When Unicef distributed 5,000 handpainted leaves last autumn, with the slogan "Winter is coming, help Afghan children now", the traffic on the charity's web site doubled and online donations rose by a quarter.
"It was the simplicity of the message on the leaves that worked so well," says Caromy Shannon, head of direct marketing at Unicef. "Although the campaign was only run in London, the media coverage in the national papers such as The Daily Telegraph and in Hello! magazine made sure that the message was seen across the UK. When The Telegraph ran a front page story about the appeal, Unicef saw a 50 per cent increase in telephone donations."
Importantly too, the event was cheap to run, costing only £1,200 for materials such as templates and spray paints. The advertising agency TBWA/GGT didn't charge for the idea, and volunteers collected and handed out the leaves.
It is notoriously tricky to catch the media's eye. Constantly exposed to a barrage of stunts from charities on a daily basis, the media can afford to pick and choose when it comes to bestowing precious coverage.
It's not as simple as getting some B-list celebrity to dress up in a chicken suit, and at its worst, a badly judged PR stunt can confuse the media and cloud the message.
So what does make a good PR stunt? There are plenty of inspired actions out there that have generated pages of coverage, and lots of lessons to be learned. Fit, in particular, is vital - a stunt needs to sum up an entire campaign's message in an easy to absorb photo opportunity.
Simplicity was at the heart of the recent Friends of the Earth campaign to put pressure on the Government to ensure proper funding and more affordable fares for Britain's railways. Friends of the Earth worked with advertising agency Partners BDDH and came up with a series of extremely effective stunts. Based around the idea of not letting Gordon Brown get away with the second great train robbery, Gordon Browns with swag bags were chased by angry commuters, which led to coverage in The Independent and by London Tonight. Simpler still was the idea of a punch bag on stations as a way for passengers to vent their frustrations. Visually a gift to newspapers, the punch bag made its way into most of the regional press.
Leaflets gave passengers what they craved most, a chance for a bit of direct action by giving them a number to send Gordon Brown mobile phone text messages to tell him exactly what they thought of him. You can almost feel him blush. "I think this campaign worked because we had a very emotive hook and lots of people were deeply angry," says Parnee Cherubini, campaign communications manager at Friends of the Earth.
"We decided to use that rage as part of our campaign with a simple, direct message, backing it up with visual interaction from the public. We also made sure that we managed to capture the essence of our target audience and tapped in to the things they would respond to."
Concentrating on a visual message often works. Friends of the Earth has been working to end the commercial extraction of peat, in particular crossing swords with The Scotts Company, a large American producer and marketer of gardening products. The campaign took on further momentum when an article in The Times was illustrated by a picture of old-fashioned manual peat cutting. "This was just what we didn't want to get over, we wanted to show the industrial level of the cutting," says Craig Bennett, corporate campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
To create a suitable image for the press, a protest was held by campaigners and local people with banners that said "Bog Off Scotts", an image which is now used as a signature every time the story is covered. "Having your own photographer there, owning the copyright and letting the press use the pictures for free is a good way to encourage coverage. A visual library of events is vital," says Bennett.
The campaign was not without its hiccups, though. Friends of the Earth used the characters of Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men and combined them with a Frankenstein mask to create a genetically modified Bill and Ben, which was put on display at the Chelsea Flower Show. The aim was to highlight Scotts' production of genetically modified grasses. But Bennett says: "It was all a bit bizarre - the average person going to the Chelsea Flower Show didn't understand what was going on. On reflection, a separate icon would have been better. It's important to keep the message simple."
He believes that it is crucial to have a really good leaflet, with the right information and tone. "It must be polite and informative, you need to turn readers into an ally. You need to save the punch for placards. It's very easy when you know the complexities of issues to get bogged down with detail, but placards need to be hard hitting and to the point.
You need to get the message across to people who know nothing about the subject."
The visual message was a vital component of the recent Burma Campaign UK against Premier Oil, a joint action with Friends of the Earth. Blood stained £5 notes were handed to shareholders by a Burmese Buddhist monk as they entered the company's head office for the annual general meeting. A cardboard cutout of a naked businessman with a briefcase was added to expose the actions in Burma and Pakistan, and a speech bubble saying "Burma's pain, my gain" was stuck on the end of a pole and floated over shareholders' heads as they entered the building, providing a great photo opportunity. "The image was the clearest way to represent blood money that we could think of, says Burma Campaign UK director's John Jackson. It also seems that the work of the charity has finally paid off with Premier expected to pull out of Burma.
One of the charity's fastest-working campaigns was directed against lingerie firm Triumph, which had sourced manufacturing in Burma. Two posters, one with a model wearing a barbed wire bra with the slogan, "Support breasts not dictators" and another with barbed wire men's briefs saying "Support genitals not generals" resulted in Triumph pulling out of Burma in just two months. "Humour is a powerful tool. Dour and depressing messages can put people off but because humour is unusual, it can interest people.
Essentially, humour is a Trojan horse which gets issues covered with the serious message behind it," says Jackson.
There's pretty much nothing that Greenpeace doesn't know about getting in the news. Although Greenpeace says it does not do stunts, favouring direct action, it does generate a lot of media coverage. Media director Blake Lee-Harwood puts this down to the often newsworthy angle of Greenpeace's action. "A strength of what we're doing is that it often runs in tandem with newsworthy issues. Real stories rather than manufactured ones have a real power," he says.
It's not always easy though. Lee-Harwood cites the fact that speed boat actions in the UK just don't work. "Even though these images are incredibly dramatic, it's seen as a bit of a cliche by the media. It's a very crowded market and picture editors are exposed to so many images that it's hard to get a message across. It's much easier to get coverage of a decent stunt into the business pages, normally filled with pictures of middle-aged men in suits," he says.
Finally, not all successful PR stunts need a news hook. Sometimes it's just a matter of tapping into the national psyche or turning preconceptions on their heads, like the unbelievable response to the nude Women's Institute calendar (see case study). PR and events company Incredibull Ideas was called in to work on Cystic Fibrosis Awareness Week. The idea was to provide the media with a PR stunt with visual appeal. Incredibull came up with an obstacle course race in Trafalgar Square of football mascots, which were then put on a bus and taken to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust Awards being held that day.
"It wasn't easy to plan as mascots have lots of demands made on their time. While it's good to think as big as possible, the key to a successful stunt is organisation, detail and planning," says senior account manager Debbie Selwyn.
THE INGREDIENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL STUNT
- Simplicity of message is vital. Don't get bogged down with the complexities of the subject - go for the clearest, punchiest message
- Never forget the photo opportunity. Have your own photographer at the event, offer pictures to the press free and keep a good archive library
- If there's a news hook, exploit it - journalists are more likely to use it if its newsworthy
- Humour is a powerful tool, especially for the photo opportunity
- Celebrities can be expensive and unreliable as spokespeople, so it is important to vet and prepare them well in advance, or keep press coverage limited to photo opportunities
- Avoiding hackneyed ideas is vital for a world weary press, but don't dismiss building on other people's successes and shaping them to suit your campaign
- Make sure your backup material is impeccable. If journalists want to go into further detail, it needs to be readily available and correct
- Don't forget about the business pages and specialist trade titles - coverage through these is often easier and often more trained to your target audience
- Don't use the same stunt twice - keep things fresh if you want coverage and look out for what other charities are up to so you avoid doubling up
- Don't be afraid to take risks and experiment with ideas. Charities are often surprised at what works and what doesn't - it is a bit of a lottery
- If you haven't got a news hook then look at perennial media favourites that always get in the news such as football mascots (but avoid girls in bikinis)
CASE STUDY - THE RYLSTONE WOMEN'S INSTITUTE CHARITY CALENDAR
As a textbook charity stunt, you'd be hard pushed to find one as effective as the Women's Institute (WI) nude calendar. Not only did the campaign raise £500,000 for leukemia research, it also did more to raise the profile of the WI than years of PR work.
However, this campaign was not the result of brainstorming in an advertising office, but the result of a joke. "We've always had calendars for the WI, usually with nature scenes. When we asked for ideas, we suggested a nude one. It was just a silly idea off the top of the head," says Moyra Livesey, member of Rylstone WI in North Yorkshire.
Another member of the WI had been diagnosed with leukemia so it made sense to raise money and get sponsorship from local business. The initial print run was 1,000. Despite being off the cuff, the idea of putting naked members of the WI discreetly behind jam jars and flower arrangements caught the public imagination. The calendar's simplicity and originality ensured that the media soon got hold of it - it featured on the BBC Six O'Clock News.
The initial run sold out and created a flood of goodwill and postal donations. In 2001, it was republished by Workman Publications, a large multinational, from which the WI receive a small royalty. The response overwhelmed Livesey. "We thought we might get coverage from the local papers but we couldn't believe the sheer amount of interest that it generated.
"The calendar is soon to be the subject of a new film starring Helen Mirren." Livesey puts down a lot of the success to being portrayed as they were. "We specifically didn't ask for any touch ups but there was good lighting and skilful camera work," she says.