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What Sailing Taught Me About PR

November 16, 2015 Jeff Bradford

My wife and I have been learning how to sail, with the goal of sailing the British Virgin Islands this spring. Though I was raised in landlocked Kentucky and live in landlocked Tennessee, I’ve long been fascinated by sailing. I like the freedom of it – the complete independence from fuel and motors and all artificial means – and the mastery it requires to tame a powerful natural force. Of course, it also teaches humility, because wind and waves can kill as easily as they can thrill. However, Robert Redford movies withstanding, I am learniphoto-1413834932717-29e7d4714192ng that a capable sailor can weather any storm by adapting to the weather, not fighting it.

I think I also may like sailing because the skills and temperament it requires and the challenges and joys it offers are similar to those of my profession, public relations.

Using Free Energy Efficiently 

Sailing = PR (or more precisely, publicity) because much like sailing uses a freely available natural force to move the boat in a desired direction, PR takes advantage of free energy –man’s natural curiosity and desire to know what is happening in the world – to move public opinion from one place to another.

In sailing, you harness this natural energy with properly trimmed sails, which allows you to actually sail faster the closer you sail into the wind (known as sailing close hauled) because of the aerodynamic effect of a modern sloop-rigged sailboat. The same holds in PR: the more controversy you are able to harness in advancing your cause, the faster and wider are results generated, because people are more likely to follow a controversial story. That is, the closer you sail to disaster, the more powerful your effort.

Don’t Be Afraid To Sail Close To The Wind

Sailing close hauled causes the boat to heel, or tip to one side, sometimes precariously, which can be unnerving to the novice sailor, leading him to depower the boat by turning away from the wind. This is a mistake. Not only will it turn the boat away from its destination, it gives the sailor less control, because a boat can only be controlled if it is moving, so the slower it goes, the less it can be less controlled. Additionally, modern boats are designed to sail most efficiently when heeling, so you are losing both efficiency and effectiveness by taking the safe route. (In addition to having less fun.)

The parallel to PR is obvious: it can be scary at the helm of a controversial, high stakes publicity campaign, but the surest way to lose all that you have gained is to suddenly back down. Then it looks like everything you’ve done up to that point was a lie, or at least disingenuous. You’re dead in the water.

Watch Out For Shifts In The Wind

But speaking of dead in the water, the danger of sailing close to the wind is that there is a low margin of error. If the wind shifts, you can find yourself sailing directly into the wind, being “in irons” – a charming saying that originated with 18th Century pirates who found them selves in irons, that is, shackles, when they lost the wind with a British Navy frigate upon them.

There is a similar danger of going too far in PR, of not being attuned to the winds of public opinion and finding yourself walking the plank.

It’s A Coordinated Team Effort

Sailing any boat larger than about 30 feet requires a crew. One man can’t do it all, because there are at least two distinct jobs: steering and trimming the sails, and both have to be done in concert, as each affects the other.

The helmsman at the tiller steers the boat, which means she is responsible for two key things: keeping the boat going in the right direction, both vis-à-vis the final destination and the direction of the wind, and telling the crew when and how to trim the sails. That is, she guides the boat and has an important bearing on how fast and smoothly the boat sails, but the crew actually captures the energy that powers the boat by properly trimming the sails.

The same in PR: the helmsman of a campaign must be finely attuned to the winds of public opinion, must know how to safely take advantage of these winds without being overpowered by them and must have the complete confidence of her crew. And the crew must be adept at wringing every last bit of forward momentum from the energy of public discourse by developing intriguing stories, writing compelling pitches and press releases, and persuasively (and honestly) making their case to journalists – without being so forceful that the boat of PR turns into the wind or, heaven forbid, capsizes because journalists think you are a fool.

You Rarely Sail A Direct Course

In sailing, it is usually impossible to arrive at your destination by steering a steady course because it is rare that the winds will always be going in the direction you wish to travel. So you have to jig-jag your way there, traveling slightly left of your destination, then right, then left and back again. This jigging and jagging is called tacking or jibing. And you’d rather tack than jibe.

You tack when the wind is coming at you. Since you can’t sail directly into the wind, you must sail diagonally to it. For example, if the wind is coming from the direction of your destination, you must sail at about a 45-degree angle to the wind, first on the right, then tack to a 45-degree angle on the left. When you tack, the helmsman alerts the crew he is about to tack, then turns the boat into the wind. As the boat crosses the wind, the mainsail naturally crosses to the other side of the boat and the crew unties the ropes (which are actually called sheets) holding the jib sail on one side and pull it with other ropes (sheets) to the other side and secures it. If you are not sailing fast enough, you won’t tack through the wind and will end up in irons. So, though a tack should be done smoothly, it can’t be done slowly.

You jibe with when the wind is behind you. The mechanics are the same – the mainsail moves to the other side of the boat and the crew pulls the jib across to the other side – but it can be a much more violent exercise because you have the power of the wind behind you. The mainsail boom can come crashing across the cockpit and knock helmsman and crew unconscious, and even overboard.

Similarly, accomplishing a PR goal must usually be done indirectly. It is quite unlikely that the journalistic universe is going to line up and consistently deliver exactly the message you want every time, or anytime. You have to tack and jibe to get there by developing messages that tangentially advance your message and also are newsworthy, and it is safer to work against the headwinds of public opinion than to work with them, because when a strong wind is behind you, it can turn violently against you when you veer toward the course you are ultimately seeking.

Happy sailing.


One comment on “What Sailing Taught Me About PR
  1. Kathleen Calligan says:

    Hi Jeff if you want to sail you can sail in landlocked Tennessee give me & my husband Rick Smith a call we sail on Old Hickory Lake & in the BVI
    42 ft Beneteau

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