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Steven R. Van Hook
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PR Coups and Capers
Major hits and flops in Public Relations.
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 See the Taco Bell Target
 Blow Movie Promo

You win some, and you lose some -- sometimes in a very big and public way.

Those of us in our seniority or fans of rerun TV might recall WKRP's classic publicity stunt: 

Thanksgiving shoppers in a department store parking lot were pelted with live turkeys dropped from a hovering helicopter. ("I didn't know turkeys couldn't fly!" said a dumbstruck radio marketing wiz.) Talk about a PR bomb.

We don't need to rely on sitcoms for astonishing PR hits and misses. The real world provides plenty, thank you very much.

  • Taco Bell was right on target when the Russian space station Mir dropped from the sky. The company scored a media coup by setting up a bulls-eye in the Pacific Ocean with the Taco Bell logo dead center, offering a free taco for each and every American if Mir should hit the mark. Of course the odds against having to actually pay out were astronomical (sorry). But the media play on the stunt was wide: network television, and even a front-page above-the-fold photo of the Taco Bell target in my city newspaper.

  • New Line Cinema received some critical snorts for plugging its release of the drug-trafficking movie Blow by handing out small mirrors as a publicity gimmick. The pocket-size mirrors, perfect for restroom toots of cocaine, did not reflect well on the company as drug rehabilitators blasted New Line for its bad taste.

  • A Los Angeles bank offered its customers $10 for every bank error they ever found in their accounts. This appeal brought in 15-thousand new customers and $65-million in new deposits within two months. Chances the bank would have to pay a penny? Next to nil. Publicity payoff? Priceless.

  • The Walt Disney Company once upon a time proposed opening a Civil War theme park in Manassas, Virginia. Historians were shocked. Locals were livid. Political cartoonists had a field day with Mickey pilloried on the PR battlefield. Disney, eventually and costly, bugled retreat. Dumbo-size PR budgets will not always spare you from publicity blunders.

  • A Lithuanian distillery launched a new brand of spirit sharing a name with Russia's newest president: Putin Vodka. The company owners deny any link of the vodka with Vladimir Putin, even though the bottle is emblazoned with the colors of the Russian flag. The distillery has received tremendous publicity and is getting even more attention with every denial of the Russian link.

  • The devil is in the denials, which have long afflicted Procter & Gamble to counter decades of accusations that the company is tied to Satanism, and its discontinued man-in-the-moon logo a demonic tribute. P&G ultimately filed suit against Amway, the alleged source of the bad PR falsehood motivated by devilish jealousy.   

This is hardly a comprehensive list. The great book of PR brilliance and blunders is amended daily as PR and marketing pros ever strive for new ways to catch or dodge the public's unblinking eye. Stay tuned for more in this ongoing series.

- Steven R. Van Hook

Have your own nomination for a PR coup or caper?  Drop me a line

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