Four lessons PR pros can learn from poker games

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What do poker and PR have in common?

Back in my college days, I used to play Texas Hold’em, a fast-paced type of poker. There’s a lot to love about the game – for me, my favourite part was how it would bring people from all walks of life together. In a dingy basement in Limerick, I’d walk in once a week to find men (and yes, it was mostly men) young and old, rich and poor, from all over the place sat around the table. It didn’t matter who you were once the cards were dealt.

Some people play the maths, spending the evening calculating the odds, while others prefer the psychology, staring their opponents down intensely to try and analyse their opponents. The way a person plays a hand of poker could tell you a lot about them.

Tonight, I played poker for the first time in years – and it was just as thrilling as ever (even if it was for charity and no cash was on offer!) It got me thinking about what poker and PR have in common, and what Public Relations pros can learn from the game.


It’s vital to build suspense

The cards are dealt. The first round of betting takes place. The dealer turns three cards (the flop). There’s another round of betting. The dealer reveals a fourth card (the turn). A third round of betting. The final card (the river) is revealed, and a final round of betting takes place. Players have the option to bet, call, raise or fold. With each round of betting, the suspense builds and the pot gets bigger. Finally, those who are still in the hand turn up their cards and the winner is revealed. You find out who was bluffing all along and who was slow-playing (trapping people into betting by acting like your hand isn’t that good).

If you’re playing in the hand, your heart starts to race. Your eyes dilate. You start to sweat a little. It’s exhilarating. Even if you’re just watching the hand play out, the excitement is intense. The element of surprise is paramount to the enjoyment of the game. There’s a mounting body of evidence that suggests that positive surprises lead to delight – and that this means it can be a powerful PR & Marketing tool.

Take calculated risks

Of course, every poker game is a gamble. And so is every new PR campaign. But the level of risk is not always the same, because you can educate yourself. In a poker game, the basic rules are easy. But learning to calculate odds is not. You have to take into account not only how strong your hand is, but also how many chips you have, how many are in the pot already, how many your opponents have, and how many other players are still in the hand – amongst other things.

It’s the same in a PR campaign – success is never guaranteed, but by taking careful stock of your own resources, knowing what your competitors are doing, and understanding other external factors that might influence your chances of success, you can decide which risks are worth taking, and when it’s better to just fold and wait for a better hand.

Keep count of your chips

wilde-words-pocket-aces-poker-chipsDespite Kenny Roger’s emphatic advice not to “count your money when you’re sitting at the table”, in both poker and PR, it’s vital to know how much money you have to play with – and how you can leverage it.

If you’ve got a limited number of chips, you’ve got to be especially clever about how you use them. If you’ve got a huge number of chips – be careful, your ego can cause poor decisions that see that pile evaporate in no time – with nothing to show for it. PR budgets work just like this. Often, you’ve got to learn to do more with less. And when you’ve got a big budget to work with, spend that money as if it’s coming out of your own pocket – and be damned sure you can measure and evaluate the results.

Sometimes you do everything right and still lose the hand

In an unpredictable world, sometimes you can do everything right and still not get the results you hoped for. In poker as in Public Relations, there is always an element of luck. Whether you were dealt pocket aces only to lose to a flush, or you launched a major PR campaign the same week as the blue-and-black/white-and-gold dress fiasco erupted, there are some things in life you just can’t plan for.

If I get knocked out in the first few minutes of a poker tournament, I don’t beat myself up, I ask myself “Did I play the hand right?” If I made the right choices and I got unlucky, I can live with that. However, if I made the wrong decision because I went on tilt (poker parlance for letting your emotions cloud your judgement), I’d be annoyed with myself!

When you’re evaluating the results of the campaign, be sure to look at what you’d do differently next time and learn from it – just like you can learn from it when you get a bad beat in poker.

So, there’s my take on poker and PR… There’s something to learn wherever you look. What do you think?

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  1. Brilliant! This is so clever and you have mentioned some really good points. The positive suprise, the gamble, knowing your budget and the element of surprise, pretty much nails what PR is about. Oh and poker!

  2. What an interesting post. I’m not a gambler and I’m definitely not a risk taker. However, sometimes we gotta take our chances sometimes. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Ty says:

    Great post. I’m learning a bit more about PR to further promote my blog, however I have a feeling I will probably sit the game out and let the professionals handle the bulk of it and I’ll just keep a novice, working knowledge of how the game is played.

  4. Jolina says:

    Nice comparison! You know what else they have in common? You gotta have nerves of steel to survive and win!

  5. Elizabeth O. says:

    That’s a very good analogy. I think it’s important to keep the suspense coming when you’re promoting something especially if it’s going to boost the business. Make sure to not overdo it though. These are very good pointers.

  6. Felicia says:

    This is great advice since I’ll be headed to Vegas this October!!

  7. Terri says:

    What great tips. I’ve never played poker before but lately I’ve been allowing myself to take calculated risks.

  8. Vanessa says:

    hahah great article! I love how thoughtful (and true) it all it 🙂 SO creative!

  9. Lizelle says:

    What a brilliant comparison!! I never thought about it this way.

  10. I used to play poker and I can really relate to this. It makes perfect sense 🙂

  11. jennifer L says:

    I just love the comparison between poker and pr. It’s actually very true which has it’s good and bad points.

  12. Mary says:

    I definitely agree with these. Sometimes you have to take the losses, but sometimes…it’s incredible.

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