From Kanye's intrusion on Taylor Swift's Video Music Awards speech to his marriage proposal to Kim Kardashian at AT&T Park in San Francisco, it's hardly news that celebrities seem to shoot for the moon when trying to get the public's attention. But when businesses employ similarly outsized tactics to spread the word about their companies, building buzz alone isn't enough.
PR stunts have reached a whole new level of sophistication, says Bill Tancer, general manager of global research at Experian and author of Click. As businesses become more data-driven and executives require visible returns from often-expensive PR activities, the stunts are bound to be bigger, he adds.
"PR stunts fall into two categories: 1.0 is when the goal is just to make a bunch of noise with no real business objectives attached. 2.0 PR stunts are those in which the messages of a brand are clearly reinforced through the event, and often times leads to a specific action," Tancer says.
The trick is getting a stunt to cater to both camps. Here, we parse how some of the top PR stunts from 2013 managed to achieve this blend and what, if anything, entrepreneurs can learn from them:
1. Anchorman 2's Ron Burgundy broadcasts the actual news
The opening of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues may be a week away, but the movie has activated a variety of creative marketing initiatives leading up to the release. Among other things, Will Ferrell co-anchored this live news broadcast in North Dakota and stayed in character throughout the entire broadcast.
"This is a great example of a well thought out, brilliant tactic that leveraged a pre-existing channel of communication to generate massive awareness," says Billy Dec, CEO of Rockit Ranch Productions, an entertainment development and management company in Chicago. "It promoted the movie and reinforced the brand message of Anchorman in a compelling way...which will likely drive sales at the box office."
Takeaway for business: For owners looking to pair stunts with business goals, Ferrell's performance is instructive. He didn't jump out of a plane or encase himself in a plexiglas box, his character is an anchorman, so that's what he did. Stay on message.
2. Amazon's drone delivery announcement on 60 Minutes
Was Jeff Bezos' announcement of drones delivering packages up to 50 lbs. a pure brand optimization play for the impending holiday madness, or is he really delivering on a product promise?
"From my experience the best stunts allow companies or individuals the opportunity to advance the conversation: enhancing, further defining or enlarging their brand," says Eric Mason, director of communications at web-development firm Wix.
Takeaway for business: It's all in your timing. While clearly the drone delivery system is years away (if even real), Amazon capitalized on the holiday-shopping frenzy to become top of mind with consumers.
3. Virgin America's "Operation Chihuahua"
Virgin America recently assisted the City of San Francisco Animal Care and Control by flying Chihuahua pups from San Francisco to New York so they could be adopted into loving homes in time for Thanksgiving. Virgin America's "Official Pet Liaison," Boo, hosted a special red carpet send-off at the departure gate for his fellow four-legged friends before they began their journey.
"What Virgin America has recognized, quite unlike any other airline in the industry, is that flying is kind of a soul-less activity," says Tancer, who was on the flight. "Passengers essentially became part of this unique event, [which] brought some humanity back into that transcontinental flight."
Takeaway for business: As a brand that values its differentness, Virgin's Operation Chihuahua certainly fits the bill. If you're planning a stunt, you'll want to keep your own values in mind as well.
4. Miley Cyrus twerking her way to the top of the charts
The actor/singer's ascent in 2013 has certainly been an interesting progression. While her antics at this year's Video Music Awards shocked, most critics agree it was a well-crafted PR stunt--establishing her place in entertainment history post her Hannah Montana days. But what's the bottom line objective?
"Sure she wanted to evolve out of an old image, and that was part of it. But in doing so she drove unthinkable amounts of press, followers, sales and future opportunities," notes Dec. "Some call that a train wreck, some call it a money train."
Takeaway for business: Tancer adds that a business owner's choices--PR stunt or not--must move the needle for your company. "In the past, companies have been short sighted about PR stunts. It's not just getting your brand noticed anymore, it's about getting a brand noticed with the correct messaging and if possible completing some call to action."
In the end, it's about reconciling your actions with your goals. Brand executives, along with entertainment industry publicists and celebrities alike, should think long and hard about how they want to be perceived in this brave new PR 2.0 world.