Need attention? I mean, do you really really want to grab attention for your organization and its causes? Have you thought about doing something wacky? Something that really generates media buzz?
If you’ve answered yes to most of the questions above, chances are that you’ve considered doing a publicity stunt. We’ve all seen such stunts before. Sometimes it’s a pie in the face of a political figure. Other times it’s someone chaining themselves to a tree. Common stunts involve disrupting a meeting, and using the timing to shout a message. Hanging banners from public buildings or visible landmarks is another popular publicity stunt. More recently, we’ve seen the emergence of ‘quiet’ stunts, whereby no words are spoken, but physical appearance is used to convey a theme.
The question is: Do any of these work? The short, simple answer is: yes. They typically generate media coverage. The bigger question is: Do they generate any lasting impact? That’s still open to debate. I remember seeing media coverage of someone throwing a pie in the face of a government official recently at a press conference. The pie-thrower achieved her aim: she got 15 seconds of footage on the nightly TV news, and a sound bite showing her shouting her message. Yet, only days later, I can’t remember the point the pie-thrower was trying to make. All I remember is the pie in the face of the politician. In that regard, this is one publicity stunt that had little lasting public impact as far as message retention. The success of disrupting a meeting is also tied to whom you’re disrupting and where.
Remember, in media reporting, publicity stunts have a very short life cycle for coverage. With careful pre-planning and execution, ‘stunts’ can occasionally break this wall and generate multi-day news coverage. Of course, it’s not always about 15 seconds on TV. It can be about encouraging the public at street level to start talking about an issue.
So how do you evaluate your publicity stunt, before you commit to it? Consider two key questions: 1) Do you desire lasting retention of your message? or 2) Are you satisfied with a 15-second sound bite of clip on the news? Once you answer these questions, you’ll have a better value proposition for moving forward.
And here’s another important consideration: For better or worse, some organizations have built reputations on radical stunts. This path is not for every organization. Clearly, many groups with this more aggressive approach have been successful at generating ongoing publicity. Others, may cause some in the public to mutter, “Oh, not them again.” But such groups also serve another valuable purpose within the environmental movement: they help create debate and drive some people toward supporting environmental organizations with approaches that are more about advocacy or more mainstream relationship building.
The point here is that you need to understand your niche and support base before considering if publicity stunts are right for you and your organization. Who will be offended by the stunt? Who will applaud it? What gains will you make by doing a stunt, and are they gains you need for success?
Not every publicity stunt needs to be wacky or radical. For example, handing a tree seedling to every politician walking into a legislature building could generate media buzz for a non-profit organization’s massive tree planting program. A ‘stunt’ like this is non-radical, would be readily embraced by politicians (who wants to be ‘outed’ for being unwilling to accept a tree seedling in this era of environmental consciousness?), and should be an easy sell for attracting media coverage. Would it generate lasting message retention? Imagine if politicians were encouraged to return to their municipal ridings and plant the tree as a show of support for your cause? Now, imagine a photo of each planting by a politician being published in newspapers and on the web across the province?
Don’t stereotype publicity stunts as only tools for organizations that employ an aggressive mandate. The joy of publicity stunts is that they can often be creative, enjoyable exercises that do have an impact on the public and even decision-makers.
Feeling energized about doing a publicity stunt? Just be sure to take a few steps back and examine it from afar before you proceed. You never want to race forward with a publicity stunt that does more harm than good for the reputation of your organization.