A little over a month ago, I witnessed firsthand the madness of the much-publicized Lilly Pulitzer sale at my local Target store. The experience was a cookie-cutter lesson in the basics of PR. Let me explain.

Lesson 1: Remember the 3P’s of PR: plan, pray and pivot.
Full disclosure: I’m not even a real Lilly Pulitzer fan. I own one dress, bought on super-sale for a summer wedding years ago. Since then, it’s hung in my closet longing for attention.

But thanks to the power of PR, previews of the Lilly for Target look book saturated my Facebook news feed weeks in advance of the sale. For kicks, one day I clicked through. I liked what I saw. I mean, really liked. With my mind made up, the planning began.

Like a good PR practitioner who carefully does her research before pitching a reporter, I did mine. I scoured the collection online and built my “wish list” to help navigate the in-store experience. My sights were set (read: goals) on a yellow floral halter and kaftan beach cover-up.

lily pulitzer sale
Photo Credit: Target.com

Strategy and execution is where things got interesting. I planned to visit my local Target outpost at 8:00am the Sunday the collection debuted, thinking I’d get my pick of the litter at that hour. But as I naively made my approach, the line around the corner emerged. It turns out the real Lilly fans began queuing up as early as midnight. I maintained calm as any good PR pro does in a time of great adversity and crisis. As I casually strolled inside the store, I suddenly froze in disbelief.

It was 8:03am and the racks had been ravished. Many were overturned. Every last item had been swiped up by the droves that came in just three minutes before me. I stood frozen like a deer in the bright headlights of pinks, yellows and blues. Then, I took a long swig of coffee and decided a pivot was in order.

Lesson 2. It is possible to break through when you have nothing to offer.
Let’s be honest. I was pummeled by the competition. In the PR world, we’ve all been there. Another “me too” story in a sea of disappointed Lilly fans. The same can be said for clients looking to earn mindshare in a marketplace full of “Ubers for X.” What can PR practitioners do when we have nothing to offer media – no product news, no data, no “first, best or different” assets to tout? The key lies in being nimble and resourceful.

While it would have been easy to accept defeat that Sunday morning at Target, I wasn’t leaving empty handed.

As I strolled around, I was passed by a parade of overflowing shopping carts filled with Lilly towels, dresses, shoes and, yes – my coveted yellow floral halter. And then, I took one simple step. I started a conversation.

“Hi ladies, is there anything you aren’t taking today,” I smiled, concealing the desperation in my eyes. This earned me a few pity glances…and then a few pity shoes along the way. It was a start. I had made progress. I now had something to offer. #Score.

With items that were neither my size nor my style, I began trading up. I bartered an XXL top for a dress that almost fit. That dress – wait for it – was then traded for my prized yellow halter. In fact, I netted out pretty well for a lady with nothing to offer just a short while ago. Here’s the proof:

lilypuliztersale

This got me thinking about what many of us PR pros face every day. There are many times your clients seem to have nothing to offer. When that day comes again, don’t be afraid to change your approach. Start a conversation with your client. Be nimble and ask questions like:

  • What is your future vision for the industry? (Lilly translation: Are you really going to wear those seven pairs of identical flip flops?)
  • What macro-trends can be leveraged to tell your story? (Lilly translation: I hear it’s going to be a rainy summer – trade you for your beach towel?)

Chances are, you’ll probably draw out something out that sticks and fills your shopping cart with an angle just strong to help your client break through.

Lesson 3. Personal connections still matter.
There’s much discussion around automated PR lately. But in the age of programmatic marketing and ad buying, why hasn’t PR become an automated process?

My experience bartering for Lilly Pulitzer at Target may hold part of the answer. The key to my success was quickly establishing personal relationships. The same is true about PR. At the end of the day, reporters, clients and everyone in between are people. Each has their own personal likes, moods, personalities and needs. That is why I believe PR will never truly be a science. It is still grounded in personal relationships. When you have nothing to give, personal relationships can help you break through. When things go awry, they may also mean crisis averted.

While that will likely be true forever, there are benefits to automating certain aspects of PR just like parts of my Lilly adventure. Those teams that queued up in line and strategically covered all parts of the store certainly perfected their automated formulas so to speak. But you know what? It wasn’t necessary to automate everything to be successful. My shopping results speak for themselves. And there’s no doubt I had more fun.

I chatted up groups of women and made friends. I bonded with fellow soloists over our mutual disbelief of the mayhem. We were kind and respectful to each other. We laughed as we crossed aisles and were loyal in end. “Here’s my last beach towel, you have it.”

The same goes for personal relationships with your clients and with members of the media. Those cultivated and nurtured over time create trust and loyalty. I’ll take that over an algorithm any day.

Lesson 4. Just roll with it.
To quote Robert Burns: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” True in life, shopping and PR. Despite my [albeit naïve] planning for Lilly’s arrival at Target, I entered into absolute chaos. Similarly, agency public relations brings constant change – from program pivots, to client comings and goings, to team changes, to unexpected crises on days that end in “y.”

It took me many years to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and to walk gracefully through it all. But finding a way to find peace in the face of change, challenge and disappointment is central to success in this industry.

The end result of my fateful shopping experience? A great story, some fabulous wins, a few new friends and a whole lot of fun. Sounds eerily similar to the makings of a great PR program now, doesn’t it?