Thursday, January 7, 2010

Good publicity stunts are good business

When you tell people you work in PR, some people hear C.J. Cregg, the brilliant, principled White House spokeswoman from The West Wing, and others hear Samantha Jones, the flashy and promiscuous publicist from Sex and the City.

The fact is, PR is home to each of those – and more, both between the two and further along the spectrum on each side. There are people calling themselves PR people who do nothing but connect celebrities with nightclubs and restaurants at which to make mutually-beneficial appearances, and there are those who advise CEOs and heads of state.

Bread-and-butter, thy name is publicity.

Many PR pros, whether their clients are wanting customers for products, votes for candidates, donations for charities or support for causes, spend a lot of their time working to generate publicity. As they undertake their major PR campaign of the semester, Red River College’s first-year Creative Communications students are blogging about publicity stunts this week (you can check them out on the CreComm Blog Network under “Class of 2011”).

As you’ll see from the range of stunts or “pseudo-events” they examine, the sky’s the limit if you’re creative and you understand what gets people’s attention. A good publicity stunt gets people talking about your brand, and creates news for your client where none existed before.

Case in point: Richard Branson and Canadian wireless number portability

In 2007, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (“CRTC”) changed the rules for wireless carriers in Canada, making it possible for cell phone customers to take their phone numbers with them when they left one wireless company for another. (Before this decision, if you changed cell phone providers you had to get a new number – a deterrent to switching providers.)

Richard Branson, the founder and chief executive of the Virgin Group (and no stranger to the media spotlight), undertook a publicity stunt in downtown Toronto in which he rappelled to the street from a “jail cell” suspended 80 feet in the air, and “rescued” some Canadian cell phone customers who were “imprisoned” by their current suppliers.

It worked – Branson’s stunt caught media attention (after all, you don’t see many corporate executives doing things like this), and Virgin dominated media stories about the number portability decision.

Would the number portability decision have been news without Branson’s stunt? Of course. But would the media stories about it have singled out Virgin Wireless, among the other cell phone competitors in the market? Maybe, maybe not – but most certainly not to the degree they did.

With this publicity stunt, Virgin Wireless got itself featured in media stories about how Canadian wireless customers were now going to have an easier time switching to different suppliers – like Virgin Wireless.

Smart business – and great PR.


  1. Oh Samantha Jones, my hero LOL
    great post and way to give a shout out to 2011 grad class *woot woot* :)

  2. Thankfully, there's much more to PR than Samantha Jones!