Unplanned PR: 4 Examples of How Brands Unexpectedly Landed in the National Spotlight

By: Katie Gibbons
Not all public relations wins start out as meticulously planned campaigns by a company’s PR department. Some organizations have had unexpected and fruitful media attention stem from consumers or celebrities mentioning their organization, that in turn led to major conversations. Public relations windfalls have even come from seemingly small, out-of-the-box ideas that turned into massive amounts of media attention, such as with 7-Eleven’s “Bring Your Own Cup Day.” Sometimes the unforeseen PR works wonders for a company, and other times it’s a hindrance, depending on how the company responds to the situation.

Starting a trend or making something go ‘viral’ is not a hard science. Often, PR firms and marketing agencies spend months planning the perfect campaign, which they are sure will catch on. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it blows up in their face. Everything from breaking news to one misinterpreted message can throw a campaign off track. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some successes, horror stories and organic, customer driven campaigns.

1) 7-Eleven – “Bring Your Own Cup Day”

What worked: This was a fun idea from 7-Eleven that allowed consumers to get creative and bring in their own cups to fill with Slurpees. People of all ages brought in their own “cups,” from crock pots to fish bowls. The creativity this promotion inspired grabbed national headlines from Bustle to USA Today, and flooded social media with pictures of the most ridiculous “cups” you could imagine.

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What didn’t work: The public has a tendency to take a fun idea too far, which is always something a brand should consider. Although not a major issue for this specific idea, people still tried to bring in cups that were too large or didn’t fit the requirements. While this may seem like a business nightmare, (product out=lost revenue) in the end, the social media buzz and press attention was well-worth the gallons of Slurpee mix.

2) Chris Rock sells Girl Scout Cookies at the Oscars

What worked: Quite unexpectedly, the Girl Scouts enjoyed some free PR when Chris Rock helped his daughter sell cookies while as host of the ceremony. Many stars were seen eating cookies throughout the night and some even tweeted out pictures of the cookies they had purchased. The actors at the awards weren’t the only ones tweeting about it—the Girl Scout twitter account also gave some witty responses that showed a sense of humor, while also staying true to the organization. All-in-all, the effort raised over $65,000 for the troop. One expert estimates the stunt was worth $5.5 million in “free advertising” or publicity value, and that number doesn’t account for the tons of gifs, images and video clips shared after the big night. With Tweets like the one below, the Girl Scouts definitely made the most of those assets.

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What didn’t work: After news broke, the actual amount of money raised was further scrutinized, and the authenticity of the stunt came into question. While most would still agree this was an Oscar worthy PR stunt, it is unfortunate that the morning after stories – which should have been about the stunts rousing success – were instead focused on the authenticity of the funds raised.

3) Red Lobster mention in Beyoncé lyric at the Super Bowl

What worked: It’s always a good day when Beyoncé mentions your brand during the halftime show of one of the most viewed television events of the year. The mention not only caused Red Lobster to become a trending topic on Twitter, but also spiked sales 33%. This is a great example of a customer driven opportunity and it helped that the customer in question was the inimitable Beyoncé.

What didn’t work: Somewhat unfortunately, the mention was in one of Queen Bee’s most controversial songs. Given the mixed feeling on the song and video, Red Lobster needed to come up with a safe response if it chose to respond at all. It took hours for Red Lobster to respond on Twitter—and people noticed.

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Even worse, Twitter users called out Red Lobster for taking so long to come up with what they felt was a mediocre tweet.

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This ended up coming off as “too little, too late.” Had they responded immediately, fans may have been more forgiving.

4) ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

What worked: The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is still one of the most viral campaigns of all time, which is saying a lot considering it’s now two years after the phenomenon began. To date, the Challenge has raised over $100 million for a cause that previously didn’t garner much attention. The campaign gathered more and more attention as time went on since a main component of the campaign was to nominate others to join in—which kept the challenge going for months. Although the ALS Association did not respond in a huge way on social media or any other efforts, this may actually have been a good route to go, as doing so may have caused the campaign to seem less authentic. People were more sympathetic to the idea of a campaign that was a grassroots movement by a group of people that were affected by the disease.

What didn’t work: With such a huge amount of money and attention in such a short amount of time, it may have been inevitable that the ALS Association found itself under increased media scrutiny. People began to question where the money was going, the value/impact of “hashtag activism” and even whether the public needs a gimmick to care about important causes. While the ALS Association responded to the criticism around how the donations were used, they struggled to capture as much of a spotlight as their critics. It is hard to say what should have been done differently from the outside looking in, but in the end, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge will go down in history as one of the most successful viral campaigns of all time. It is easy to imagine public relations agencies and marketing teams looking back years from now, and thinking “how do we replicate that campaign?”

The important takeaway from all of these examples is that your PR strategy needs to be a mix of planned, proactive outreach and smart, reactive action. In the era of social media and instant communication, your fans have as much to say about your brand as you do, the difference being that what they have to say can come out of left field. While this may occasionally lead to a crisis, unplanned attention can work in favor of a company, leading to increased awareness and a boost in sales—a PR win in anyone’s book.