What is a “PR Stunt”?
Let’s start with the basics. A publicity stunt, PR stunt, or public relations stunt, is a planned event or activity designed to attract public and media attention. They are typically unconventional, unexpected, and attention-grabbing, with the primary goal of promoting a brand, product, service, or cause. PR stunts are devised to spark conversations, generate conversation, and ultimately enhance the visibility and reputation of the entity behind the stunt with a view of driving product sales or influencing consumer behaviour in some other meaningful way.
The term “stunt” has been used in the context of theatrical and media events for many years, often referring to a daring or attention-grabbing performance or act. As businesses and organisations started to use various tactics to gain public attention and promote their products or causes, the term “PR stunt” likely developed to describe these deliberate, attention-getting actions. Since then, the term has become a common way to describe actions or events designed to capture the public’s imagination and generate press coverage.
A publicity stunt in Salt Lake City, 1910: “Little Hip” the elephant, advertising newspaper and theatre.
A Short History of PR Stunts
PR stunts have a rich and colourful history that stretches back over a century. These eye-catching events have evolved over time, reflecting changes in technology, media, and cultural norms.
We’re not historians but the roots of PR stunts, as far as I can tell, can be traced back to the late 19th and early 20th-Centuries. One of the earliest and most famous examples is said to be P.T. Barnum‘s circus and sideshow attractions. Barnum was a master showman (he was, in fact, The Greatest Showman) known for his extraordinary marketing skills, which included sensationalising the unusual and the bizarre. He famously promoted the “Feejee Mermaid,” a taxidermy creation that appeared to be a half-human, half-fish creature, drawing enormous crowds.
The mid-20th century saw what historians consider to be the rise of the ‘Golden Age’ of PR stunts. Companies and individuals increasingly used creativity and spectacle to capture the public’s attention. Some iconic stunts from this era include:
1. The Soap Opera’s Wedding of the Century (1954): To promote the soap opera “The Guiding Light,” the creators organized a live wedding ceremony that was broadcast on television. The event was an unprecedented success, attracting millions of viewers.
2. The Hot Air Balloon Around the World (1960): Aeronauts Maxie Anderson and Don Ida aimed to fly a hot air balloon around the world, which garnered significant media attention and sponsorship deals.
3. Evel Knievel’s Death-Defying Stunts (1970s): Evel Knievel, a legendary daredevil, gained fame by attempting jaw-dropping motorcycle jumps and stunts, often broadcast on live television.
PT Barnum with Commodore Nutt
“PR stunts are designed to go off with a proverbial bang. And when they do, they really work. They generate sales, drive conversation, increase brand awareness and, in some few cases, arguably make the world a better and safer place to live.”
Left: the incredible stunt rider and horse whisperer, Emma Massingale.
The Purpose and Impact of PR Stunts
PR stunts are most commonly used to launch a new product, brand, service or event. The premise is simple: maximum media coverage = maximum number of consumer eyeballs = maximum sales. The Jelly Bean Factory’s “Kate Middleton’s Face on a Jelly Bean” (2011), Gurpareet Bains’ “World’s Healthiest Meal”, and Gigi’s “The World’s Most Expensive Cocktail” (2014) are all cases in point.
Stunts are also used to drive (or cement) ‘top-of-the-mind’ brand awareness – a fancy term that refers to when a brand is the first one that comes to a consumer’s mind when thinking about a particular product or service category. Green Pantry’s “World’s Most Expensive Dog Food” (2016) is a good example.
They’re also used by charities and non-profits to highlight social causes and bring about societal or political change. Samaritans’ “Feel Good Friday” with Noel Edmonds, pictured top, is another apt example.
Conversely, a well-timed and well-executed PR stunt can help shift the narrative and regain public trust (or, at least, stifle the bleeding); releasing one story to kill another is a classic crisis management tool used by civil servants in governments everywhere for centuries.
The TV legend Noel Edmonds poses with a guitar outside his home for a photoshoot with Palamedes PR for a Samaritans campaign.
Some PR Stunts Bang, a Few Backfire but Most Don’t Ignite at All
PR stunts are designed to go off with a proverbial bang. And when they do, they really work. They generate sales, drive conversation, increase brand awareness and, in some few cases, arguably make the world a better and safer place to live.
At the other end of the scale, they can and do backfire – in some cases, spectacularly so. A quick search online and you’ll find plenty of genuinely offensive, insensitive or ill-conceived PR stunts that ruined brands and reputations.
But by far and away the most common type of PR stunt is one that doesn’t ignite at all – a damp squib that fizzles into nothingness like a pathetic deflated balloon. I have a great deal of respect and admiration for any creative who puts their neck on the line for a client and does something truly original, whether or not it ‘works’. But I have little sympathy for the increasing number of independent marketing ‘experts’ whose cliched (and expensive) ideas have no chance of igniting in the first place.
So, what makes a great PR stunt – and how do you organise your own?
Before spending time and money organising your own PR stunt, or paying someone else to do it for you, consider the following two questions:
- What is it that you hope to achieve from the stunt?
- Are you set on the notion of throwing a PR stunt or might there another, more straightforward and reliable, way of achieving this/these goal(s) using other marketing tools?
PR stunts are a means to an end so we would usually advise against them if another, simpler way of obtaining media coverage (or product sales) is available. Why take the risk with a PR stunt when direct marketing or online advertising, for example, could have the same effect?
If a PR stunt really is the best route forward, or at least one of them, now’s the time to consider what kind of stunt might be most effective. A common misconception is that a PR stunt must be ‘big’ in order for it to work. But big events, big-name celebrities, and big spending won’t necessarily lead to positive or meaningful media coverage. The secret to a good PR stunt isn’t thinking big but thinking clever. Some of the best PR stunts – those that garnered the most column inches worldwide – cost very little to pull off.
An effective PR stunt, then, needs to be newsworthy and to be so will normally have the following two characteristics:
1. It will be creative: PR stunts often involve innovative and imaginative ideas that capture people’s attention and imagination.
2.It will be unique, memorable and/or have a surprise element of some kind. A good PR stunt will stand out from every day, run-of-the-mill occurrences and will, by virtue of this fact, spark conversation and media interest.
While the risks associated with PR stunts are real, so too are the potential rewards. If it’s media coverage that you need, consider other options first. If nothing else quite fits the bill, then discuss the options of a PR stunt with a product launch marketing agency or with an ad agency first. Remember that there’s nothing whatsoever stopping you from organising your own PR stunt, either. Just remember to try and fun – and lots of it – along the way.