Muhammad Ali Packed a PR Punch
When news spread of Muhammad Ali’s passing recently, it sparked a wonderful and vivid memory for me. In the early 2000’s I was a Director, Corporate Communications at Scholastic, the global children’s publishing and entertainment company. The office was always buzzing with activity, whether it was a meeting of the NYC Board of Education or a visit by an author or celebrity. On one such afternoon, Muhammad Ali was in the office to meet about a forthcoming book series. When I heard he was around, I ran out of my office to catch a glimpse. There he was, surrounded by a group of my colleagues and visiting kids, basking in the glow of being recognized and adored and doing magic tricks. He was charming and magnetic.
In reading his obituary and learning more about his life and struggles, Ali’s talent as a master communicator became crystal clear. He built a strong brand persona and stayed true to himself even in the face of adversity. “The heart of the champion is this: One never repudiates one’s deepest values, one never gives in,”wrote Joyce Carol Oates of Ali in The New York Times. Here are 3 lessons gleaned from how Ali carried himself for marketing communications professionals.
- Core Brand Values Focus – Ali’s self-proclaimed positioning was: “I am the greatest.” When teased for bragging, he responded, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.” From his earliest appearances as Cassius Clay, Ali was known as the “Louisville Lip” for his outspoken ways. It earned him initial media attention. He kept attention focused on him through his continued unexpected pronouncements and by winning championships.
- Hooks for Audience Engagement: Boldness & Quoteable Language – Ali remained outspoken and boastful throughout his career. He dismissed authority and avoided the draft, refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. He consistently proclaimed his greatness and owned it with all of his heart and soul. With his clever sense of humor, he often used poetry and catchphrases to proclaim his competitive edge. Although some of his sayings packed more of a punch when spoken with Ali attitude, many have stayed in our lexicon, such as “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe,” “Don’t count the days. Make the days count” and “Live everyday as if it were your last because someday you’re going to be right.” He often repeated these catchphrases which embedded them in the public’s memory.
- Accessibility Facilitates Media Coverage – Wherever he was, Ali made himself accessible and available to the media. Peppering his comments on issues from sports to civil rights and the Vietnam War, he regularly did interviews (many on the spur of the moment) and became a significant pop culture presence for more than a half-century, featured in numerous movies, television shows, books and other platforms.
What are your thoughts and memories on “the greatest”?