6 tips on a designing and staging a successful PR stunt

Candyland takes over Lombard Street in San Fran. A great stunt.

Candyland takes over Lombard Street in San Fran. A great stunt.

My amazing team just completed a second six city PR stunt. Things generally went well and we picked up some interesting learnings along the way. On the heels of this six city extravaganza and the numerous others I’ve done I thought it would be useful to share six thoughts re keys to success on PR stunts. This is a list that will evolve and be rehashed over time.

1) It is helpful to design the concept by committee, but make sure you have the right committee. This is true for many ideas and elements of business. However, with PR stunt conceptual work you need to assemble the right team of creative people and keep those who are not “creative” in the right way out of the kitchen. Think this draconian and exclusionary? Well, we have all heard about firms that keep finance and creative in separate areas. What I am talking about is the same but on a project level.

Why is this so important re PR stunts? First, stunts are generally viewed as “fun” internally and most organizations don’t do all that many in a year so the events have novelty appeal. What happens is that well-intentioned people who just want to help get caught up in the hoopla. Some of these people may be powerful and have weak ideas because they know not of what they speak. This combo is a recipe for disaster.

The trouble ensues because keeping powerful senior people who may not be well positioned to contribute out of the creative process is hard unless you have a defined creative team from the start. Make sure you do. Otherwise look forward to a nicely diluted stunt concept and a main event that looks ragtag and shitty.

2) When designing a concept make sure it is visual first. If you can orchestrate a visually appealing concept that also conveys the message you want you are in great stead. There are plenty of ways to do a stunt and some are less visual than others. But we live in a visual world and visual content is exponentially more likely to get around the internet. Smarter folks than I would have more to say about this but experience dictates the need for “visual first” thinking.

This may seem obvious to you if you are in the PR and/or media biz. What happens, and why this is important to mention, is that sometimes clients or other stakeholders get very concerned about “getting their message out” and end up turning a stunt into a press conference. I have seen great stunts wrecked by this tendency.

How do you mitigate this? Tie the message to the actual visual in the stunt. A great example is TransUnion’s yoga takeover stunts that took place in NYC and Chicago. Read the article and you will see that the visual conveyed the message clearly and unequivocally. You need a media spokesperson on site, and need to tell reporters that there are interview opportunities (put it in your media advisory) but resist pressure to have some form of “formalized address” from clients and other stakeholders. The visual IS the event. Remember this and defend it to the death or have fun killing your cred with the journos who attend your glorified press conference.

3) The type of talent matters. OK, it is fairly obvious if you are doing a stunt involving ballet you should hire ballerinas not construction workers (unless you are promoting an engagement with Barishnikov in a hard hat). That is not what is referred to here. I am talking about the decision to HIRE professional talent or engage your community.

There are immense benefits to using members of your firm’s community as the talent in stunt activity. First, you’ll probably get the most committed evangelists coming out to do something that is out of the ordinary. After it is over they have a bunch of fuel for their gospel-spreading fires and will go out and tell their circles. The earned media value (where earned media means word of mouth) of this cannot be understated.  Free talent is also a nice bonus.

Here’s the rub: You have to be very careful about the types of stunt concepts you use free/unskilled talent on. More often than not in my view it is better to pay for talent because you can direct it and make it rehearse at a particular hour in a specific place. When you buy talent it is less likely to tell you “I missed rehearsal because Harry my Hamster got the flu.” The other important thing to remember is that it is easy to overestimate how well unskilled/unpaid talent will perform. Your rep is all you have and if you stage something that looks like shit media will remember.

My advice is to use free talent only for short, easy to coordinate visual stunts that require limited skill. In other circumstances, going with pros usually reduces headaches and creates better looking stunts.

4) Mind the Gap! (in client/stakeholder expectations and reality) Just because you have got a smokin hot stunt does not mean you should be on the front page of the New York Times. Stuff happens, including philandering governors, 50 car pile ups and triple homicides. If any of these things occur watch the fuck out. Your client’s stunt in support of their new widget may fall off the news agenda. Make sure you manage their expectations. With stunts in particular the tendency for people to say “we are most certain big news” is heightened because most organizations rarely do these and when they do say “shit, we are really cool.”

5) Timing matters, so think about it. I have played around with various time slots for PR stunts I have produced. Sometimes, concepts ties to time – the TransUnion stunt I linked to above was at morning rush hour because that helped convey the message. It was brilliant.

In the end though goals are generally the same on the day: You want passersby to notice you and you want media to cover you. My experience is that starting between 1 and 1:15 pm is a great time if you are in a city with noon hour news casts. You get foot traffic if in the right location, as it is still lunch hour for many people. In addition, you give the camera people enough time to go to the studio with any morning footage, dump it off and get back out.

6) Know thine resources and their capacity. As an MBA drone they taught me over and over that Jack Welch should be my hero. Why some Alpha-dude with a dubious corporate record (most of the success was cause of GE Capital) who has had three wives and a triple bypass should be my hero I will never know. Neutron Jack understood “stretch” though – the idea that resources and organizations only get better if they are stretched to their limits. The same idea applies to working out and the human body.

So stretch is good. BUT with PR stunts you must understand the limits of stretch. It is great to do SMR’s, shoot video and involve multiple people in multiple cities, but at the end of the day you shoot yourself in the foot if you overstretch by overindulging in the new tools. If your organization has the capacity to use the great new tools it should. The internet and Youtube have changed PR stunts forever – your stunt can now be taped with a small video camera and get all over the world. It is very enticing even though only a minute percentage ever go viral. Just be careful about how many shiny objects you take on and try to employ. Carefully assess what you can and cannot do re content production and dissemination. Now more than ever it is easier to delude oneself about this because the upside payoff is SO high.

That’s it for now. Have you had similar experiences with PR stunts? Are there lessons I am missing?

ADDENDUM: If you need some inspiration check out Taylor Herring’s publicity stunt hall of fame.

ADDENDUM TO THE ADDENDUM: Seth Godin has a great blog post on how everything is not going to be OK – if you ever plan a PR stunt remember what he says about how everyone around you (and you yourself) is inclined to blow smoke up your ass.

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