David Blaine and David Copperfield might be the most famous magicians today, but they may not be remembered in 100 years like the Great Houdini. And it has nothing to do with magic, but everything to do with publicity.
As a publicist, I’ll walk out on a ledge and say Houdini became the world’s most famous magician not because of his magic act, but because he mastered the art of PR.
Magicians and publicists at the top of their games possess similar skill sets. They must know how to tell a story and sell the invisible, both need a hook to lure you in and they have to differentiate their act (or product) from competitors. No magician did this PR act better than Houdini, from the 19th century until even today.
If you want publicity for your business, put aside those MBA case studies and read up on Houdini. He turned his name into a global brand without any of the technology we have today. Houdini built up his name, town by town, by courting controversy, engaging in publicity stunts and using publicity tactics that still work today.
Here’s a closer look at Houdini’s most popular tactics that can elevate your brand’s visibility.
Identify And Pivot To The Untapped Angle
Many people don’t know, but Houdini originally started his magic career as a card magician. After he failed to stand out from his competitors, he realized he had to reinvent himself. At the time, no one was doing escape magic. And, abracadabra, the Great Houdini was born.
Getting media coverage is more than just calling up reporters and telling them about a product or service. You need to differentiate your brand, like Houdini did when he introduced escape magic. And don’t confuse this approach for entering a new vertical. Houdini’s emphasis on escape magic was nothing more than a pivot to a new type of magic reporters and the public hadn’t yet seen.
Houdini took this new magic act to a higher level by applying a tactic that is equally effective today: He spoon-fed reporters interactive elements.
The great illusionist performed many of his famous acts in front of the town’s local newspaper building. Photographers and journalists just had to pop their heads out the newsroom to see his act, requiring little effort and no traveling. Sprinkle in visual elements, like straightjackets, water cannons and handcuffs, and you have a front-page story, like he so often secured.
So how can you apply this pivoting principal to your business? Here’s an example of how we did it with my firm.
PR is a very crowded space, similar to most service sector industries. A few years ago, we needed to pivot to elevate the brand, just as Houdini did. Our magic act was a PR app. Launching it led to more exposure on local TV and targeted online publications.
With your business, identify creative angles that aren’t getting covered in your industry and pivot toward unveiling that solution.
Add Color To The Conversation
Reporters don’t want boring characters or bland quotes. They need color to bring their stories alive.
Houdini flowered his performances and media stunts with colorful, flamboyant language and provocative challenges. He challenged other magicians in front of their own crowds to escape from his handcuffs. Of course, Houdini didn’t make friends with his approach, but he wasn’t in business to make friends with competitors. He was in business to sell tickets.
I’ve worked on messaging with many CEOs, entrepreneurs and politicians who are afraid of controversy. And I get it. You can’t be reckless with your words or alienate customers. However, that’s drastically different from speaking with a pulse. Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to be flamboyant with outlandish props. David Blaine and David Copperfield project different images on stage, yet they are both authentic with their brands. It’s no different with your business.
Throw away the PR scripts from your communications team. That’s their pulse, and it’s not authentic to your brand. Instead, be yourself—like Blaine and Copperfield—and tell your story in a way that resonates with your heart.
Everyone In Business Is A Magician
The former president of the Society of American Magicians told me a few years ago how everyone is a magician in business, and we just don’t realize it.
He explained it like this: If I learned the process on how to make a card disappear, I’d be bored, and the magic would lose its spell over me. It’s no different in business. Clients want to see how your product or service relates to them, like Houdini did with his magic. They don’t want to see the process behind the work.
Unfortunately, many people in businesses spend all their time talking about their process and why their method is better. In the end, that steals the magic. In my situation, he encouraged me to not reveal the magic behind our media strategy to clients, so others could fall under the magic spell.
I’ve been following his advice since that conversation. And it works. I don’t tell clients about our process, but I’ll gladly unveil the magic that puts their product or service on TV.