10 surprising PR strategies that made an impact

Surprising PR strategies nike logo

PR is sometimes seen as a fire-fighting exercise, sometimes seen as spin, sometimes seen as schmooze, but it is rarely seen as surprising. Doing the unexpected is what creates competitive advantage, so why not extend this thinking to your PR strategies?

1. Set an ambush

During the 1998 football World Cup, held in France, Nike and Adidas were clear rivals. The organiser of the World Cup, FIFA, only allows one main sponsor in each business category. Adidas won the bid to become the official sponsor, for a fee of around £20m. But Nike ambushed the event for a great deal less by setting up a “football village” among the startling buildings at La Defense, on the northern edge of Paris.

Entry was free, and the company laid on a number of fun events aimed at younger football fans. Nike was not allowed to use the World Cup logo, or even refer to the event directly, but most visitors to the Nike village were blissfully unaware of the company’s unofficial status.

Nike’s expenditure on the village was £4.2m, much less than Adidas’s investment, for very similar results. Ambushing Adidas’s efforts not only gave Nike an unearned advantage, it also detracted from the impact of Adidas’s PR exercise.

2. Keep them waiting

New Harry Potter books are big news, and the publishers have become adept at teasing the reader. When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was published in 2000, bookshops were prevented from selling the book (although they were allowed to display copies in locked cages).

Interest was stoked in a different way. News reports claimed that 20 copies had accidentally been sold by a nameless supermarket. TV footage of the books being delivered to bookshops in security vans was shown, and (mysteriously) a copy of the book found its way onto the news desk of the Scottish Daily Record, upon which the journalists (equally mysteriously) returned it to the publishers unopened.

The official launch took place on the 8th July 2000. Needless to say, readers queued round the block.

3. Let people rip off your ideas

Weblogs Inc. is a company that makes blogs commercial. It was founded in 2003, and hosts around 150 blogs. The profit comes from advertising revenue. Blogs attract very specific audiences, so ads can be targeted accurately.

From the very beginning, Weblogs Inc. has taken a laid-back attitude to its intellectual property. For example, a Spanish entrepreneur set up Weblogs SL to operate in the Spanish-speaking world, without permission from the US company (although SL does acknowledge the US source for the idea).

The founders of the company say, correctly, that the imitators will only ever be imitators. They cannot catch up: all they are doing is making Weblogs Inc. look good by implying that it is worth imitating both business plan and brand name. Clearly the founders got it right, since Weblogs Inc. was sold to AOL in 2005 for a reputed $25m.

4. Keep your enemies close

Shell’s decommissioning of the Brent Spar storage facility is a classic example of how not to handle PR. The company conducted a scientific study which showed that the least risky way of disposing of Brent Spar, both from an environmental viewpoint and for the safety of workers, was to tow it to deep water in the Atlantic and sink it, using explosives.

Greenpeace disagreed. The pressure group occupied the rig for several weeks, and when campaigners were evacuated they held a press conference in Aberdeen. Ss is often the case, the protest groups have slicker PR than the companies they protest against. Shell eventually backed down and its PR people looked for ways to prevent any such action taking place in future, resulting in the Tell Shell website.

Tell Shell is a site that offers an open forum for discussion of anything related to Shell, including its activities and employees. The site is moderated by Shell to remove anything libellous or simply malicious, but the intention is to provide an open forum for debate. The running costs are relatively low, and the effect is powerful in terms of flagging up problems before they get out of hand. It also provides Shell with a source of free advice for avoiding further PR disasters.

5. Tell the truth

Managing public relations for pop groups is always risky, as PR consultancy Henry’s House found out when it was managing PR for the pop group S Club 7. During 2000, the story broke that the band had been using soft drugs, and one tabloid ran a front-page headline “Spliff Club 7”.

The consultancy quickly realised that they had no chance whatever of stopping the story, so they simply contacted the journalists and co-operated with them to ensure that they got the facts right and presented a fair picture of the events. The story was going to run anyway. By being honest and upfront with the media they maintained open communication and built goodwill for the future.

As always, bad news is soon wrapping fish-unless you take an obstructive or devious attitude with the press, in which case they will simply keep digging.

6. Be cheeky

When new low-cost airline Go opened its doors for business, it represented something of a threat for established airline EasyJet. EasyJet rose to the occasion, though, booking ten seats on Go’s inaugural flight for EasyJet employees dressed in company uniform. They spent the flight handing out EasyJet leaflets to the other passengers.

This is a stunt that could have gone dramatically wrong, but it’s worth pointing out that Go’s hands were tied. If the airline had refused boarding to paying passengers simply because of what they were wearing that might have sparked an even bigger news story.

7. Be an anarchist

When Sega introduced its Mega CD games console, the target audience for the product was the marketing-savvy, worldly-wise, cynical, seen-it-all-before teenage market. To reach these people, Sega would have to do something seriously spectacular, so it ran a combined ad and PR campaign designed to intrigue the audience.

First, the company ran ads for fictitious products (a cat food billed as “Good enough to eat!” showing the cat’s owner eating the cat food, for example). The spoof ads ran for some weeks, but were then “hijacked” by “pirate” TV transmitters promoting the Sega product. Billboard ads were subjected to the same treatment, the corners apparently torn off to reveal the Sega ad beneath.

The piracy theme of the ads appealed to the anarchic tendencies of teenagers, but more importantly the spoof caught the imagination of the media and sparked a flurry of editorial coverage commenting on the cleverness of the campaign.

8. In PR think small

Jason Calacanis, founder of Silicon Alley Reporter (a small, specialist magazine for internet enthusiasts) recommends working through small media outlets rather than pitching the big boys.

Pitching a press release at a smaller medium is usually easier and more likely to succeed. Smaller operators have more time for you, and fewer press releases coming in, and in any case the bigger media regularly trawl through the minor magazines looking for stories. This means that your story could well make it into the majors anyway.

9. Do something peculiar

Little Chef is an icon of roadside eating for British motorists. Established for fifty years, the chain has served up literally millions of meals, mainly traditional British fast-food mainstays such as all-day breakfasts and pie and chips.

In 2007, though, the company went into receivership, victim of falling customer demand and increased competition from chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King. Chief executive Ian Pegler decided to pull off a PR coup by recruiting world-renowned chef Heston Blumenthal to revamp the menus.

Blumenthal had no real qualifications for turning round a restaurant like Little Chef. His value lay in the PR effect of employing him in an unusual role: Channel 4 made a documentary about the whole process, generating considerable publicity in the national press.

Pegler could have chosen from several other celebrity chefs with better track records in turning restaurants around (Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are two obvious examples) but choosing Blumenthal was a better PR coup precisely because he was a square peg in a round hole.

10. End in “-est”

Arlo Guthrie of www.consulttheguru.com tells the story of a competition he once ran to find Britain’s Most Destructive Dog. This provoked tremendous interest among the dog-owning public, who rushed to enter their pooches in the competition. The hands down winner, though, was a dog which destroyed its owner’s car. The resulting headline, “My Dog Ate My Ford Fiesta”, had reporters on the doorstep of the “lucky” winner straight away.

Using the word “most” or any word ending with “-est” automatically raises the stakes, but it may need to be engineered in to the campaign.

Jim Blythe is the author of 100 Great PR ideas, published by Marshall Cavendish

by Jim Blythe – posted 24 November 2009

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