News Analysis: PR stunts juggle risk with success

Supermarket Asda seems to have hit the PR jackpot with its optician promotion based on the controversial decision of a Euro 2004 referee. Peter Simpson reports on the lucrative and risky world of PR opportunism. Opticians at Asda tested an unusually high number of Swiss nationals in the days following England's footballing defeat at the hands of Portugal in Euro 2004.

'We carried out a survey of our in-store opticians and yes, we saw quite a few Swiss cash in,' says Asda PR manager Ed Watson, the man behind the 'Free Eye Test for the Swiss' offer - borne out of the decision by Swiss referee Urs Meier to disallow England's late quarter-final goal that could have clinched victory.

Watson has had praise heaped upon him after his flash of inspiration that has raised the profile of Asda's previously little-known 68 in-store opticians. It has also boosted the supermarket's brand generally.

The offer gained coverage in most of the national and regional press.

Opportunity knocks

Watson says the idea came to him when he was in the pub, drinking a beer and listening to angry fans berate the apparently myopic Meier.

Cleared by Asda senior management early next morning, he dispatched a press release to the Press Association and PR Newswire, and branches were informed. By midday, the phones in the Asda press office were facing meltdown.

The publicity stunt could go down as a stroke of PR genius and is part of a breed of activity that has sought to piggyback the news agenda. 'Such opportunities are rare, and a news event must suit the brand,' says Taylor Herring Communications managing director James Herring.

He says PR opportunism has to be reactive, topical, irreverent and original, and PROs need to think like journalists and be on top of the news agenda. Herring estimates that it recently achieved £1m worth of advertising publicity for client UKTV Style from a stunt that cost £2,000.

As Big Brother 5 got under way, Herring hired an empty office and had one wall painted a day. The event, Watching Paint Dry, was cast on UKTV Style's website and received over 200,000 hits.

'Agencies need to be fully trusted by their client and there needs to be positive thinking from an alert team that keeps up with topical events,' says Herring. 'PR opportunism needs to be given the green light quickly if it is to work, and that requires confidence from the client and conviction (within the agency).'

A go-ahead attitude is essential to meeting the news agenda. A company structure with layers of management might entail weeks of approval processes, so that by the time an idea is signed off, it's dead in the water.

In a teeming market, competing for space to communicate the message is as much a battle as getting the brand message across. And such competition has pitfalls. An overzealous agency may misjudge a given agenda, the stunt may backfire and it could be faced with a wall of cynicism from its audience, client and journalists. Such scepticism can take months or years to erase.

EasyJet took a great deal of flack over its 2003 'Discover Weapons of Mass Distraction' ads, which depicted a well-endowed woman in a bikini to publicise summer flights to the sun. 'The whole WMD stunt was thought up before David Kelly (died),' explains easyJet head of communications Toby Nicol. 'We knew we would get some criticism before the launch, but at that time it was believed that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq.'

The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the £1.5m ad was not offensive, after receiving 186 complaints that it demeaned women and trivialised the Iraq war.

Piggybacking the news

'For a PR stunt to work, it has to be topical, humorous and reflect the type of company you are. You also need to have insight into the nature of your clients,' says Nicol. 'You would not expect British Airways to try such PR opportunism because it portrays a more conservative business. In a crowded market like the airline industry, you need to stand out.'

Borkowski PR founder Mark Borkowski says: 'PR opportunism has to have connectivity with the audience, the market and the media. It's important to remember the media can never deny a good spectacle.'

PR stunts have been around for 100 years, he says, but what has turned brand managers off the idea of capitalising on news events is the failure of so-called 'shock tactics'. He adds: 'You have to be creative, adventurous and able to walk the line. But ill-thought-out stunts riding on the back of news can so easily cause bad publicity.'

PR opportunism is an effective tool in the communications professional's armoury. A newsworthy stunt that suits the brand's character can reap huge media value - yet the risks can be high. Even Asda's eye-test offer, for instance, could be deemed inappropriate since Meier's retreat into hiding under police protection following vitriolic baiting by newspapers such as The Sun.

When attaching campaigns to news events, PROs need to be aware that future developments could put their client in a bad light. Like all stunts, the PR variety has potential to go wrong.

STUNTS THAT USED THE NEWS

EasyJet, 2003 David Beckham threatens legal action after it uses his image in a 'hair today - gone tomorrow' ad.

Channel 4, 2003 Richard and Judy prepare for their comeback. To capitalise on the opening of Mel Gibson film Signs, crop circle portraits of the chat show hosts appear in wheat fields.

Taco Bell, 2001 The US fast food chain promises every American a free taco if the core of the Mir space station hits a Taco-branded target in the South Pacific. The alternative to the official landing area is widely reported by the media.

Virgin, 1999 A hot-air balloon is flown over London, emblazoned with the words 'BA can't get it up' after the London Eye, sponsored by the airline, became stuck during its elevation.

BRMB Radio, 1999 Carla Germaine, a 23-year-old former model, and sales manager Greg Cordell, 28, won competition 'Two Strangers and a Wedding', organised by Birmingham's BRMB radio station.

The ceremony was due to go out live on air on the network, but was delayed for 30 minutes after registrar David Williams expressed distaste for the idea, saying he did not want it 'turned into a media circus'.

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