I hate the term ‘PR stunt’.
It casually demeans the work of communications professionals. All sense of nuanced expertise and experience is jettisoned in this throwaway phrase.
Little wonder the PR industry sometimeshas an image problem when we are often defined by cringe-inducing terms like this, or that other classic, ‘spin doctors’.
Yes, there are still plenty of people out there who think PR is about long lunches, hob-nobbing with minor celebrities – or arranging frivolous stunts.
Don’t get me wrong. Clever and innovative people in PR regularly arrange genuinely enjoyable and memorable photo opportunities to help a cause, product or brand get a message across.
Where that is part of a long-term invesmtent in communicating with people who matter to that brand or organisation, I’m all for it.
So, I was delighted when business writer Michelle Rodger at Scotland on Sunday (she’s @tartancat on Twitter) asked for my opinion on a marketing stunt which backfired horribly for two Dell employees in the US.
You can read Michelle’s column on this issue at the business section of Scotland on Sunday online (and catch her here every week).
Many thanks to her for faithfully reporting the answers I provided. For space reasons the answers were edited, so here I have shared the full Q&A.
Q – What’s your fav PR disaster / the worst PR stunt gone wrong?
A – My favourite PR disaster is – and probably always will be – Gerald Ratner’s cataclysmic implosion.
Ratner dominated the High Street jewellery sector in the 80s with his Ratners and H Samuel chains.
However, at an IOD dinner in 1991 he insisted his products were ‘crap’ and that some of his store’s earrings were cheaper than a prawn sandwich – but wouldn’t last as long.
This predated the rise of social media by at least 15 years yet within hours everyone knew about the gaffe. Ratners’ Group value nosedived by £500m, the firm collapsed and Ratner resigned.
He now runs an online jewellery business and is a sought after speaker, who talks wittily about those experiences.
Q – Have you ever had a PR disaster, what went wrong and how did you fix it? (not worried if you don’t want to answer this one)
A – We’ve never had a major PR disaster. However, PR is double-edged sword and relatively innocuous stories can turn into reputational issues. Many people in PR deal with those kind of cases on a daily basis. It’s part of the challenge and we’ve never had a problem major enough to dull my enthusiasm for and enjoyment of the job.
Q – What should Dell have done differently? Was it even a good idea to start with?
A – It sounds as though Dell have been affected by the stupid and ill-thought actions of a couple of executives on the ground in Texas.
There is nothing wrong with organising an internal marketing stunt featuring masked and dangerous looking men – as long as everyone knows in advance that something potentially pulse-quickening is happening and it’s all in the name of entertainment.
Using those dangerous-looking men to ‘round up’ unsuspecting ‘volunteers’ in post 9/11 and Columbine America is rank stupidity.
The company has already survived the ‘Dell Hell’ PR storm, a genuine PR disaster which could have collapsed thecomputer giant’s business.
They learned from that and completely changed their internal culture to be more service-focused and customer centric.
The firm is now a paragon of transparency and customer collaboration via social media channels. Because they are open in communication with customers, most will see this for what it is – a couple of idiots who don’t reflect the company as a whole. It will be laughed off very quickly.
Q – Top tips on planning a PR stunt – and what are the definite no-nos?
A – Here at Holyrood PR we are not really big fans of PR ‘stunts’.
Our mantra is that any business or organisation can improve its performance and its reputation by telling its stories well – whether to customers, staff, investors or the public at large. It’s a long-term, strategic investment.
We help them tell those stories via words, pictures and video which means we can do it on paper, online and on air. We leave the ‘stunts’ to the short-termists and the experiential marketers.
However, a product launch, event announcement or other landmark event can be enhanced by a really clever and eye catching photocall. It might be a cliché, but a good picture really is worth a thousand words.