Tele2 has admitted that it staged a meteorite crash in the Latvian countryside this week, resulting in a 10-metre wide crater. Emergency services attended the scene followed by scientists, who quickly identified that the meteorite was a hoax.
A spokesman for Tele2's Latvian unit said the stunt had been intended to distract attention from the country's economic crisis and give people something ‘creative and exciting' to talk about.
But the Latvian government, battling against the deepest recession in the European Union, was not amused and said it would cut its contract with the company in protest.
‘The Interior Ministry doesn't want to do business with a firm that promotes itself at our expense,' said Linda Murniece, interior minister.
Murniece accused Tele2 of ‘cynical mockery' at the expense of Latvians, while the police said they were launching a formal investigation that could lead to criminal charges.
The firm has now promised to reimburse the Baltic nation for the cost of sending military units and scientists to investigate the ten metre-wide crater.
Beatwax MD Michael Brown said: ‘There doesn't seem to be a clear motive for this particular stunt idea... Why chose an idea based around a hoax where the clear intention was to expose this as a fake and so temporarily pique interest, and then deflate everybody the next day when it is revealed as a not so elaborate publicity stunt?'
He added: ‘Crucially, what has the idea got to do with Tele 2's core business offering of telecommunications? Precisely nothing. For me, that is the real disaster.... If it was Tele2 [behind the stunt] then the question has to be asked as to whether this method of communication is in keeping with the brand's personality and values – a perpetrator of a hoax stunt seems way out of step with a provider of telecommunications services to the state and more akin to a brand trying to attract a youthful audience.'
Peter Mountstevens, managing partner Taylor Herring, said: ‘A great publicity stunt can work wonders gaining a huge amount of coverage and demonstrating artistry that rivals traditional advertising for both creativity and return on investment. On the flipside, a lame attempt can taint the whole industry. The bad news is that that the history of the PR profession is littered with examples where bad timing, crass ideas and poor planning have resulted in more damage and negative headlines than good publicity.'
Mountstevens said that the Tele2 stunt fell firmly in to the latter category but noted that it was not the only disastrous PR stunt of recent times to be staged by a mobile phone company.
At a 2002 rugby match between New Zealand and Australia, two streakers caused fury among the spectators when they interrupted the game, wearing nothing but the Vodafone logo.
The police were called and duly arrested the streakers before the game was over, resulting in the CEO of Vodafone being forced to issue an apology for encouraging the two men to streak through the game – and thus break the law. The company made sure that everyone knew how sorry they were via a $30,000 pound donation to a non-profit campaign aimed at reducing sports injuries.
Memorable PR stunts of the last decade include American illusionist David Blaine's 44 days suspended in a glass box by the River Thames in London in 2003, and FHM magazine projecting a 100ft naked image of Gail Porter on to the Houses of Parliament back in 1999.
Mountstevens said some of the best PR stunts of recent times included student Mark McGowan's attempts to push a peanut, using only his nose, from Goldsmiths College to 10 Downing Street in protest at his student debt.
'McGowan's two-week journey across London in September 2003 drew massive media interest and culminated in McGowan delivering the nut to Prime Minister Tony Blair, asking him to accept it as payment for his debt,' recalled Mountsetevens.
Mountstevens also highlighted a stunt by Asda which tapped in to public interest around the 2004 European Football Championship. Piggybacking the media frenzy of Euro 2004, the supermarket chain offered free eye tests to Swiss citizens. The stunt responded to a controversial decision of Swiss referee Urs Meier who disallowed a late goal. His ruling terminated England's future in the tournament.