Adam Kiefaber is an experienced corporate communications leader, who has headed up PR teams for large companies in payments and financial services. Previously, he spent nearly 10 years in journalism working for The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Cincinnati Post and CNN. Follow him on LinkedIn.
As a communicator, how many times have you been asked (or told) to make a big splash? Or that you need to do something stunty?
It might be hard not to cringe when that happens, but— hide those emotions — what they are really saying is that they want to do something new, creative, exciting – basically, something we can all point to at the end of the year and say: Now, that was a really good idea.
But with every big idea, there is risk. That is why a request to do something stunty is so intimidating. To cringe is a completely normal response, but I encourage you to snap out of it quickly and start asking the right questions.
To get the right advice, I wanted to talk to an expert on creative PR, so I called up Jeff Barrett, CEO and Founder of Status Creative, a PR agency that has done work for Adobe, FIS, Experian, Chrysler, Oracle, Instructure, MeridianLink, Pure Michigan and more. Shorty Award winner, Webby nominated, Jeff is also the host of The Shorty Awards’ podcast It’s No Fluke, which talks to the top creators, advertisers and thinkers in the world to understand their process.
What is the objective?
If you are in public relations, the “stunt PR” request will find you this year if it hasn’t already. And when it does, it is much better to take a beat.
“It is so easy to jump into a creative session and throw out ideas,” Barrett said. “Heck, it is fun, and we are all creative. However, if you don’t give yourself that pause and ask – ‘what is the objective, what is the target audience and when do we need to execute?’ – you aren’t going to come up with the right idea.”
If you find yourself in a creative session, Barrett acknowledged that asking these questions will likely annoy your group of stakeholders but said it’s important that you don’t waste too much time and energy going down the wrong path.
“You will often get these questions because someone sees something popular, whether it is the ice bucket challenge or something they saw on TikTok, but what they don’t understand – is it’s harder than ever to surprise people and tomorrow it will be even harder,” Barrett said. “We are more siloed than ever, there is more content than ever, and we all see a different version of the internet based on algorithms tailored to us and only us. It is not easy to breakthrough, to create something universal when you’re pushing against the attention economy. And if you do, it needs to be tied into the objective or it won’t be worth it.”
One example Barrett mentioned in our conversation was the Old Spice commercials featuring actor Terry Crews. The advertisements were insanely popular. They brought a tremendous amount of awareness to an already well-known brand, but they didn’t increase sales, Barrett said. While the ads were very creative and had a lot of buzz, it appears they may have fallen short on their objective.
What resources do we have?
Stunt PR is only worth doing if people talk about it.
“The next question has to be about resources,” Barrett said. “I will always ask, ‘what resources do we have internally and what influencers do we have who are ready to act?’”
By influencers “who are ready to act,” Barrett is referring to brand ambassadors. He believes that companies that throw a lot of money to one influencer or small sums to a lot of influencers for one-off requests aren’t playing the game correctly. He said you must have influencers who are ready to pounce and promote your content, or you will fail.
“You have to seed your content,” Barrett said. “If you try to create a stunt without the right influencers or media contacts to ensure that you will have a baseline of attention, then you aren’t playing the game at all. This is a prerequisite to any creative PR. Content is far too sophisticated to rely on luck. What was true 75 years ago is true today. It still is all about the relationships you curate and maintain.”
As we spoke about this, Barrett mentioned how many people believe that some things just “go viral” and feel accidental. But nothing happens by accident.
“If you don’t have people willing to share the content, you are just throwing a pebble in the ocean,” he said. “No one else will see it. David Ogilvy once said that ‘nothing should ever be a surprise.’”
What will get people to act?
If you are just desperate for attention, then you might be able to skip this question. However, if you want something to happen from your investment listen carefully:
“This is the last and final question,” Barrett said. “You want to inspire, hell, demand an action. That was the flaw with the Old Spice ads. The reaction was, ‘look he is wearing a necklace, and now he is on a horse.’ It didn’t convince anyone to buy deodorant.”
One idea Barrett worked on years ago was with Adobe. The company was launching Adobe Analytics. Traditionally, the company’s approach to sales would be to email senior managers and director-level employees, provide demos, invest in conferences and hope someone took the time to check out the product.
Instead of asking if someone might be interested in using the product, Barrett and Adobe decided to ask people if they wanted to play with it.
That is how the idea came about for Hack the Bracket with Adobe Analytics. Overall, the idea was simple. As millions of people were trying to fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket in March, Adobe launched a website that allowed anyone to plug in college basketball teams and create matchups. The digital tool – powered by Adobe Analytics – would then tell the user each team’s win probability and other key statistics of that game.
Then, on the PR side, they had media contacts who they knew would be interested and influencers ready to promote the timely idea.
“We were helping people win their office pool through deep analytics,” Barrett said. “Now, 95%of those people were never going to be clients – that was not the point. It was the 5%that mattered because they got to use it and that led them to buy the software. We found a new, more engaging way to reach them.”
Barrett said they started with the objective, which was to sell the product. They knew they already had the resources to promote it. The action was to get as many people as possible to want to try the product. And this time, the stunt paid off.
“On every project, I never come in thinking I have the idea right away,” Barrett said. “What the client is telling you – in regard to the objective and desired action – should always guide whatever you create. Work with the assets you have. If you have a limited amount of product, use that to your advantage and sell people on exclusivity. If everyone else in your industry is doing the same thing, great, you have the perfect opportunity to surprise people. Just remember, a stunt is just a stunt unless it leads people to take an action.”