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Brand Strategy Viral Anything Is Possible

Stunts, tricks and gaffes: PRs on managing virality in 2022


By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

April 4, 2022 | 8 min read

With years of declining ratings, the things that have generated true Oscars buzz in recent years have been debacles: John Travolta’s failed pronunciation of ‘Idina Menzel’; La La Land’s erroneous announcement as best picture; and now the already-infamous Will Smith moment. Assuming these moments were unplanned, what lessons do they hold for PRs? How can marketers harness the power of true watercooler moments (despite the death of the watercooler itself) without courting backlash? We asked five experts from The Drum Network.

A crowd in a museum

PR experts on virality and attention: how do we court it when backlashes are so common? / Alicia Steels via Unsplash

Aggie Holland, account manager, Porter Novelli London: first, look in the mirror

Among the many acerbic memes stemming from the 94th Academy Awards, one that stood out was ‘spare a thought today for Will Smith’s publicist.’ The real theater of the Oscars rarely surrounds the films themselves. In the golden age of meme culture, we look for these diversions as references for the rest of internet eternity.

There are no winners in a situation where toxic masculinity, ableism and violence take the stage, so there can be no valuable benefit to brand commentary or seeking to build on a watercooler moment – unless you’re a charity with genuine intent and a watertight connection, to do so is in as bad taste as the GI Jane joke itself. As with anything, your brand proposition, purpose and personality should dictate any course of conduct. As we see crisis comms roll out in real-time, the most long-lasting (versus harmful) damage of those 45 seconds lands on the famously inoffensive Will Smith brand itself.

Christian Perrins, head of strategy, Waste Creative: curating the extraordinary

The majority of PR pitches default to brand + celebrity (or brand + influencer). They generate middling results, unless something unexpected and interesting happens. But that’s what people are desperate to share – something to break through the soul-wrenchingly anodyne churn that modern brands are inflicting on them. Will Smith slapping Chris Rock across the face? That’s unexpected and interesting. Share. Meme-ify. Bernie Sanders wearing mittens at a presidential inauguration? That’s unexpected and interesting. Share. Meme-ify. Seeing the moment Paul McCartney wrote Get Back? That’s unexpected and interesting. Share. Meme-ify.

Truly going viral isn’t about contriving moments – it’s about contriving the conditions for unexpected and interesting things to happen. Only brave brands need apply.

Sam Fentone-Elstone, chief executive officer, Anything is Possible: make moments upstream from your mission

The engagement and the conversation generated by a viral moment is not peripheral to the big event – it’s the prize itself.

Let’s break down Monday’s example from the perspective of consumer attention. Watching Will Smith pace across the stage takes maybe 40 seconds. Watching a few more times to savor every detail from the experience adds on another couple of minutes.

But then the jokes, and more significantly the debates, began. And they’ll continue for weeks to come. When is violence acceptable? Is it OK to mock a woman, mock anyone, for an illness? When is it OK for a standup to cross the line? Was it all staged anyway?

These conversations rapidly multiply from the initial occurrence. This is where the energy and attention generated by that moment really takes life. And that’s where their value lies.

Start with the discourse and work backwards. What conversations do you want people to have? What kind of thoughts do you want to plant? What’s the behavior change you want to influence?

Then make a moment that sits upstream from those directions. Will it work? Early reports say this year’s Oscar viewing figures are up 50% on 2021...

Damian Summers, PR lead, Impression: don’t stunt for stunting’s sake

I’m a huge fan of PR stunts. They’re a great way to drive coverage, if done correctly. But there’s plenty of other PR tactics, so if you’re finding yourself struggling for ideas and a stunt feels like a silver bullet to generate mass coverage, don’t do it. Here’s why.

Our job as PRs is to build and protect brands (if you have SEO-led objectives, you’re also leveraging to impact organic search performance). The very best PR stunts are effective because they tie into a worthy cause or aim to raise awareness of an issue that impacts the target market.

If you’re PR stunting for stunts’ sake, you’re on the wrong trajectory and risking a backfire. It’s not a sustainable tactic.

Make sure your stunt adds meaningful value while planning for every eventuality – your client should be involved in this process. What are we gaining from your stunt? If you can’t answer beyond just ‘coverage’ or ‘links,’ don’t do it. Try something else.

Katheryn Watson, head of PR (London), Journey Further: the importance of eyeballs

How can PRs and marketers harness the power of PR stunts without courting backlash? There’s no simple answer, but here’s a start: run it past more than one team.

Run your idea past the brand team, legal, corporate PR/comms product/service PR, creative, social – as many different eyes as you can.

This goes for all brands, big and small. You might have the best out-of-home (OOH) stunt portfolio around, but often you can be blindsided by love for your ideas or pushing projects through to hit deadlines.

Mistakes in stunts seem so obvious to outsiders once they start picking up backlash, and sometimes it seems unbelievable that mistakes slip through the cracks. Consider a quality assurance process where you show proposals, initial drafts and final drafts to others in teams outside of the direct project. You might be shocked at what they spot (and you’ve missed).

Alexandra Stamp, head of marketing, Croud

It’s easy to talk about the debacles, errors and misjudgement – they’re a hot topic for the press and make for crowd-pleasing conversation. It’s also easy to be controversial. What’s not so easy is to do it for positive gain. It’s a skill that involves creatively shaping backlash into something your brand can use.

Newcomer Thursday uses disruptive marketing that challenges traditional views. The key is in its messaging. It raises the feminist view and shares opinions on mental health in a hard-hitting and authentic way, normalizing sensitive discussion topics and creating deep connections with its audience. Its campaigns are honest and in-sync with changing societal views.

In contrast, BrewDog has years of controversial publicity campaigns under its belt. Who can forget the taxidermy squirrel bottle? Its success lies in its unapologetic approach that blends controversy with dark humor. The next controversy is never far off for BrewDog – that’s the ‘curse’ of permanent residency in the public eye. Does this make it a victim of its own success? Maybe. But it’s still one of the highest-ranking beers in the world.

Brand Strategy Viral Anything Is Possible

Content created with:

Porter Novelli

Porter Novelli is the strategic communications company built on purpose to do business better. The way we bring this to life in EMEA is by closing the say-do gap...

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Waste Creative

Waste is an independent creative agency founded in 2006. We connect entertainment brands with their fans, to drive creativity, culture and commercial success. A...

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Anything is Possible

Media. Creative. Technology. We bring it all together like no other agency.

That's why we say: Anything is Possible.

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We are Digital Growth Specialists helping ambitious brands push boundaries and drive impact. We define and deliver integrated digital strategies that transform our...

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Journey Further

Journey Further is a performance brand agency based in Leeds, Manchester, London and New York.

Designed to deliver Clarity at Speed for the world’s leading...

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