PR TECHNIQUE: PR Stunts: Pulling a stunt that will whip up the media

To pull off a PR stunt that attracts wads of coverage, you need a strategy, creativity, and careful planning. And a little luck certainly won't hurt.

To pull off a PR stunt that attracts wads of coverage, you need a strategy, creativity, and careful planning. And a little luck certainly won't hurt.

Chicago-based Dome Communications knew it had pulled off the creme de la creme of PR stunts when its team of improv actors made it on camera outside of the Today show windows, armed with three-foot tanks of their client's aerosol-dispensed whip cream, Reddi-wip. While 15 seconds of morning-show fame is one of the most sought-after spots by many PR agencies and their media-hungry clients, the show is increasingly careful about allowing too much product plugging. So when host Katie Couric began spraying Reddi-wip in the mouths of audience members, and even onto the camera lens, the Dome team knew it had succeeded in creating the kind of visually irresistible PR feat that is one part strategy, one part creativity, and a big dollop of luck. "All of a sudden, you can tell she can't resist," says Dome VP Emily Johnson of Couric's spontaneity. "We [got] more than our 10-second sound bite." Ask the experts for tips on creating the perfect PR activity, and you'll often be deluged with meandering musings along the lines of "you just know it in your bones." Many stunt-meisters say that their talent for creating noteworthy events simply comes from years of trial and error, and an innate talent for knowing what will attract the media. While creating compelling concepts is more art than science, the best incidents do share some common ground. The main feature of all superior stunts is that they go beyond just grabbing media impressions. While their wacky or weird imagery may draw camera crews quicker than an interstate pile-up, the end result is that consumers receive a message about the brand identity. "We wanted people to experience the fun and spontaneity you experience with the product," says Johnson of the Reddi-wip team. She adds that those are characteristics of the brand, and an image of the product that the company consistently promotes. "It's not just about 'let's be crazy and kooky,'" she cautions. "Make the 'wow,' but make sure at the end of the day your key message is delivered." Sticking with a solid brand identity may be the first step, but it's a moot point if the stunt fails to attract attention. That's where visuals come in. The event has to be fun and compelling for consumers to watch - and therefore a draw for media. "We all know that TV thrives on eye candy," points out Steve Bryant, chief creative officer and president of the Seattle office of Publicis Dialog. "Without good pictures, it's not going to fly." When Publicis set out to help pet-supply chain Petsmart open a new store, it had no hesitation about playing up people's love of a cute critter to get those necessary visuals. Bryant and his team decided on a stunt that would highlight the company's commitment to being part of the community, and at the same time provide plenty of adorable dogs for the evening news. They helped Petsmart provide in-store grooming services to some of the local animal shelter's grubbiest guests, then put them on display for adoption. "These dogs were on skid row," says Bryant. "We wanted to give them a chance to be adopted, and they needed to be dressed up for that to happen. You can imagine the kind of photo ops it made possible." The grooming get-together worked so well that one of the reporters covering the event took a dog home after his wife saw the made-over mutt on TV. Good visuals may win coverage, but communicating what those pictures are going to offer in advance is a challenge of its own. "So much of one's ability to sell a stunt has to do with the mental picture that's painted in the mind of media," says Jim O'Connell of O'Connell & Goldberg in Hollywood, FL. That means creating a press release that invokes a strong image - and does it quickly. "If you don't capture their attention in the first three sentences, you've lost them," says Nann Miller, a PR consultant in Florida. Most stunt experts agree with Miller, and also add that follow-up is critical. If you're writing didn't score you a spot on the assignment calendar, then maybe a fast phone pitch can better explain why your idea is a good use of videotape. "The follow-up and being tenacious is key," says Liz Meyers, VP of BJ Communications in Phoenix. After you've developed a "what" to hook media attention, be sure to turn your thoughts to the "when." Timing can provide an essential boost to a stunt - and bad timing can kill it. "Picking the right time of day to accommodate media deadlines is crucial," says O'Connell. Make certain there are no other happenings overlapping your own, such as political rallies, press conferences, or other hard news that crews are obligated to cover. And take media schedules into account - not just when broadcasts need tape to air, but also when networks hold their daily news meetings. Understanding when the media is available is crucial. One of the most difficult aspects of creating a successful stunt is thinking of the problems that may pop up. When Meyers planned a product launch event for client Boston Market, her team thought of an irresistible visual: consumers wading into a Jacuzzi filled with mashed potatoes in search of hidden money. But the day of the "extreme mash for cash," the local college basketball team won the NCAA championship and held a celebration parade - stealing away most of Meyers' media. A lone photographer showed up just in time to catch a rowdy contestant as he swan-dived headfirst into the tub. "Before I could yell, 'Stop' he dove," recalls Meyers. "Seconds later, he came up with a cut on his head. I had nightmares all night, worrying that the photo in the paper would be him bleeding, dripping mashed potatoes, with the headline 'Local man is victim of extreme PR stunt.'" If that wasn't enough trauma, Meyers soon realized that the mashed potatoes were creating a slick film on the parking lot where the event was held. "The more we rinsed, the more slippery the entire parking lot seemed to get," she laments. While the affair had a silver lining - a photo sans blood appeared in the paper - Meyers' experience is proof that you can't be too careful. "I'm still a little shaky about describing this experience," she admits. "But if it can help one PR pro escape a possible mashed-potato disaster, my life will have meaning." -------------- Technique tips 1 Do think about how the event will reflect on the brand identity, and what message it will send to consumers 2 Do create fun and engaging visuals for the media that will look good on camera 3 Do make sure you give the media a very clear idea of what those visuals will be in advance of the event 1 Don't let bad timing steal coverage. Make sure you check for conflicting news stories 2 Don't aim for publicity for publicity's sake. Be certain your event is appropriate for the client's product or service 3 Don't underestimate the problems that can occur. Being prepared for the worst-case scenario is essential

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