As someone who follows the communications industry for a living I usually groan when I hear the phrase "PR stunt" and prefer to see the profession portrayed as a sophisticated modern mix of paid, earned, shared, and owned media.
Like many practitioners, PRWeek shies away from promoting the concept of a stunt, preferring to use the phrase "Promotional Event" in our awards categories, for example.
One of the criticisms of the PR category at Cannes, especially in the early years, was that much of the work honored could be categorized as stunts. As the 10th iteration rapidly approaches, there is still a specific category in the PR Lions for "Use of Events & Stunts."
So, what to make of this week’s Super Slam "fake" press release by Denny’s?
You can dress it up however you like, but in essence it’s a good old-fashioned stunt. The word stunt has many meanings, but in this context I'll use this definition from Collins: "Something interesting that is done in order to attract attention and get publicity for the person or company responsible for it."
Denny’s worked with its agency EP + Co to "accidentally" send out a working draft of a press release on Monday, complete with tracked changes, to promote its $5.99 Super Slam value meal.
The "draft" was sent to media to promote the limited time menu item and prompted several outlets to contact the restaurant chain to check if the statement was real.
The PDF file was "authentically" labeled "v8 final FINAL rev 2," and included changes from Denny’s SVP and CMO John Dillon suggesting edits such as adding exclamation points to the headline and super-sizing the product.
The target of the stunt was the press rather than consumers and it was designed to break through the clutter with an activation that would benefit all of Denny’s franchised diner-style restaurants.
Dillon says the "accidental" release fits the brand’s "playful tongue-in-cheek" voice on social media.
Cynics might say the episode proves how easily we’re all manipulated in this always-on world, but it certainly attracted the attention of journalists in a new and different way.
Elsewhere, this week also saw some less successful attempts to activate in a stunt-style manner.
Mastercard promised to donate the equivalent of 10,000 meals to children in Latin America and the Caribbean every time soccer stars Lionel Messi or Neymar Jr score a goal between now and 2020.
The global payments company is not a sponsor of the soccer World Cup, which kicks off in Russia next Thursday. But it seemed to be using the heightened awareness brought about by the quadrennial tournament in a crass attempt to publicize its association with the World Food Programme.
Instead, the activation led to accusations of the company "gamifying starvation" and "turning the World Cup into the hunger games."
Mastercard told PRWeek UK: "The campaign is running in Latin America, not here in the U.K. or Europe. This campaign is a small part of our overall global commitment to deliver 100 million meals to those in need of food assistance."
The brand’s commitment to helping hungry children is admirable, but it clearly missed the mark here. And suggesting that a campaign is only running in one part of the world is naïve to the fact that everything is global nowadays, especially on social media where messages traverse the globe in seconds.
It was a stunt gone wrong, ill-conceived and badly executed. Feeding poor people is not a topic appropriate for a "PR stunt," which is of course the phrase mainstream media used to characterize the episode and is one of the reasons PR pros distance themselves from the concept.
Mastercard sensibly dropped the campaign yesterday following a widespread backlash against it.
U.K.-based cosmetics retailer Lush, renowned for extolling its ethical credentials, also landed in hot water with its recent misguided #SpyCops campaign, which aimed to highlight the U.K. government’s Undercover Policing Inquiry into alleged instances of cops overstepping the mark to infiltrate the lives of activists.
Lush stocked postcards addressed to the British Home Secretary Sajid Javid asking him to release names of officers involved and extend the inquiry to Scotland. As part of the stunt-y campaign, some Lush stores filled their windows with police-themed displays.
As Edelman’s U.K. CEO Ed Williams pointed out on Twitter: "All the data points to consumers wanting brands to take a position on public issues. But it has to be relevant and the brand has to have authority on the topic. Unclear to me what ‘bath bombs’ have got to do with the conduct of undercover police officers."
Wise words indeed, although to be fair not the result of rocket science-level deliberation.
There is still room in PR practice for a good old-fashioned stunt and sometimes you have to be bold. But, just like any other PR activation, stunts only work if they are authentic, on brand, and have been thought through properly using some basic common sense.
Otherwise you end up risking doing more harm than good for your brand – and sullying the overall practice of PR in the eyes of people who are only too willing to think badly of it.