Busted! How to pull off a stunt without it being seen as a stunt

Jeremy Corbyn and his campaign team are currently in the midst of a media frenzy after a recent publicity stunt went horribly wrong. We look at how this went so badly wrong and assess whether there is still a place in PR for stunts.

Jeremy Corbyn has allegedly been caught fabricating a story and image of himself being ‘forced’ to sit on the floor of a Virgin rush hour train due to over-crowding. Although the image was aimed to highlight a problem hundreds of commuters face on their daily journeys to and from work, all didn’t go to plan when Corbyn was called out by Virgin boss Richard Branson with CCTV footage of him walking past a number of vacant, unreserved seats before taking his seat on the floor – not ideal!

Sure,  Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the first to stage a photo opp and he won’t be the last, but how did this stunt go so wrong and should it put you off using a stunt in your comms campaign?

In short, no. This shouldn’t put you off. PR stunts still have a place and can achieve real, positive outcomes. However, in the age of CCTV, social media and smart phones, to create a seamless and successful stunt, you have to be extra savvy and aware of everything that could go wrong.

First of all, planning is everything. Like the old saying, fail to prepare; prepare to fail, make sure you’ve sussed out what is against you and what can go wrong. The public aren’t stupid and won’t be fooled easily, nowadays there are just as many people ready to catch you out as there are ready to accept your stunt.

The problem here was that not only did Corbyn’s picture direct a message to the general public, it also directed a message to Virgin trains and owner Richard Branson. Virgin is known to have a very savvy social media team following the ‘toilet paper win’ story among others, with Branson himself being prolific on social media so bringing them unwillingly on board (pardon the pun) this stunt was risky and clearly backfired spectacularly.

Understandably Virgin and Branson aren’t going to take a criticism of their service lightly, particularly if they can find evidence that it wasn’t true, so if you’re going to involve other people or brands, be warned, they may not react how you’d like!

Another issue with this stunt was that it was completely avoidable. The point that Corbyn is trying to get across is a valid one; commuters do regularly face extremely busy peak trains and often find themselves without a seat. So why not just wait?

Surely in a day or two there would have been a real, honest opportunity to tell this story and make the point without as many potential holes. The moral here is, don’t rush things. If the stunt is part of a valuable campaign, wait for all the elements to come together naturally rather than forcing them and putting yourself in a position where you could be caught out.

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