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The classic legal drama from 1992 A couple of good men tells the story of two US Marines who are accused of having "disciplined" a comrade. The award-winning film takes us through their subsequent military trial and examines the possibility that they were given an unofficial "Code Red" order to punish a fellow Marine who threatened to uncover a crime.
What is a Code Red, you might be wondering?
In military terms, a code red is an unwritten order to discipline or harass a soldier for violating orders or breaking unit morale. Code Red commands come from above, and these are definitely extrajudicial punishments that are "book". In the film, Tom Cruise plays an inexperienced and cocky Navy attorney who has to cross-examine a menacing Marine Colonel (played by Jack Nicholson) to see if the Colonel authorized Code Red to silence a whistleblower. Without ruining the plot for those who haven't seen the film, significant evil and corruption are exposed.
Related: How Your PR Efforts Should Be Like a Military Attack
The movie's applicability to PR isn't immediately obvious, but it does find resonance when it comes to fighting for the truth against a deadlocked system – which is why it may be appropriate to use Code Red in PR. This is especially true where there may be a larger competitor challenging a smaller competitor in the market. In general, we always advise customers Not Participating in bashing with competitors in the press because it is not credible and can annoy targeted journalists. There are exceptions, however – and one exception is Code Red.
A PR Code Red can and should be much more than simple retaliation and should be a carefully crafted and strategic initiative to counter direct attack. The first step in a Code Red is to pick the right villain. Sometimes it can be a company that everyone in the industry despises, or sometimes a company advocates the idea of a cynical, institutionalized industry like big software or an ancient practice – the dreaded stain of "inheritance".
Give as good as you get
However, it is imperative that companies do not select personable villains. Always hit over your weight, don't hit down, and don't hit sideways – because if Code Red is done right, companies can be considered on par with the companies they hit, resulting in instant awareness and even improved brand awareness leads.
For example, a few years ago my agency was working with a small data warehousing client called Yellowbrick who was targeted by none other than IBM. IBM launched a direct attack and called Yellowbrick on LinkedIn. The tech giant advertised its Netezza data center with the words: “Yellow brick streets are for fairy tales. Netezza. There is no place like home. "
Both the client and the agency decided that this attack could not go unanswered, so they created a campaign depicting IBM's legacy solution as "Jurassic" and then combined that effort with a media campaign. Strong product coverage followed, while IBM also received Brickbats (pun intended) for taking on a much smaller competitor.
Likewise, a campaign by the virtual events company ON24 against one of the great-grandfathers of all trade fairs, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), took on. Long before the pandemic forever changed the dominance of the physical fair, CES made an effort to publicize its efforts to be “green,” even though the fair attracted many thousands of visitors who traveled by plane and created tons of litter.
The ON24 team developed a campaign that highlights the fact that the CO2 emissions of the CES visitors far exceeded any benefit from the so-called “green” activities of the fair. A media campaign explained how online virtual events were the real winners in terms of carbon emissions, resulting in significant media coverage that virtual events were successful as the Trade fair alternative.
And while the media tends to dislike or treat corporate dogfights driven by social media or press releases, it is sure to take the opportunity to cover such David versus Goliath stories. The press, too, obviously takes pleasure in impaling large, industry-dominant players, just as we enjoy stories like this as readers.
Related: 8 Ways To Prepare For Success In Public Relations
By moving to Code Red, these teams changed the narrative for both companies. Each campaign has succeeded in positioning bigger players as villains and presenting the challengers as questionable market innovators. While it can be a little intimidating, taking the risk of using Code Red can pay off – dramatically.
Did you order a Code Red?
If not, maybe you should. It may be overkill in the military, but code red in the sense of PR is not illegal or unethical. It can and should be seen by public relations practitioners and marketing executives as a way to level the playing field. As such, it should be part of the repertoire of every PR professional when it comes to high stakes and a small organization really needs to change something.