A cleverly executed stunt can still be a useful PR tool, as cable network AMC proved during a recent campaign for its annual MonsterFest series of horror films.
"The key is to really know what producers are looking for," explains Theano Apostolou, media relations VP for both the AMC and WE networks. "If it's strictly self-promoting, then it's not really giving them anything of value for their audience, so the better the stunt and the closer we work with producers, the better we can get our messages out."
In years past, AMC had used sweepstakes and other promotions to raise awareness for MonsterFest. But for the ninth annual film festival in October, Apostolou worked with Cataldi PR to develop a Halloween-themed visual to capture the media's attention.
"The whole effort was spearheaded by Theano, but [ultimately was] the product of collaborative brainstorming she set up between AMC PR, our team, and the event production company, the Michael Alan Group," says Sal Cataldi, president of Cataldi PR.
The resulting idea: an invasion of "zombies joining the commuters coming over the Brooklyn Bridge during the morning rush hour."
Because this was a one-off event, Apostolou says the key to its success was its timing. "Halloween fell on a Monday, so we decided the best way to hijack all the Halloween press was to stage this on the Thursday before," she says. "That would give editors a really great visual they could use over the weekend."
Apostolou and Cataldi decided that an early morning launch would also give them a chance to capture the drive-time TV audience. "We knew these local morning producers have traffic helicopters doing live broadcasts four to five times an hour and would be interested in a great visual they could use during those spots," Cataldi says.
The "Zombie Invasion" was executed true guerrilla-style, with very little advance notice and no police or other city permits. "We began reaching out to TV news assignment desks a few days before, who put us in touch with morning producers, who then let us chat with the helicopters' traffic reporters," Cataldi says.
AMC hired the Michael Alan Group to find 50 actors and put them in zombie and werewolf makeup beginning around midnight the night before the October 27 event. While the stunt was taking place, Cataldi and his team helped direct the helicopters to the best visual as the 50 monsters - many dressed in business suits and carrying briefcases - walked across the bridge.
The zombies then traveled to Penn Station and Times Square for additional photo opportunities. "We chose easily recognizable landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge or the subway that everyone could relate to," says Apostolou. "We even recreated the famous World War II kiss in Times Square between a soldier and a nurse."
Most of the focus was on broadcast outlets, but Cataldi also made sure to cater to local newspapers by staging photos of a zombie reading that day's edition of several New York dailies.
The "Zombie Invasion" was carried live by many New York TV stations, among them WB11, WABC, and the Fox Network's Good Day New York. CNN also sent cameras for the national audience, while the Associated Press sent a photographer whose picture was featured in newspapers across the nation.
The event also attracted the attention of Today producers, and several of the zombies joined a pumpkin carver hired by AMC for a live nationally broadcast segment Halloween morning.
More important, AMC got its highest-ever ratings for its Halloween night slate of horror films.
Apostolou says she was pleased with the media coverage of the event, adding: "It really sets the stage for next year, which will be the MonsterFest's 10th anniversary. We're already brainstorming for that, and Sal and Cataldi PR are integral in that process."
PR team: AMC (Jericho, NY) and Cataldi PR (New York)
Campaign: AMC MonsterFest Zombie Invasion
Time frame: September to October 2005