal crisis, or a breaking news story perfect to hijack with your messaging, can often be the difference between a brand that gets noticed, and one that drowns in spreadsheets and never runs with anything.

Eliminate the errors

There’s a good Spanish novel called ‘The Flanders Panel’ which is essentially a chess murder mystery – and one of its central characters often moodily observes that:“After all, chess is really nothing more than the elimination of mistakes.”The point being, of course, that your strategy should be based on not messing up and ‘blundering’ a piece to lose the game.In 2018, in the wake of Bell Pottinger’s collapse, Frank PR’s ‘rogue’ Donald Trump press release, and GBK launching its ‘curry wars’ campaign, all of which were disastrous, it’s important not to forget that lesson. Whether agency or in-house, PR and Comms teams have a responsibility for their clients’ or employers’ reputations. When the stakes are high, and brands are one Twitter blow-up away from the bin, playing it safe is often the right course.

Don’t try it without that ‘special 10%’

That said, Carlsen and Caruana pretty much played it safe for 12 games and had…12 draws. Without some form of creativity and daring, it’s certainly difficult to make progress. It needs to be based on a solid bedrock of professionalism and crisis awareness, sure, but the ability to innovate and differentiate through a unique campaign or story remains key for PR teams. Much like the art of sports captaincy:“It’s 10% skill and 90% luck. But don’t try it without the 10%.”Especially for challenger brands who aren’t necessarily fully established as an industry leader, having the confidence to occasionally do the unexpected or stick their head above the parapet can reap big rewards. After all, if you don’t have to wrap your comms up in miles of red tape, why would you?—In PR, like in chess, everyone remembers the unpredictable games – those with either moments of genius or terrible blunders. It’s up to comms teams everywhere to get rid of the latter and foster an environment that encourages the former, staying fresh without overstepping the line. Before his win, Carlsen mentioned that his favourite player was “Me, three or four years ago.” Champion or not, if our best work as PRs was four years ago, it would be time to…well, up our game.


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