Publicity stunts

Celebrities are usually the ones grabbing headlines for their sometimes downright crazy attempts at generating positive publicity, but growing businesses are also getting in on the act with some innovative stunts.

At the Glastonbury Festival in 2003, the digital station Music Choice stencilled its logo on a herd of ten Friesian cows at the concert site in rural Somerset, whose fields doubled as a dairy farm for much of the year. The cows were placed along one of the main entry roads, to be seen by tens of thousands of festival goers. Bez from the indie band Happy Mondays posed with the bovine posse, who were promptly dubbed the Happy Moo-days. Press coverage was widespread and equated to thousands of pounds of free advertising.

Corporations and worldwide brands have used tactics like these for decades, but more and more growing businesses are using public relations stunts to ensure they pop up in the press and get much-needed promotion for their products and services, without it costing the earth. Businesses have also cottoned on the benefits of user-generated content websites such as MySpace and YouTube and are posting videos of PR stunts online, which catch the imagination of audiences and end up being forwarded around the world.

The key rule to remember is that staged events designed solely to show up on the evening news will only get the job done if they’re interesting or novel enough to appeal to audiences. A substantial part of this is memorable outdoor activity.

Disaster recovery services provider Primary Protection has just undertaken its first PR stunt and CEO David Lincoln says the exercise taught him a few valuable lessons. ‘We dressed as gorrillas and chained ourselves to the premises of three well-known companies in Nottingham, as well the local newspaper’s offices, which prevented people from getting their work done for an entire morning.

‘I’ll admit weren’t a welcome arrival that day but the idea was to highlight that every company should have a back-up plan for what to do if they can’t use their systems or equipment, or are unable to access their premises at all, say, if their offices burn down.’

Lincoln says he was initially sceptical about the effectiveness of publicity stunts, but the new business he’s received as a result of the local and national press coverage has convinced him. ‘They’re a worthwhile use of our marketing budget, especially compared to other advertising methods,’ he says. ‘We’ll try to be a little less disruptive for our next stunt, however, as we did annoy a few people this time. It gave new meaning to the phrase guerrilla marketing!’

Publicity stunts are thought to originate from the days of American showman PT Barnum, who announced his circus’ arrival in town by hitching an elephant to a plough beside the train tracks. This raised such a ruckus that it’s still reportedly against the law in North Carolina to plough a field with an elephant.

Of course, publicity stunts are never a sure thing. Unlike paid-for advertising space, the media are not obliged to give coverage to your publicity campaign and your PR parade can easily be rained on. A breaking news story elsewhere can pull the media spotlight away, in which case the only lasting impact from all that effort and expense will be your empty pocket.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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