As we know, a publicity stunt is a planned event designed to attract the public’s attention to the event’s organizers or their cause. Publicity stunts can be professionally organized, or set up by amateurs. Such events are frequently utilized by commercial companies and by celebrities, who notably include athletes and politicians.
During the course of my 30-year PR career, I’ve found that there are basically two types of people—stunt people and non-stunt people. And it’s really a matter of preference and comfort rather than results because a strong case can probably be made either way.
I’ll start by saying that I am not a “stunt man” per se, but on occasion, I have been known to use celebrities and stunt-like tactics to make a point.
Now, PETA (the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) are big-time stunt people. And they get LOTS of media attention for dumb things like their latest one, writing a letter to a mayor in Idaho asking to rename “Chicken Dinner Road” to something more fowl-friendly. They wrote, “PETA is asking Mayor Nancolas to change this road’s name to one that celebrates chickens as individuals, not as beings to kill, chop up, and label as ‘dinner.’” Uh huh. And like most of their stunts, this one has been covered by every major news outlet you can name, so I guess mission accomplished, right?
Well, if PETA’s mission is to be known for doing really dumb things really loudly then yes, because that is the reputation the organization has cultivated over the years. So if you make a LOT of noise, but it doesn’t really serve your organization’s brand identity in a positive way, did you really win? See, I don’t think so.
The International House of Pancakes (ihop) is another one. Tons of press and awareness for its name change to ihob, not very much of it positive, and you’re left with a pretty empty feeling, not unlike the feeling after you’ve eaten a marginal quality breakfast for an affordable price.
To me, great PR is about relationships (that’s actually what the “R” stands for) and so when you’re making BIG headlines, you want that media/influencer coverage to somehow deepen your relationships or bring you new ones (preferably without damaging the existing ones). To me, that’s a real PR win.
One of the founders of my profession, P.T. Barnum, (yep) once said, “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” And I get that. I really do. But as the profession has evolved and media audiences have become more complex and fragmented, I think he might agree with me that when publicity creates a negative perception of the brand, it’s probably not such a good thing.
So when you’re planning your next big PR stunt, just be sure to consider the consequences IF you don’t land it correctly.