Michelle Rodger: Why crazy PR can stunt the growth of your company

I HAD to smile when I read that two Dell Computer employees had been arrested last week after an internal PR stunt to promote their new tablet backfired big time.

The tablet is able to interface with Harley-Davidson motorbikes, so they thought it would be a great idea to rock up to the sales floor dressed as bikers in black leathers, with black skull masks and carrying "metallic" objects and tell staff to "go to the lobby".

Needless to say some of the staff took fright, a flurry of 911 calls ensued, and local police dispatched a SWAT team to storm the building.

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It's not the first PR stunt to go wrong and it certainly won't be the last.

The first (probably) was in 365 BC when Herostratus burned down one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis in Greece, to ensure his name would go down in history. It did - "Herostratic fame" is fame achieved by any means simply for the purpose of being famous - but he was also executed for his efforts, as was anyone who mentioned the arsonist's name.

Since then we've seen live pigeons sent by courier to journalists to promote the launch of a financial product by Scottish Life International (the 77 birds had been in the boxes with no food or water overnight, before being delivered) and only last year, hot on the heels of "balloon boy" (the fame-hungry father who claimed his son had mistakenly gone off in a hot air balloon), we saw a donkey attached to a harness and parasailing over the Sea of Azoz in Russia in an attempt to attract tourists to have a go at the watersport.

A PR stunt is intended to create a unique or sensational story, generating media and public interest to raise awareness of a company or a product or a service. But do we really need ridiculous - and dangerous - stunts to achieve that? Surely, if the company or product or service is good enough, it doesn't need a stunt?

According to Scott Douglas, any business or organisation can improve its performance and reputation by telling its stories well, whether to customers, staff, investors or the public at large. It's a long-term, strategic investment.

But when it all goes wrong, the potential impact on a business can be significant.Douglas, co-founder of holyroodpr.co.uk, said the Dell PR stunt was stupid. "Using dangerous-looking men to 'round up' unsuspecting 'volunteers' in post 9/11 and Columbine America is rank stupidity'," he said. "There is nothing wrong with organising an internal marketing stunt featuring masked and dangerous-looking men, as long as everyone knows in advance that something potentially pulse-quickening is happening, and it's all in the name of entertainment."

Dell has already survived the "Dell Hell" PR storm, a genuine PR disaster which could have destroyed the computer giant's business, and Douglas says the fact the company learned from its mistakes has stood it in good stead to ride this new storm.

Because they are open in communication with customers, most will see this for what it is and it will be laughed off quickly. Not every business will be so lucky. PR, warns Douglas, is a "double-edged sword", and what starts out as an innocuous story can turn into a major reputational issue, if not averted - or avoided - in the first place. "We leave the stunts to the short-termists and the experiential marketers," he says.

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Stunts do have their place, but you need to be experts in your field and be prepared for everything to go wrong, says Brian Baglow, head of interactive entertainment at Revolver PR. He says anything that introduces a real-world element, or tries guerilla or "alternate reality game" tactics should only be carried out by experts, or within a situation where everything is controlled, including negative reactions, otherwise you can end up with the "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" problem from Boston, where in 2007 a marketing campaign triggered a bomb scare and multiple arrests.

"Gaming" or manipulating the media (creating fictitious bloggers/fans) is another no-no, says Baglow, who warns: "You will get caught and the fallout will be awful, especially if you deny it."

If you must try and be edgy and guerilla, Baglow suggests you combine it with common sense, careful planning and a quick call to the local police, the CEO/board and anyone controlling incoming/outgoing communications.

Most importantly? Be prepared for it to go horribly wrong and plan accordingly.