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7 min read

2018: The year of bold PR campaigns

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

If I asked you to tell me about your favourite PR campaign of all time, could you think of something off the top of your head? What would come to mind? I’d be willing to put money on it being something slightly ‘out there’ – or even way out there – and that’s the reason you remember it. Let me tell you mine. Roll back to one cold night in December and I’m curled up on the sofa aimlessly scrolling through my Twitter feed. I see that Poundland is trending and, curious as to why, I click on the hashtag. What ensued was half an hour of me crying-laughing at its (naughty) #elfbehavingbadly campaign. If you haven’t seen it I suggest you stop here and head over to @Poundland first (note: if you’re easily offended, it’s probably better to skip this section altogether). Almost every day in the run-up to Christmas the discount retailer published a photo of their £2 ‘Naughty Elf’ behaving badly. Here is one of the milder Tweets:

There’s no doubt that this campaign caused a massive divide in opinion but one thing’s for sure, it got people talking – evidenced by the thousands of people that used the official hashtag. Once the media caught wind it snowballed even more. What was even funnier was the fact that people were buying the toy and posting their own mock-up photos.From what I could see most were in support of the campaign, praising Poundland for its creativity. Here are a few Tweets from consumers who enjoyed #elfbehavingbadly:


However, some said the campaign was inappropriate and went too far (it was later touted as ‘irresponsible’ by the Advertising Standards Authority ). Twining’s Tea even got involved, distancing itself from the brand after a product of theirs was featured in one of the images. Poundland reacted by re-posting the image – minus the branded tea bags in the background – with the caption “spot the difference…”.


Though we don’t know how many more people bought the Naughty Elf as a result of the PR stunt, or how Poundland’s December sales figures compare to last year’s we do know that it helped to generate:

  • Mass engagement on social media, through comments on its official posts and public posts using the #elfbehavingbadly hashtag
  • More social media followers (OK reports they had 23,000 Twitter followers on December 22, they now have 116,000)
  • Coverage in most national and local publications (search ‘Elf on a Shelf Poundland’ and you’ll be presented with more than 53,000 results)
  • An increase in organic search traffic, according to Google Trends (see below)
  • An increase in backlinks back to Poundland’s homepage and /toys landing page

Poundland’s reaction to the whole thing? “We’re proud of a campaign that’s only cost £25.53 and is being touted as the winning marketing campaign this Christmas!”

When the ASA got involved Poundland stood firm, taking to Twitter with this response.

Dare to do the unthinkable

You’d never dream of intentionally sending your customers to a competitor, would you? Well, that’s what Burger King in Argentina did to support McDonald’s “McHappy” day. Every year, the fast-food chain donates proceeds from sales of its Big Macs to aid children with cancer. Last year, all 107 of Argentina’s Burger King restaurants got involved with the campaign by refusing to sell Whoppers and instead directing customers to MacDonald’s so they could buy a Big Mac!

Burger King’s mascot even went into McDonald’s to buy a Big Mac, which was filmed and published on YouTube by agency David Buenos Aires.

In an interview with The Drum, the agency said the campaign generated “millions of impressions and tons of earned media”. It was also the best McHappy Day on record with 73,437 more Big Macs sold than in 2016.

There’s no doubt that this stunt was risky, but it helped showcase to its customers that it’s willing to sacrifice its own sales to support a greater cause. And everyone loves a bit of CSR.

How can I be bolder with my PR campaigns?

Firstly, we need to learn how to broaden our mind and think outside the box (cliché, I know).

Kirsty Hulse, founder of Many Minds, is a big advocate of coming up with tangential ideas that are related to a brand but a few steps away. When speaking at Search Love Kirsty gave a shout out to an agency that she’d helped with their ideas process – us! She gave the example of our client Shredall and how difficult it is to try and get coverage solely on the back of shredding as an idea. But after a quick brainstorm she arrived at the topic of data security, which is the reason why people shred in the first place. She found that millennials weren’t thinking enough about data security, and there were no guides for data security aimed at millennials, so that could be an opportunity. When in need of inspiration Kirsty often goes through a process of writing her client’s name and then spending 30 seconds writing everything she can think of related to the brand, and then more

things that are related to those (so two steps away).

Once you’ve got a few ideas, run them past the ‘six buttons of buzz’ (six things that are effective at getting people talking). They are:

  1. Taboo (controversial)
  2. The unusual (unique)
  3. The remarkable
  4. The outrageous
  5. The hilarious
  6. Secrets (kept and revealed)

The Content Marketing Institute also has a helpful list of 21 types of content we crave (though it’s a few years old now it’s still relevant to today and is worth the read).

Now the ‘scary’ part: it’s time to present the ideas to your client. You should first gauge how ‘out there’ your clients are willing to be. I work with a mix of clients, some of which get very nervous when you mention anything slightly off-piste while some are happy to express their opinions, even if they might be seen as controversial. When dealing with hesitant clients, my colleague Jess takes this approach:

“Pitch each idea as a story so that the client can see the narrative, right from the beginning to the end. Take your time, too – really explain your thought process because even though the idea may seem clear to you they may not understand how it’s relevant to them, or how they’re going to see a good ROI from it. I did this recently, when pitching a Valentine’s Day related campaign idea to a client of mine. I started by telling him the seed of the idea and how it’s something I could see people talking about in the pub. By the end, he was really invested in it and felt comfortable with what we wanted to achieve.”

With any idea it’s worth thinking about what could go wrong, as well as what could go right. When Emoov produced a map showing you where you need to move to in order to survive a nuclear attack, they probably didn’t envisage the extent of the negative coverage that followed. Be prepared by having a crisis comms strategy in place. This may include something as simple as a pre-prepared comment which explains why you chose to do something a certain way; as they say, it’s always better to be safe than sorry! Sometimes, things will crop up which you didn’t anticipate, as was probably the case with Poundland and the ASA ruling. If you find yourself facing negative press the best thing you can do is stay calm, which can be tricky at a time when things snowball so fast, especially on social media. CISION has a great article on how to help clients navigate negative media coverage and company emergencies.

For more on the elements of a successful content marketing campaign, see our blog here.