PR Lessons we can learn from boxing legend Muhammad Ali

Much has been written about Muhammad Ali since his death at the weekend.

The fact that U.S. Presidents past and present have added to the eulogies speaks volumes for the impact the former world heavyweight champion had on the world.

He transcended world sport, creating controversy and ultimately attracting widespread popularity for his charisma, his courage to stand up for what he felt was right and his sporting prowess.

A sportsman who understood the meaning of a soundbite, knew how to engage an audience and yet maintained his position even when he was put under immense pressure, there is much that organisations and individuals can learn from the 'Greatest Of All Time.'

1.    Differentiate yourself from the opposition
Ali said that he declared that he was the greatest even when he wasn’t sure of it himself.

Of course, he had to work hard to prove that he was as good as he said he was, and if there had been much room for doubt, he would have become a laughing stock.

Ali was a master at reinforcing his status as “the greatest” and organisations and individuals will benefit from positioning their brand that sets them apart from the competition.

“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.   I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”

2.    Make your story interesting
Ali was the master of branding before it became commonplace.

He told of how he took up boxing after his bike was stolen, and how a policeman advised him to take up boxing so that it didn’t happen again.

He wore shirts emblazoned with his name and even daubed himself in Vaseline to make himself look better in the ring.

In an age where black Americans were considered second class citizens, Ali knew his personality and his achievements could make a real difference.

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky, my name not yours. My religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

3.    Ensure you are memorable
Ali was disarming, engaging and entertaining and attracted support because his words stuck in the memory.

We tell our clients to think in headlines when they undertake media interviews, and if you have the wit and humour to make it entertaining, it’s more likely to stick in the memory and get audiences on your side.

Ali was one of the first rappers, undertaking interviews ahead of some of his fights in rhyme which captured the imagination of media and fans alike.

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Your hands can't hit, what your eyes can't see.”

4.    Don’t let others tell your story
Ali faced controversy for much of his career. His conversion to Islam, refusal to fight in Vietnam and some of his fights, provoked rivals, critics and politicians who tried to besmirch his reputation. 

In the face of huge pressure, he refused to compromise, he refused to change his opinion and he refused to give up. 

Throughout, he faced the media, answered his critics and gave his side of the story. He did not hide when political and public pressure painted him as unpatriotic or cowardly. He eloquently explained his reasons and ultimately, was recognised for standing up for his convictions and civil rights accordingly.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

5.    Be sincere
Some would argue that Ali’s decision not to accept his draft to Vietnam was unlawful, unpatriotic and that he deserved all the trouble that subsequently came his way.

He explained that he had no argument with the Vietnamese and that it would be difficult to fight for the U.S. when racial segregation and civil unrest was so commonplace in 1960s America.

Ali ended up losing three years of his career and millions in earnings and sponsorship. Some would argue that it eventually cost him his health because he boxed on longer than he should have done, but throughout, he remained consistent in what he said, refusing to buckle in the face of huge public, political and media pressure.

He stood firm in what he believed was right and ended up not just winning his political battle, but showing the world that he was right.

“They (US Government) did what they thought was right, and I did what I thought was right.

“What I suffered physically was worth what I've accomplished in life. A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life.”

“Impossible is Nothing” Ali said, and in his boxing career, it really was.