When John Oliver and his team of talented writers on HBO’s Last Week Tonight decide to spotlight an issue, you are guaranteed an experience of almost paradoxical joy and outrage. Taking cues from his time at The Daily Show (before it nosedived with Jon Stewart’s departure), Oliver exposes the absurdity of life, business, religion and politics through a brand of humor that resonates well with educated millennials.

Every episode of LWT follows the same basic pattern: (1) introduce the topic and explain its relevance, (2) present a full narrative backed by outrageous facts and clips, and (3) conclude with a call to action designed to go viral and apply public pressure for change. This advocacy slant has helped LWT standout from many of its comedy contemporaries and more strikingly has resulted in tremendous reach and impact online. The Last Week Tonight YouTube channel is HBO’s most subscribed (more than double Game of Thrones) and each clip garners hundreds of millions of impressions across all social media through frequent sharing.

Take them to church.

In August of last year, Oliver’s show on televangelists exploiting vulnerable people (and the IRS rules that permit it) concluded with an announcement that he had created his own tax-exempt church: Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption. As part of the campaign he set up a phone line, PO Box and website to accept donations. Ultimately he ended up with thousands of letters, packages and dollars, while the episode itself went viral and garnered vast earned media coverage: Time, Forbes, Business Insider, Daily Beast and even a wide number of Christian publications, almost all in support of his message.

These are the results clients write large checks to public affairs firms to get. And it’s no coincidence that the pattern for narrative Oliver uses on his show is not much different than what PR pros use as a blueprint when designing advocacy campaigns for their own clients. In effect, Oliver and his writers have become PR strategist, in addition to entertainers, and are able to succeed in driving audience participation at insane levels. What is it that makes them so effective?

Self-expression makes the difference.

According to a survey Comedy Central conducted, 88% of young adults said comedy is their “#1 form of self-expression” and 58% said they will share a link to a funny video in order to leave an impression on someone. Humor is how they shape their identity and perceptions of the world around them.

Given the success shows like Last Week Tonight, The Daily Show and Colbert Report have had in stirring the pot among the internet generation, it’s been clear for a while now that comedy has a special ability to garner attention, tear down apathy and compel engagement around highly politicized issues. There’s a reason satirical news site The Onion has become more valuable than the Washington Post. Funny wins.

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Before you decry this as the downfall of society, that young people “don’t care enough” about important issues, recognize the context (and also that being so quick to judge puts you on a rapid path to aging out). This is an environment where we have unlimited content and instant entertainment always a finger swipe away.

Breaking through the clutter requires a standout approach. Info in the form of so-called “infotainment” appeals to shrinking attention spans while still keeping us abreast of important issues. And comedy, above all, helps us cope with our growing cynicism of a society that often doesn’t match up with our ideals.

The key takeaways.

First, recognize that the content comes first and the earned media follows. You do not want the press to be the source of your message, instead you want them buzzing about the content you put out, much like the millions of media impressions John Oliver gets with nearly every segment he does. The idea of PR meaning “pitching reporters” is rapidly becoming antiquated.

Second, you need to be brave. When an issue is politicized, often the humor best comes from a place of sarcasm and outrage. Yes, you might offend someone. And I know it’s difficult because it’s often the clients that are afraid to take chances, but you should be working with them to push those limits.

And third, you need to be funny of course. This can be quite the culture shock for the often lawyer-led public affairs firms, especially those inside the beltway. But recognizing the power of humor, it’s important to assemble partners that are good at comedic storytelling and give them the space to work their magic.

That’s what the Obama administration did when they commissioned Funny or Die to encourage Healthcare.gov signups. The President himself sat opposite Zach Galifianakis on his popular Between Two Ferns show (a parody of a bad public access show with Zach as a mean-spirited host). Buried in the hilariously uncomfortable interview was a brief pitch to sign up on the Healthcare.gov marketplace. The result: a whopping 40% jump in traffic 24 hours after the video went live. So successful that Funny or Die opened a DC office to pursue a public-policy focused practice.

Advocacy campaigns often deal with serious issues so there is a natural tendency to make the messaging that follows serious. It’s hard to avoid without feeling as though you are diminishing the value or importance of the topic. But the evidence is clear: make someone laugh and you make them care.


Josh Belhumeur is a Partner at BRINK and has lead online advocacy campaigns for clients such as the Gates Foundation, MPAA and Families USA and provides consulting and development services for many of the DC region’s top public affairs firms.

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