Is it real life? Or a brand-sponsored stunt? It's hard to tell

No matter how bizarre, brands must be ready for anything.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between real life and brand PR stunts.

After reports of threatening clown sightings emerged from cities in North and South Carolina last month, the public’s first reaction was bone chilling fear, followed by relief as many people assumed, "Wait a minute, this must be a publicity stunt."

The timing was suspect. Rob Zombie’s crowdfunded horror film 31, starring scary clowns, opened in theaters on September 1. However, the production company behind the movie, Saban Films, quickly came out and denied any involvement. New Line Cinema’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It, set to be released next September, was also suspected. However, New Line was also adamant that the rash of clown sightings is not connected with the film, a rep from the company told PRWeek.

New Line could have remained mute on the matter, but was smart to strongly clarify its non-involvement. If an idea is planted in the public’s mind by even a conspiracy theory-embracing website, it’s as good as true to many people.

Even something positive can have an adverse effect on a brand, with many consumers being cynical about corporations’ intentions. For instance, a firefighter in full gear used a stair climber at a Planet Fitness to climb 110 sets in honor of 9/11 victims in September. His story went viral, along with a picture of him in action. But the presence of a Planet Fitness logo front-and-center in the photo promoted people on platforms such as Reddit and Twitter to question the story’s authenticity. (Planet Fitness told PRWeek the story was "absolutely not something orchestrated by the brand in any way). Similarly, some social media users have theorized the "Chewbacca Mom" video was a PR stunt for Kohl’s.

When a brand responds to rumors, the timing and tone are critical. Dr Pepper successfully debunked a hoax on the internet earlier this year that claimed the brand was about to be shut down. The soda brand moved quickly, poking fun at its own image and the hearsay and creating a GIF of a soda can being crushed with the hashtag #CrushingRumorsLike.

Rapid rumor response is yet another page that brands must add to the crisis communications playbook. No matter how bizarre, brands must be ready to prove that they’re not associated with some events.

Diana Bradley is senior editor at PRWeek.

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