Marketers Beware of PR Executives Bearing Stunts

As DKC’s business has transformed from a well connected, highly-creative New York public relations firm to a national communications and government affairs company, I have become well accustomed to blocking off much of my time from October through early December.

It is during this eight to 12-week period that companies set their strategic programs and budgets for the coming year. As most in the business know, this is a very critical and focused time, a time when brand rollouts, product introductions, annual strategic programs and key initiatives are locked down, budgeted and scheduled.

One observation from this latest round of autumn planning sessions is that major brands seem newly obsessed with publicity stunts.

Even in this still recessive (but slowly improving) economy, companies are willing to allocate time and money — lots of it — to the world’s biggest, longest, heaviest whatever in order to generate oodles of free media.

“Hey, we’re launching a new show about florists in Alaska. How about a flower show in Times Square? We could call Guinness and maybe get a really big bee.”

On one hand, I applaud this semi-retro appreciation for the publicity stunt because it reflects the continuing trend of marketers favoring public relations — be it traditional or online — vs. advertising.

Conversely, I think the vast majority of publicity stunts constitute a waste of time, money and opportunity. When mishandled, these initiatives often feel more like the morning after an all night bender – ” I’m out a lot of money, a few people are talking about me right now, but I’m not sure I like what they’re saying” – than an integrated program aimed at building a brand.

I have a long, complicated relationship with the publicity stunt, having executed my share during throughout my career in the business.

Years ago, I convinced my girlfriend – now wife – that I was worth keeping in the picture when I suggested she have a fitness instructor client put together a butt exercise program for the cops in NYPD Blue. Circa 1994, it was a big deal that the characters were going to occasionally ”drop trou” on network television.

The press liked it. The fitness guy landed a publishing deal. Now I have a nice family and can’t help but notice how great David Caruso looks in a flatfront suit.

On behalf of an entertainment company, I transported the World’s Largest Ball of Twine from Oklahoma to Branson, Missouri, accidentally losing the seven-ton orb somewhere in the Ozarks with CBS News in tow.

We consulted on a dog and pony show for a theme park – complete with, well… dogs and ponies.

We opened up a world renowned pediatric neurosurgery center by having their brain surgeons play a group of rocket scientists in a round of mini-golf. It was for charity – naturally.

This was a few years ago. Back then, these stunts hung around and stayed in the public dialogue and in people’s consciousness. Humorous as they may sound, these stunts served a strategic purpose.

Fast forward to now when, on my way to work through Times Square, I am confronted by a seemingly daily helping of craziness along the lines of the largest bowl of soup, the most humongous dumpling and biggest gathering of guys named Shemp.

I always pity the nervous-looking PR person pleading with Channel 7 to send one of a shrinking number of crews to cover the event and then articulate the client’s brand message in the voiceover. He knows a brand manager has allocated a few hundred grand for this stunt and there better be a good turnout to justify the investment.

Stunts can be fun and they can make for great talk over a drink. However, with Internet-driven information overload shortening our attention spans, marketers be forewarned, stunts don’t really do the trick like they used to.

The evolution of communications has changed the game and even the funniest, biggest, longest one-off is usually just a one-off.

So, my advice: save your money on a series of stunts and invest in one or two high-impact and well executed experiential marketing programs.

As my friend and client Richard Kirschenbaum will quickly point out, pop-up stores and mobile units, while not new concepts, generally work – so long as PR is properly integrated into the strategy.

Why? They enable the consumer to touch and feel the brand and, more importantly from my perspective, they are programmable over time.

If executed properly and creatively, experiential marketing programs serve up a platform for daily publicity, consistent twitter activity, and social networking programming – all of which not only elevate a product offering or service but invite people in to sample it.

It seems like every other day I read about Charmin’s bathrooms in Midtown. Rather than unveiling the biggest roll of toilet paper, group squeeze or ceremonial Wipe Across America, these guys have created a fully integrated product sampling destination that any visitor to Midtown has one or two reasons to check out. They have been doing this every holiday season for several years and it always makes news.

A liquor company opening up a cool space on the Lower East Side to showcase their brands or an airline opening up a lounge to serve their newly created gourmet food provides infinite more value and opportunity for exposure than a stunt.

As an example, we worked with Hearst’s House Beautiful on the Kitchen of the Year installation, which is their designer showcase of innovations in kitchen outfitting, from appliances to flooring to cookware. DKC worked with them to secure lots of press coverage, including several TODAY show segments, from the temporary space in Rockefeller Center this past summer, and supported their evening programming with consumers and media influencers alike. Despite a harsh economy and competition in the summer for coverage, this strategic initiative paid off in droves, giving us a new media hook for the venerable publication and a chance for fans olds and new to reconnect with the brand, and of course, get inspired about their own kitchens.

There’s really no end to the possibilities. This is a concept that can be tailored to nearly any brand, product launch, or initiative. Bottom line: when well-conceived and executed, my money is on an experiential marketing program over a stunt any day of the week.