Stage a Promotion, Go Directly to Jail
Having to do the perp walk is not anyone’s idea of an aspirational, career-advancing maneuver, especially in public relations. But, unfortunately, “I wasn't thinking” is not a valid defense when creative promotional ideas not only take a bad turn, but actually result in alarming your co-workers and having the SWAT team storm your building.
Case in point: on Valentine’s Day 2011, a promotional stunt at Dell’s Austin, Texas headquarters – intended to fuel employee enthusiasm over the launch of the company’s new tablet computer - instead resulted in fueling employee panic, when office workers thought they were under attack from a masked gunman. Given the age we live in, a swift response resulted as local law enforcement quickly converged on the campus after several frantic 911 calls were placed by terrified employees.
According to several published reports and police statements, a member of the marketing group donned dark clothing, a skull-pattern mask, and waved small metallic items as he ran through office areas yelling, “Go to the lobby.” What turned out to be an ill-fated attempt at an in-house promotional stunt to motivate employees to attend a lobby product launch pep rally, had been executed “with little or no notice to co-workers, internal security or office executives,' also according to police. Many of the 400-plus witnesses to the incident told police they believed they were under armed threat.
The costumed employee was charged with deadly conduct (a Class A misdemeanor) and was taken to the Williamson County Jail. Officers also arrested a colleague, who was charged with interfering with public duties, a Class B misdemeanor, stemming from what police said was a refusal to comply with police directions or to “provide officers with the location or identity of his cohorts”. Dell's corporate communications team then went to work, doing a great job of crisis communications managment, with rapid and transparent responses to media inquiries regarding the incident.
Modern history is littered with many incidents of creating unintended panic. From Orson Welles and his 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast of a fictionalized invasion from Mars, to the Cartoon Network’s 2007 bomb scare in Boston, causing widespread public panic is frequently the result of not thinking about the message you’re sending, who your audience is, and how your content will be received. It’s communications theory 101 – sender, message, medium, receiver, feedback loop. Yet, time and again, it seems a handful of people responsible for strategic communications, public relations and marketing may have been asleep in the lecture hall during that class.
We’d enjoy hearing what you think are the best examples of ill-conceived promotions or campaigns.