Real influence is at a premium - don't squander it on irrelevant stunts

Stunts and unlikely partnerships have their place in PR but they need to be meaningful, plausible and free from cynicism to work, says Mark Borkowski.

Agencies may bray at analytics showing incredible engagement with their bran­ded content, yet real influence remains elusive, says Mark Borkowski
Agencies may bray at analytics showing incredible engagement with their bran­ded content, yet real influence remains elusive, says Mark Borkowski

It was to be the stunt of the summer. Two unlikely partners. One representing dignity and justice. The other a flagrant troublemaker. Yet – against the odds – they come together. Some call it irresponsible. Others claim the pursuit of a better world.

Yet sadly for Paddy Power, its partnership with the NGO Greenpeace was soon eclipsed by the dual grins of new besties Donald and Kim claiming this summer’s most outrageous pairing. Where the betting brand had hoped to provoke outrage with the image of polar bears branded with the St George’s flag, only to reveal it to be a hoax to raise awareness of oil drilling in the Russian Arctic, few seemed to take the stunt seriously.

There is a sense of déjà vu with many of Paddy’s stunts. During the Rio World Cup it did a similar act of faux-vandalism by claiming to have shaved a crude message about Brazilian grooming into the Amazon rainforest. 

The trouble with this mischief is that it lacks the strength of its convictions. No sooner have they ‘leaked’ the image than it is revealed to be a self-aggrandising hoax. The masters of the genre like PR provocateur Harry Reichenbach would simply not recognise this as a hoax. As the man who gave birth to the myth of a real-life monkey man ‘Mr Zann’, among other cunning tricks, Reichenbach understood the only way to capture the public imagination – and guarantee coverage – is to tap into an inherent plausibility while persevering to not give the game away. 

Paddy’s stunt barely registered beyond its own social channels and the trades – yet another example of PRs talking about themselves to themselves. It also may be the case that in a world of fake news Paddy’s hoaxes are struggling to keep up with the constantly shifting line between fact and fiction, where everything is simultaneously possible but disbelieved. This trends towards relative veracity tends towards ugliness, as the Beckhams, the latest victims of Twitter-charged fallacy, will attest.

The corrosive influence of fake news reached its height in that historic meeting in Singapore, which saw statesmanship replaced by Love Island showmanship and diplomacy lamin-ated in ego. Rather than taking a leaf out of stagecraft, this unprecedented meeting of the leaders of North Korea and the US seemed to have more in common with silly season PR campaigns. You’ve run out of ideas of how to promote your product: what about the partnership that no one asked for? Paddy and Greenpeace has been mentioned. You may also cast you minds back to the McWhopper campaign, which saw Burger King invite McDonald’s to join forces in aid of World Peace Day. Neither is intended to be a meaningful partnership, and they ultimately tumble under the weight of their own cynicism.

As is so often the case in PR, we risk getting lost in our own irrelevance. Outside of the media bubble these pairings barely register, let alone capture the imagination. Agencies may bray at analytics showing incredible engagement with their branded content. Yet real influence remains elusive. To achieve this we have to focus on where the real stories are.

Mark Borkowski is founder of Borkowski.do

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