In a world of strikes and social media, what makes a PR stunt?

Article by:Alex Maxwell


The stunt that was never intended to be a stunt. Just over two weeks ago, Greta Thunberg was attending a coal mine protest in Germany when police decided to detain her and carry her away. Greta smiled. This was the ‘event’. Photos were snapped, social media went into a frenzy, memes followed and then questions were raised – was this a PR stunt? 
Of course, despite far-fetched claims, it wasn’t planned at all. But the simple act and subsequent exposure turned it into something far greater; it represented the ethos of a stunt. But is it actually fair or right to label such an event a stunt? 
The nucleus of a PR stunt, from the various definitions floating around, centres on a planned event or performance aimed to ‘attract attention to a person, brand and/or their cause’.  Many articles cover the whacky, creative array of past brand stunts aligned to this. But less detailed are the various categories or descriptions for what actually makes a stunt. 
It appears any act of publicity these days can be stapled with the label of a PR stunt. But how does this sit with certain activities? And with social media capturing any event at any time, do stunts actually have to be planned? 

The purpose-driven: responding and acting 

A vehicle with screens parading the streets has become a modern classic for a PR stunt. And it sets itself up well for creating a response to an event or statement. Advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi drove a van around Parliament Square projecting the message “investing in creativity isn’t double maths” as a reply to Rishi Sunak’s plans to make maths mandatory until 18. Message relayed.
And a stunt can be a valuable tool for activism. The most recent public example involved more than a thousand ‘bad apples’ being dumped outside Scotland Yard. The act was led by domestic violence charity Refuge in response to appalling revelations about officer violence against women and girls. The message was clear: the system is full of ‘bad apples’ and is rotting. 
In a way, PR stunts are forms of activism and art. But it raises a further question: do all forms of activism fall under the ‘PR stunt’ bracket? Art too is designed to grab attention and make statements about the world. But are one-off public art installations PR stunts? 
When it comes to current strike activity or human rights protests, for instance, it would seem disingenuous and insulting to label any activity there as a ‘PR stunt’. But, regardless of definition, they gather social media exposure. And the online world has certainly opened up the spectrum of PR stunts. 

‘The online stunt’

From the purpose-driven to the unintentional, the social media world puts PR stunts into a new realm. Just like with Greta, any moment can be captured at any time and springboarded into the online ether. Traction is gained in-person and virtually. But nowadays, an in-person event isn’t even necessary. 
Planned instagram account takeovers, targeted ads and the rolling screen of reels are blitzing our daily digest of social media activity. It’s the ‘online stunt’. And the nature of ‘going viral’ means even posts that weren’t intended to be a PR stunt become one. 
But again, can we class such posts as stunts? By definition, they attract attention to the person, brand or cause. So does whether it becomes a PR stunt rest on its intention? 

The best laid plans… 

The ‘unintentional stunt’ simply highlights the need for companies and brands to be secure in their identity, culture and product. A well-thought out PR strategy, online presence and stream of coverage can achieve this. Consistent know-how and exposure on these aspects means any sudden promotion will simply reflect these embedded values. 
‘Intentional stunts’ are brilliant ways of creating valuable exposure. To thrive, they need to provoke a curiosity, intrigue and desire to know more. They need to be bold. But they also need to be relevant to the person, brand, campaign or message. Too weird, out of touch or not in tune to these principles and they’ll either fall flat or come under scrutiny. 
For true impact, a stunt needs to resonate on social media, whether that be trending amongst your target audience and sector or spreading far and wide for greater, more general exposure. 
It’s true, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. And what makes a stunt may be open for debate. But planned or not, what matters is that your values shine through.


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