Another day another PR triumph for the US pop star Taylor Swift. By the simple expedient of writing a cheque for £1,300 to help a fan pay off her student loans, Taylor has again secured wall-to-wall positive coverage in the US, the UK and around the world. Headlines such as ‘Taylor Swift helps pay off student loan, makes fan cry’ abound. Oh, and the fact that the cheque was for the deeply meaningful sum of $1,989 (1989 – geddit?) does no harm.
This is just the latest move from the Taylor Swift PR playbook – in fact it is really just the culmination of a much bigger campaign, to celebrate ‘Swiftmas’. It came at the end of a year in which Taylor has not put a foot wrong in publicity terms. Even her ‘controversial’ move to remove her songs from Spotify got her into the FT and she has also graced newspapers and magazines not usually associated with ‘lightweight’ pop stars. All of us involved in PR would do well to study the Taylor Swift PR masterclass: she has a lot to teach corporations as well as other individuals about the way to secure abundant, positive, coverage.
There are three key elements to Taylor’s PR success. First, she is the master of engagement. So many stars, and companies, simply broadcast news to their followers, fans, customers, etc. Taylor (and presumably her team on her behalf) is relentless in genuinely engaging fans, particularly via social media. Tumblr and Instagram are her natural homes, but she roams across Facebook and YouTube and elsewhere too, opening up to fans and responding to them directly too. She goes further, sending some of them presents as part of Swiftmas or inviting them into her home for a sneak preview of the new album. Of course all of this generates additional column inches, hugely amplifying the coverage she received in the first place.
Second, she recognises that her fans are everywhere and she needs to be too. She has always been a mainstay of pop commentary, gossip columns and fashion mags, and I’ve already mentioned her ubiquity in the online world. But, particularly recently, her ambition has not stopped there. Securing the cover of Time magazine was a coup this year, but the sheer breadth of her coverage in the last couple of years has been breathtaking. Around the launch of this year’s album she was everywhere: online, in magazines, tabloids and broadsheets, and on broadcast media too. Again, the nature of the modern world is that all this coverage by itself generates commentary and further coverage: how many times was the news about Time magazine retweeted?
Finally, she understands that this is an ‘always on’ world. She knows that putting across one image of herself over there and another one over here will fatally undermine her brand. So key aspects of her personality and her positioning come across even when she is not officially ‘working’. Taylor is never papped and never appears in a selfie looking anything other than well groomed; she never says anything that deviates from the party line. All of this means that in an age when pop is ludicrously sexualised, and when ‘bad boys’ and ‘bad girls’ are everywhere, she consistently exudes a wholesome stylishness that appeals across the ages.
This constant, if carefully controlled, interaction with ‘normal people’, and Taylor’s apparent willingness to share every detail of her life, have given her something that is slightly unexpected: an air of authenticity and approachability. For people in the public eye any sense of a lack of authenticity can be crippling: just ask Ed Miliband. Taylor is at the other end of the spectrum: fans genuinely believe that she is normal and real and going through the same things that they all do. For someone whose ‘besties’ are seemingly vertiginous supermodels and diminutive pop princesses, and whose recent exes have included boy banders and actors this is some achievement – and is the fruit of a lot of careful work.
Oh, and there is also the music. Of course the product – the songs and the videos and the shows – has to be good, otherwise all of this PR can only take you so far. As another, slightly less famous, American once said, you can’t put lipstick on a pig. Taylor produces great tunes, and her latest offering has garnered a whole lot of critical acclaim (although frankly I prefer Speak Now to 1989, but that’s just me – I love a ballad). But it is the work she has put into burnishing her image and amplifying her coverage that is the key. Without it she would be Colbie Caillat. So all of us in communications should salute her: Taylor and the team around her are currently the best PRs around.