How to Get Media Coverage, the (Abbie) Hoffman Way

'Symbolic Theatrics' Often Work Better Than Ads or Speeches

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What kind of extensive, expensive publicity campaign did I wage this fall to land me on seven TV talk shows?

I came up with a wacky (but provocative) idea and wrote three blog posts about it. Oh, and I did a tweet.

That was on a Monday. Tuesday, I was in the New York Daily News. Wednesday you could see me on "Good Morning America" and "Anderson Cooper." After that came appearances on "The Doctors," CNN, KRTK in Houston and even "Anderson" again.

My guess is that your company can get the same kind of bang if you do what I did: Follow the Abbie Hoffman playbook.

Abbie, as anyone of Lipitor age will recall, was one of the founders of the yippies, the political arm of the hippies dedicated to ending the Vietnam War. To call attention to his cause, he didn't give solemn speeches or take out full-page ads. He came up with "symbolic theatrics."

OK, pranks. Some pundit dubbed it "Groucho Marxism."

Yippie Leader Abbie Hoffman
Yippie Leader Abbie Hoffman

One summer day in 1967, for instance, Abbie and a dozen friends went on a tour of the New York Stock Exchange. The second they reached the balcony, they started throwing dollar bills down onto the trading floor. The place erupted in anarchy! Some traders screamed obscenities, some scrambled to scoop up the cash, and the next day the event was splashed across papers worldwide. So was Abbie's message: Wall Street will do anything for a buck-- even promote a war.

Total cost was about $300. In singles.

A few months later, the yippies made headlines again. As tens of thousands of anti-war protesters marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon, they were blocked by soldiers on its steps. Now what? Fight? Go home? Abbie came up with an alternative: They would levitate the Pentagon.

"The plan was for people to sing and chant until it levitated and turned orange, driving out the evil spirits and ending the war in Vietnam," later wrote political activist Jo Freeman. She added, "The Pentagon didn't move."

No, but the media did. They ate it up. It was just great copy, easy and fun to write.

While it's a whole lot smaller, I'm spearheading a movement now, too: Free-Range Kids. We're fighting the culture-wide conviction that our kids are in constant danger from everything: germs, grades, bullies, men, sleepovers, frustration, toys from China, the perils of a nonorganic grape. And, of course, predators. Especially predators. Fear of abduction is sky-high, despite the fact that the crime rate today is actually lower than when most of us parents were growing up in the "70s and "80s. (Feel free to look up the FBI statistics.)

Our goal is to let kids start doing things on their own again, especially playing outside. So three days into this school year, I announced I was holding a new class: "I Won't Supervise Your Kids."

"Starting Sept. 12, I'm offering a new eight-week, $350 after-school class almost guaranteed to make the participants, ages 8 and up, happier, healthier, smarter -- and skinnier, to boot. It meets Wednesdays 3:45 to 5:15 p.m. in Central Park (85th and 5th), and the premise is simple.

"I won't be there.

"I'll be in a Starbucks nearby, and I guess I'll have my cellphone with me, in case anyone really REALLY needs to reach me."

That's what I wrote on the HuffPost, and that 's all it took for the press to come careening, as I expected they would, for a few reasons:

1. Funny name.

2. The funny idea of the class also encapsulated the concept: We believe kids are safe outside without supervision.

3. Location. I was holding it in world-famous, photogenic, easy-to-get-to Central Park.

4. Extra outrageousness: I was charging real money for it. (Though I did offer "scholarships" to anyone requesting one.)

5. Starbucks. Thrown in as a cultural touchstone.

6. Simplicity. As a newspaper columnist myself, I tried to think of a really easy idea for commentators to jump on. Anything having to do with parenting and/or child safety is almost guaranteed to be a hot topic. In fact, it was discussed on "Hot Topics" on "The View."

I'd first discovered how easy it is to drive the media wild a few years earlier, by accident, when I wrote a piece for the New York Sun titled, "Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone." Two days later, I found myself on NPR, Fox News, MSNBC and the holy of holies, the "Today" show. I started my Free-Range Kids blog that weekend, as a gathering place for others sick of helicopter parenting.

Now when I want media attention for some issue, I just keep channeling Abbie: What story will hit our country's collective nerve? How can I make it simple and fun for reporters to cover? Can I give it a catchy name? Make it visual? Timely? Tagged to a beloved institution? (Wait'll you see what I've got planned for next Halloween!)

For you to do the same, start by figuring out how your message can play off some pre-existing part of American culture. Then give it a name every assignment editor in the world can understand. Try to make it funny.

You don't need a lot of cash, or even bell-bottoms. You just need to think like a revolutionary who thinks like a reporter: What would make a great story?

Then, start your revolution.

Lenore Skenazy is a publicity consultant, lecturer and founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.

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