What are PR Stunts, Anyway?
The Red Bull Stratos Space Jump. WWF’s Earth Hour. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. Just three examples of PR stunts done right. In each case, they got people talking and generated huge amounts of publicity for the brands behind them.
It may not be the newest PR tactic on the block, but the humble PR stunt is still one of the most effective ways to capture public and media attention. However, pulling one off is harder than you think. If you’re not on the ball, your stunt could end up falling flat.
This post looks at the definition of a PR stunt, our favourite PR stunts from the past and when PR stunts go wrong.
PR stunt: Meaning
Let’s start with the basics. What is a PR stunt? In a nutshell, a public relations stunt is anything you do to enhance your brand’s reputation, get attention, or influence how people think. More specifically, PR stunts:
- Need to be interesting, strange or original. In other words, not ‘business as usual’
- Are short or one-off events, not long-term campaigns
- Rely on viral marketing, where people share footage of the stunt to their friends, resulting in exponential reach. For more on making viral content, read: How to Make Your Content ‘Go Viral’
So that’s the definition of a PR stunt. And if it doesn’t tick all these boxes, it probably isn’t one.
Why are PR stunts good for publicity?
Some people dismiss PR stunts as passé, gaudy, and question whether, these days, they’re relevant for public relations. They can certainly tank your reputation if you mess them up (more on that later). But when done well, they can offer some unique advantages:
PR stunts are an opportunity to differentiate your brand by highlighting your brand values
A great example of this came from Weight Watchers in 2018. To celebrate the new launch of their weight-loss programme, Flex, Weight Watchers launched a healthy food drive-through in London’s Borough Market for one day in January.
The drive-through served free breakfasts, lunches and dinners, including oat waffles, butternut squash falafel and a salmon and bacon carbonara.
Besides being delicious, the drive-through exemplified the Weight Watchers brand perfectly. Spokesperson Zoe Griffiths said they wanted to ‘remove the thinking that being healthy is difficult or restrictive’ by showing the variety of healthy options out there.
Nobody pays much attention to the Weight Watchers leaflets, adverts and testimonials that say the same thing. But by packaging this message into a quirky PR stunt, the organisation got tons of publicity and convinced more than a few people to change their diets.
Another example of a PR stunt reinforcing a brand’s image was the James Bond movie franchise, which teamed up with Coca-Cola in order to get people to act out a spy flick chase scene through a train station to win tickets for Skyfall. The quirky PR stunt tied in perfectly with the brand’s focus on action, excitement and fun.
PR stunts can offer a great return-on-investment
You might wince at the cost of floating a 50-foot rubber duck down the Thames. But the attention it brought was worth much more to Jackpotjoy.com, the bingo site that organised the stunt, in 2012.
When a minute-long TV ad costs thousands of pounds, cheaper ways of building PR make good financial sense.
Engineering your own PR stunt: ideas and examples
Coming up with your own PR stunt might seem daunting. Is there anything that hasn’t already been done to death? One effective way to stand out is to break a world record. By definition, no-one else has done it, and getting your brand attached to a world first will earn you a place in the history books.
Take British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson. Inextricably linked with the Virgin brand, he has set out to represent innovation, world-class quality, and challenging the status quo. Branson does this with world records. He has seven to date, including being the first person to cross the Atlantic in a hot air balloon.
Of course, originality isn’t everything. Some of the best PR stunts ride on the coattails of holidays, famous celebrities or topical news events.
UK clothes retailer Boden, for instance, used Brexit to help sell their Breton shirts. On April Fools’ Day in 2019, the brand claimed that anyone wearing a shirt from its classic French-inspired wardrobe line would need a special EU shirt licence, or face €1,000 fine. As the cherry on top, they offered a complimentary stripe removal service to avoid the fine.
When things go wrong: PR stunt examples
When it comes to PR stunt ideas, knowing what not to do might be the most important thing of all.
History is littered with evidence of public relations stunts gone wrong. In 1896, a staged train crash quite literally went off the rails, killing two people.
Hopefully your public relations stunts won’t be quite that dangerous. But if your ideas fall foul of any of the following, you should think twice.
Not putting your money where your mouth is
In 2015, a spokesperson for the GMO conglomerate Monsanto said in an interview that one of their chemicals, glyphosate, was safe enough to drink, but then refused a glass when the host offered him one. Needless to say, this looked incredibly shady.
The Monsanto spokesperson made it seem like he was up for an impressive PR stunt like Bill Gates drinking water processed from human faeces to prove it was safe but chickened out at the last moment.
If you’re going to make bold claims, you’d better be prepared to back them up. Nothing makes better headlines than a brand having to eat their words.
Failing to read the room
Sometimes a PR stunt might have worked, if not for awful timing.
In 2013, for instance, a Missouri cinema hired actors wearing tactical gear and holding fake guns to storm a screening of ‘Iron Man 3’.
The stunt was meant to promote Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. franchise. The audience wasn’t told about this beforehand, however, and worse, the stunt came less than a year after the Colorado theatre shootings that killed six people.
The cinema came under heavy criticism and had to distance themselves from the event. The lesson: Think of the worst possible way anyone could interpret your PR stunt, because it could well happen.
Just being plain ridiculous
Sometimes it’s good to get a second opinion before unleashing your PR stunt on the world. And a third. And fourth.
That’s what Mark Zuckerberg should’ve done before posting a video of himself in 2021 foil-surfing over a lake while holding an American flag. Mocked mercilessly for being cheesy and overly patriotic, you can now find dozens of memes that remix the video at his expense, like this one that casts him as the murderous shark from Jaws.
If your PR team only ever talks amongst themselves, it’s easy for them to think all their ideas are solid gold. It’s vital to get an outside perspective so someone can tell you if the Emperor has no clothes.
Five Best PR Stunt Examples from the Last Decade
So what PR stunts stand head and shoulders from everybody else? Here are five of PR Superstar’s favourite PR stunts from the last decade, in no particular order.
Elon Musk goes up, up and away with SpaceX
Elon Musk, billionaire founder of electric car company Tesla and rocket enterprise SpaceX, made history in 2018 by launching his beloved Tesla Roadster into space on board his rocket, the Falcon Heavy.
Strapped inside the car was a spacesuit-wearing mannequin dubbed ‘Starman’, Bowie’s Space Oddity blared through the speakers during launch, and a message on the Tesla’s dashboard read ‘don’t panic’ in homage to author Douglas Adams.
These pop culture references, and the scale of the event helped the livestream of the car in space get over 18 million views on YouTube.
The stunt cross promoted Musk’s brands perfectly: SpaceX got heaps of attention for its spacefaring work, and Tesla could claim it had the fastest car in the galaxy. It also diverted attention away from bad PR associated with Tesla’s Model 3 production delays at the time.
Read more about Tesla and PR: Out of This World: How Tesla Uses Public Relations
Range Rover’s PR stunt that tricked everyone
Back in 2016, an expensive white Range Rover appeared on the streets of London, defaced with red spray-painted phrases like ‘cheater’ and ‘hope she was worth it’. Plenty of news sites wrote about the car, like the Daily Mail, wondering which high flying businessman had been found out by his missus.
Turns out, the entire thing was a public relations stunt to celebrate the launch of the new Revere Range Rover Vogue Knightsbridge Edition.
You can see the official reveal on the YouTube channel of the car customisation company who orchestrated the whole thing.
The defaced car shows that you don’t need to play all your cards right away with a PR stunt. All the news stories printed the make and model of the car without realising it was part a PR stunt for Range Rover.
Taylor Swift’s feud with Apple. A PR stunt?
When pop icon Taylor Swift attacked Apple in 2015 for not paying musicians when their songs were played during a free trial of its new streaming service, it made headlines around the world. Apple quickly backed down, making them look reasonable and open to criticism. In turn, Taylor came off as a firebrand willing to speak truth to power on behalf of other artists.
Despite a hostile start, the dispute ended up improving both of their reputations, leading some people to think it was a PR stunt and the entire thing was orchestrated.
Genuine or not, the dispute shows that conflict can be a great source of positive PR. If you make your stance known on controversial opinions, people will associate their emotions about it with your brand, helping to make you unforgettable.
Burger King clowns McDonald’s with ‘Escape the Clown’
Coke versus Pepsi, Microsoft versus Apple, DC versus Marvel: if anything gets people talking, it’s a good brand rivalry.
A great example of this came in 2019. To coincide with the release of killer clown film It Chapter Two, fast food chain Burger King thought it would be the perfect opportunity to take a dig at McDonald’s and their famous mascot, Ronald.
Burger King invited social media users to use the ‘Escape the Clown’ feature on their app. When activated at a McDonald’s restaurant, the app used geo-targeting to provide a ‘flee and run’ route to their nearest Burger King restaurant, where a discounted one cent Whopper would be waiting if they made it in time.
This crafty move followed their previous anti-McDonald’s stunt, following the German premiere of the first It film in 2017, when they projected ‘Never Trust a Clown’ onto the screen just before the credits rolled.
The lesson? PR stunts are best when they have a bite. Getting a dig in at your competitors is a sure-fire way to get people engaged with your brand, especially if you’re as funny as Burger King.
Greggs’ vegan sausage roll
Bakery brand Greggs needs no introduction: they’re a national treasure across the UK, known and loved for their pasties, sausage rolls and sandwiches.
That status was confirmed when they rocked headlines in 2019 with a surprising new product: a vegan sausage roll. To the brand’s delight, the launch sparked a nationwide debate over whether it was ‘really’ a sausage roll or not.
The campaign picked up traction when Good Morning Britain TV presenter Piers Morgan tweeted that ‘nobody was waiting for a vegan bloody sausage, you PC-ravaged clowns’.
Greggs, to its credit, took Piers’s reaction in its stride. Their response was simple and sweet: ‘Oh hello Piers, we’ve been expecting you’. This comeback made headlines and prompted a show of solidarity, with other high street chains joining in to mock Morgan on his Twitter page.
The vegan sausage roll shows that the best PR stunts don’t just follow a prewritten script. They roll with the punches when something unexpected happens — like a prominent figure dissing your new product — and turn it into even more publicity.
Read this for more insights into Vegan PR