PR Stunts: An Appreciation

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This article originally appeared on MediaPost

Imagine you’re the new CMO at a breakfast-oriented restaurant chain that’s the culinary equivalent of Holiday Inn. Your goal is to get everyone talking about the brand, but without resorting to anything salacious, embarrassing or off-brand.

That was the challenge that Brad Haley faced recently, and he hit it out of the park. Haley, who made his name by recasting Carl’s Jr. as the fast-food destination for Maxim readers, managed Spinal Tap’s fine line between clever and stupid with his “IHOb” stunt. 

For those who missed it: IHOP announced it was changing its name to IHOb, and the b is for burger, an item that has been on the menu since 1958. 

Yes, this was a stunt. I don’t mean that derisively. If anything, stunts are underappreciated. The reason we don’t see more of them is that they’re so hard to pull off. 

What is a stunt, anyway? 

The word stunt is often used as an epithet, as in “Oh, he doesn’t mean it, it’s just a stunt.” But I like to think of PR stunts in the way Evel Knievel jumping the Snake River was a stunt — as in there’s a huge potential for loss.

Merriam-Webster defines a stunt as “an unusual or difficult feat requiring great skill or daring; especially: one performed or undertaken chiefly to gain attention or publicity.” And truth be told, the word’s origin stems from the word “stupid.” 

In this age in which every communication is parsed on social media, daring is a rare trait among marketers. Most focus on playing defense by avoiding saying something dumb and refraining from weighing in on hot-button issues. 

By contrast, PR stunts require risk. Consider for example when Netflix promoted its show “Disjointed” last year by selling branded marijuana at a pop-up shop in West Hollywood. (The goods were available to anyone with medical documentation, in accordance with California’s laws.)

It’s easy to see how this stunt could have gone south. Conservative groups could have announced that they would give up their Netflix memberships in protest. Someone who bought Netflix’s weed could have gotten sick or done something stupid while high and blamed the company. 

Or take the most famous recent example: Red Bull’s space jump. Imagine if Felix Baumgartner died or was gravely injured during the attempt. It would be hard to ever look at the brand the same way again. But if there’s no risk, then there’s no stunt and, of course, no reward. 

Stunts are serious business

Serious PR pros often dismiss stunts. “Actually, that’s the easy part of public relations,” write the authors of Public Relations for Dummies. “The real value of PR is using it to solve a real-life marketing situation for a real product, service, organization, brand or image.” 

With all due respect, stunts are far from easy. Consider the many layers behind the IHOb stunt: It had to present a story arc for the media, be inoffensive yet interesting enough to garner attention and, most importantly, tell the brand’s story. 

The latter is perhaps the most difficult. The best PR stunts advance the brand’s narrative. So when Burger King “abdicated” its royal title to Belgium’s king, it was in keeping with the brand’s cheeky personality and history of not taking itself too seriously. When Virgin used a blimp bearing the message “BA can’t get it up” in reference to British Airways having trouble erecting the London Eye Ferris wheel, all one could say was “That’s so Virgin!”

The media likes to pile on when PR stunts fail but, in reality, brands only pull of a half dozen or so really good ones a year, if they’re lucky. 

IHOb is one of them. The net result of this stunt was that people thought about IHOP, maybe for the first time in a long time, and they may even be aware that it sells burgers. For marketers, this was three-dimensional chess played across media and social media. It may look dumb, but this was some clever thinking on Haley’s part. It’s also proof that wherever you are there is a right answer to the question, “How can I get people talking about my brand in a positive way?”