How to avoid the pitfalls and make your stunt run and run

The PR stunt may be one of marketing’s oldest tricks but social media is changing the rules of engagement – and the opportunities to be had

Susanna Simpson
Susanna Simpson

No one can argue that the number of marketing messages bombarding consumers every day has reached stratospheric levels. With so many brands out there competing for limited consumer pounds and attention, how on earth can you get your brand message to cut through?

Well, sometimes, a successful PR stunt is just what the doctor ordered. Dangerous territory some might say; how do you avoid the pitfalls, such as the one Gordon Brown fell into on YouTube, or painfully flying by the seat of your ripped pants down the side of a Las Vegas hotel, as Sir Richard Branson famously did when promoting his airline a couple of years ago? Granted, the PR stunt is no new tactic but done right it can be a hugely influential approach for marketers to adopt these days and that’s because the rules of engagement and execution have shifted considerably.

Everyone recognises a PR stunt when they see one; the press thrives on them for positive and negative content. “PR stunt” is even a commonly used phrase in the English language. Memorable examples include the Calendar Girls from the Yorkshire Women’s Institute posing nude for a calendar to raise money for charity, a stunt so successful it turned into a hit movie. And I’m sure many of you were also intrigued by Tourism Queensland’s “best job in the world”

competition earlier this year, which saw 34-yearold Ben Southall from Hampshire scoop the job of “caretaker” from over 34,000 other applicants. This was a PR masterstroke which led to more than a thousand media organisations worldwide reporting on it. The campaign delivered almost £40m-worth of media exposure through TV, radio and newspaper coverage, as well as a host of online discussions across the mainstream internet and blogosphere.

But before we get too carried away, I have to point out one obvious, yet often forgotten point. You must make sure that no matter how crazy or entertaining your stunt idea, it is critical that the idea actually promotes your brand. Every time the media talked about the WI “naked” calendar it drove people to buy one. The “best job in the world” campaign wasn’t really about the job, it was about taking a cold weather and recessionfatigued nation to the fantasy land of a hot, tranquil and beautiful island. A simple yet strategically effective way of linking escapism and holidays to a tourist destination.

PR stunts are old news, I hear the cynical among you say. Perhaps, but isn’t that down to the environment marketers want to play in when it comes to PR stunts? Everyone knows the rules of a successful stunt: it is honest, forgivable, entertaining and, dare I say, expected. What has changed, however, is the strength of consumer influence that dictates whether your stunt is a hit or a miss. The biggest consideration we need to take on board from recent months is that street journalism is thriving and there are far too many of these citizen-hacks to populate and manage on your PR Rolodex.

With the ever increasing rise of social media’s influence, a great stunt is no longer just about getting journalists to publish your endeavours in their papers. Get it right and your PR stunt can now be a stunningly powerful piece of opt-in marketing. A campaign where the public run with it and promote your brand message for you.

Get it right and your PR stunt can now be a stunningly powerful piece of opt-in marketing. A campaign where the public run with it and promote your brand message for you.

If you get it wrong you no longer just risk the papers not running your story, you have swathes of passionate, opinionated people online that will take your brand reputation down in hours. They nearly got the better of Twitterati leader Stephen Fry at the weekend, making the front page of The Sunday Times. Believe me, you need them on your side.

Let me prove my social media point – a simple projection stunt carried out by Sky Arts last week involved the recreation of the infamous Pink Floyd Dark Side Of The Moon album cover over Primrose Hill. Despite the fact it got published in a fair few major newspapers, Google produces 6,500 results for the search term “Pink Floyd Primrose Hill” already. What’s interesting is that the first three pages (and we all know no one looks past the first page) of natural search results don’t list one mainstream newspaper site – they are all posts and stories on independent blogs and social media sites.

Top marks have to go to the Sky Arts PR team though. The risk with this stunt was that their message would get lost under the shadow of Pink Floyd and its iconic artwork, yet every search references Sky Arts in the first line of the search result, despite the fact I never typed “Sky Arts” into Google. So far, the stunts I’ve covered have been for just light-hearted brand awareness, but can stunts be used to communicate serious issues too? A couple of weeks ago I saw an example of PR genius gracing all the news channels and the front cover of many of the Sunday papers. The vice-president of The Maldives, along with 11 other cabinet ministers, donned scuba gear and submerged four metres below the sea surface to hold the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting. Their message was simple: a stronger climate change agreement at the climate summit in Copenhagen. The message was communicated instantly by clever timing and a simple picture that said it all, words were surplus to requirement.

So how will you know if your publicity stunt idea is good enough? Ask yourself if it will make people talk online and offline. Will it entertain people enough to get them to do your work for you and spread virally? And finally does it genuinely carry your brand message? Or are you just creating some great free entertainment at your own expense?

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