Break the Rules!


There are rules for most things in life, and it’s up to you as a classy person and professional to know what the protocols are in any given situation. My mother used to insist that we speak the English language properly and to comport ourselves elegantly at the dinner table. Later, when we were out in the world experiencing different cultures or groups of people with different ways of doing things, we were told that it was okay to “do what the Romans do,” or “blend.”

Thus, we learned the societally correct ways of doing things so that we’d be able to handle ourselves according to the dictates of our surroundings, a.k.a., the appropriate use of language. If everyone else at the dinner table is using their fingers to eat chicken or has their elbows on the table, it’s okay if you do, too. At times, fitting in has advantages.

The risk takers and world shakers amongst us say that rules are made to be broken, and in the business world, this is true. A very successful music publicist I know says that there are no rules in publicity. I’m inclined to agree. Just when you believe you’re doing things the right way, someone else steps along and does the unexpected, breaks the mold, ignites the collective imagination and draws out the copycats.

Back in the days when my dream was to become a famous songwriter, yearning to live the musical life my idol, Carole King, the big challenge was to get one’s demo tape into the hands of the big record companies or anyone else who could have a significant, positive impact on my songwriting career. The next step was to get them to actually listen to the demo, but that’s a moot point if they didn’t get it in the first place. I read every songwriter magazine I could get my hands on, and my favorite stories were the ones about the successful songwriters who had broken the rules to get the attention of their idols and the important deal makers by doing outrageous, courageous things.

One of my favorite stories, which later turned out to be more fiction than fact, is about how Kris Kristofferson, a young, struggling songwriter, landed a National Guard helicopter on Johnny Cash’s lawn and stepped out of it with his demo tape in one hand and a cold beer in the other. Kristofferson was living in a low rent apartment at the time and was so committed to becoming a songwriter that rather than accept a professorship at the U.S. Military Academy, he swept floors as a janitor at Columbia Studios, waiting for his big break. Other now-famous singers and songwriters drove from city to city in old, beat-up cars to hand deliver their demo tapes to radio disc jockeys and plead for airplay.

The same principles held true for getting press kits into the hands of influential journalists and broadcast producers. The “proper” way of sending a press kit was to send it through the mail in a large manila envelope. Hundreds of press kits were delivered to newsrooms every week, and offices were piled high with unopened, plain vanilla manila envelopes, many of which eventually landed in the Dumpster out back.

But publicists are creative people by nature, and they found many ways to break the rules, doing all kinds of original things to trick journalists into opening their press kits. Press kits arrived in long tubes or uniquely shaped boxes. They were delivered by messengers dressed as apes or from window washers suspended outside their sky rise offices. Some publicists sent singing telegrams or people dressed as police officers. The idea was, of course, to separate your press kit from the hundreds of others and entice the recipients to open them, without getting arrested.

Getting people to open and read your stuff is universal to all businesses, is it not? The challenges today in this electronic age are no different than they were in the glory days of direct mail and costumed courier services. It has always been a matter of “cutting through the clutter” to get your message noticed, opened and acted upon. There are hundreds of your competitors out there, all of whom are chasing the same audiences as you, and many of whom are 10 times more clever, persistent and well-financed than you are.

Fear not. It’s an abundant universe with plenty to go around if you’re passionate, professional, prepared and patient. First, you need to know the rules. Then, you need to know when to break them. But always, you need to have the goods, which is a newsworthy story or event. Without it, you’re just an annoying interruption in an ape costume.