Stunts are sometimes used as a public relations tactic to generate attention and media coverage. It might be something funny, daring or competitive, but the intent is it will gain public and media attention.
But there’s a difference between a stunt and a hoax. It’s a line that should never be crossed by an organization or a PR professional or agency.
A hoax means you are intentionally fooling someone. Plan a hoax as a PR tactic in hopes of gaining attention and you risk gaining much more than you bargained for – the loss of public trust and future business from those you’ve defrauded. And when you involve the media in that hoax, you will also lose the chance of coverage in the future.
An online dating service based in the UK recently used a hoax as a way to gain attention. It worked, to a degree, but at what cost?
The online dating site, whose name I won’t use here because I don’t want to give them even the slightest bit of added exposure, claims it weeds out people who are less than beautiful. That’s its sales pitch – it only accepts “beautiful people.”
The company announced last week that their site had been hacked and some 30,000 “normal or ugly” people had been accidentally admitted to their dating list, bypassing the site’s “vanity filter.” The company claimed it had discovered the hack and has refunded the registration fee to those ugly people who had been inadvertently permitted to sign up for the “exclusive” dating service.
It turns out the hack never happened – the whole thing was a hoax. Now I’m not sure how much publicity this got. I saw it only on one of the PR news sites, and also on a tech blog called PR Pro. Hopefully, the story didn’t go much further.
But it IS out there, because the company, through its ethics-challenged PR agency, issued a news release on PR Newswire, with a London dateline. That means the company and the PR agency knowingly sent a false news release out to the media.
A web security researcher was quoted in the PC Pro story, calling the hoax “a fantastic piece of chicanery.” He said the hoax was designed to ”get them thousands of pounds of free publicity, with little risk of damage to their reputation.”
This “expert” couldn’t be more wrong. It may have brought the site some curious viewers and even some new customers. But how many others have been turned off by being lied to? And the PR agency that put out the news release may have a hard time getting publicity in the future from any real journalist. (If I were a honcho at PR Newswire, I would ban that agency from ever issuing a release for any client on the wire.)
To me, the use of a hoax to gain attention shows a lack of creativity on the part of both the agency and the client. The dating site does have an interesting and potentially newsworthy angle, and simple hard work and good pitching would have gained some legitimate media exposure.
Using a hoax to generate publicity goes against basic public relations and journalistic ethics. It is not activity that should be rewarded with coverage.