The secrets of a PR stunt

There are a huge number of tactics for creating memorable PR stunts, from giant projections to mass installations throughout cities. Here, senior communicators offer top tips for making sure your PR stunt is remembered for all the right reasons and list their favourite PR stunts of all time.

1. Ask the right questions

Becky McKinlay, incoming Group MD of integrated agency TVC Group: “Ever since the T-Mobile flash mob announced itself at key transport hubs in 2009, brands (and their agencies) have been keen to deliver in this area. The 'we need a stunt' brief is pretty similar to the 'make me something viral' one. And a number of these briefs end up being expensive failures. They're not free to create, and distributing content effectively isn't free either. Unless the core idea delivers on topicality and timeliness, these stunts become invisible or irrelevant.

“So at the point of brief, answers to these questions are needed fast:

  • Why do you need or want one?
  • Why is this a stunt brief, over any other technique?
  • What does it need to do/what are you expecting it to do?
  • What part of the brand agenda is it intended to influence? 
  • What will deem it successful – from the client perspective?
  • Can only your brand/product/service do this?
  • Do you have the culture, stomach, instinct for something brave?”

2. Appear spontaneous

When it comes to delivery McKinlay says you must apply a healthy degree of 'planned spontaneity': “Look at events, trends, movements the brand can capitalise on, dig deep into audience views and opinions around them, match those to your brand ambition and then plan the stunt like a military operation – all the while it feels instinctive, spontaneous and of the moment in all parts of its activation.”

3. Be brave

Elena Davidson, CEO at agency Liberty Communications: “When it comes to stunts you need something simple, visual, memorable and brave. I think the fear of failure can often stop brands and consultancies from doing something different, but unless you try you won’t succeed. Don’t be afraid to give things a go.”

4. Meet business objectives

Don’t forget the bottom line says Davidson: “Don’t forget that stunts still need to tie to your client’s business objectives. Remember what you are trying to achieve and set KPIs to show how your idea will deliver ROI. We call it practical creativity. It helps reassure even the most hardened of sceptics of the value of your idea.”

5. Learn from the greats

Don’t be afraid to look at what’s gone before says Davidson: “Keep an eye out for all the great ideas out there. We should be proud to boast one of the most creative industries in the world. Take inspiration from all the amazing ideas out there – whether it’s sending sports cars into space or recreating logos out of drones. Don’t copy but learn. There is so much exciting work being done every day that we can draw lessons from.”

6. Use ordinary people

Rachel Cullis Dorsett, director at agency Cartwright Communications: “I love a PR stunt, but they do sometimes feel a bit contrived and overly commercial. You have to be very clear about what you’re trying to achieve because sometimes they can backfire. It’s a noisy marketplace now so it is even harder to stand out as a brand – so for me, the stunts which work best are the ones that publicise ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Passionate employees who are dedicated to their jobs – motivating loyalty amongst customers by really adding something extra. If this is captured on film and goes viral on social, these are the stunts I love the most because they have integrity and really grab attention.”

7. Have a back-up plan

Jonathan Kirkby, CEO of agency instinct pr: “It’s important to layer a stunt as an insurance policy, so that it’s not just one high-risk idea and no matter how clever or outrageous the stunt is there are no guarantees of media coverage. It’s every PRO’s nightmare (and we have all been there) when another news story breaks at the same time and the stunt has very little or no media coverage at all.

“Our stunts are created with layer upon layer of back-up plans as an insurance policy to ensure we always get good media coverage. We will layer our stunts with a multitude of PR elements ranging from: a strong visual image, influencers attending to capture the moment, 24-hour, time-lapse footage as well as celebrities attending for interviews. You also need to ensure you capture content and that it has a strong editorial slant. The more layers you can add the better chance of success and cost-to-results ratio.

“These days, sadly, there are far less picture-desk photographers available to attend a stunt photocall and there are fewer TV news crews than 10 years ago, so we have to be multifaceted and clever in the execution.”

Amplify on social media

Richard Thiardt, senior account manager at agency Stir PR: “In recent years, with the obvious and well-documented growth of social media, we are continually seeing success in using stunts to increase awareness and drive talkability for our clients. Just last week, Wolf Blass wines celebrated its sponsorship of the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup by hiring Wolf the Eagle to assist in pre-match preparations at Lord’s cricket ground, scaring away pigeons and seagulls that damage the turf and disrupt play. The result – five nationals, strong conversation on social media and regional coverage to boot.”

My favourite stunt

Robert Phillips, founder of management consultancy Jericho Chambers, says the original Wonderbra “Hello Boys” projection onto the side of (the then derelict) Battersea Power Station in 1994, a JCPR stunt, stands out to him as it was the first of its kind: “It was a true disruptor. The first time (I think) that an ad campaign had effectively been co-designed with the ad agency (TBWA) – it broke the mould and set the gold standard for the next decade. Many tried to imitate, but few came close. It established Wonderbra as the category-defining brand and the winner of the much-vaunted “Bra Wars” (itself a JCPR-created confection). It saw exponential sales growth, as a result – and established Eva Herzigova – then unknown – as a global supermodel. The client was Playtex and JCPR team was led by Robert Phillips, Jackie Cooper and Jeani Rodgers.”

Cartwright Communications’s Rachel Cullis Dorsett describes a favourite example of an ‘ordinary’ person doing something ‘extraordinary’: “There was one of cabin staff crew at SouthWest – doing his emergency exit talk to customers at take-off. It was absolutely brilliant and went viral on LinkedIn. Witty, interesting, engaging, hilariously funny, cheeky, full of personality and it got absolutely everyone listening. He clearly loves his job and the airline and it showed. If I wanted to take an internal flight in the States, I would definitely seek this airline out and hope I was lucky enough to get on his flight!”

instinct PR’s Jonathan Kirkby gives two examples: “My favourite stunt has to be when Taylor Herring unleashed a fully animated ‘adult male polar bear’ onto the streets of London to publicise Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude programme. Richard Branson’s Virgin stunts are great and stick in my mind, particularly the one where he dressed up as an air hostess. He doesn’t mind being made fun of and the stunts reflected the rock and roll, carefree nature of the Virgin brand.”

Ruth Harrison-Davies, account manager at agency Scriba PR, says that the stunts which stand out the most for her are when big brands respond directly to another’s advertising campaign: “Take the way Burger King jumped on the recent police ban on an Edinburgh McDonald's, where it was barred from serving milkshakes whilst Nigel Farage was in town. That intake of breath and, ‘did it really say that?’ gets people talking – and plenty of publicity.

“With that in mind, my favourite example of such a stunt is undoubtedly the rivalry between BMW and Audi in the US a few years ago. The fun began in LA, California with a simple billboard showing the new Audi A4 and the strapline, ‘Chess? No thanks, I’d rather be driving.’ Soon, the motor giant switched the advert to one which read, ‘Your move, BMW’. Cheeky.

“The response was brilliant. Taking space on Santa Monica Boulevard – and across the street from Audi’s billboard – BMW simply wrote, ‘Checkmate.’ That’s how you do it!”

Stir PR’s Richard Thiardt says charity CALM’s stunt affected him deeply: “Although very different, one of my favourite stunts in recent years was Project 84: CALM. Based on the shocking research that every two hours a man in the UK takes his own life (in total 84 men every week), charity CALM created 84 life-like statues of men that had committed suicide, placing them on the roof of the ITV studios. The stunt was striking, overwhelming and launched at a time when awareness of male depression and mental health issues featured heavily on the news agenda. According to its creators, the work aimed to initiate the much-needed conversation and action around male suicide prevention and bereavement support. The campaign did just that and prompted the government to appoint the first UK minister for suicide prevention.”

PR stunts may have been around a long time, but that certainly doesn’t make them boring. Planned thoroughly and executed well, they are a cost-effective way to draw attention to your brand.