What makes a successful brand PR stunt? St. Patrick’s Day, with its colorful parades and festivities, has us thinking about Chicago, a standout on that day for a quirky tradition that has endured through six decades: dying its river green. It’s a PR stunt that still makes headlines every year for its “wow” factor, not to mention the tide of social sharing, complete with Chicago-centric hashtags.
The green river wasn’t designed as a PR campaign for Chicago, but the stunt generates a great deal of buzz for the Second City, even attracting tourists who plan trips for the occasion. Its longevity makes it an event PR pros can examine for clues about how to pull off a successful PR stunt (should you be in that camp!). Here are six helpful clues.
It’s authentic. In today’s media landscape, where we can’t really tell whether that viral video was “organic” or engineered, it’s getting harder to find authenticity. The Chicago River, the story goes, was originally stained green in the 1960s, when the city was trying to find out who was dumping waste into the river. A special dye was poured into the sewage system, causing the river to change color wherever waste was being dumped. From this rather unappealing practice came the idea to turn the river green for St. Patrick’s Day. The city’s parade organizers ran with the idea, and it’s been a signature feature of Chicago’s annual festivities ever since.
In other words, it “just happened,” then became a tradition. Often the most successful brand campaigns are unplanned. And while such “accidents” are impossible to duplicate, authenticity is still something to strive for. Even under the city’s current “something epic” campaign, the St. Paddy’s day stunt, with its celebratory but loud visual clamor, works well in concert with Chicago’s brand character.
It’s visually stunning. There’s no way a sparkling, emerald green river through downtown Chicago is not going to turn heads. One of the first rules of a good PR stunt is its visual impact; whatever the plan, it has to be eye catching, and it has to photograph well.
It brings people together. For a PR event, this is key. It’s not nicknamed the Windy City for nothing, and March 17 in Chicago is anything but balmy. Yet each year, thousands brave the chill to be part of the green river festivities. Finding a cause that motivates a diverse group of people to rally together takes a little bit of magic, for sure, which is part of the PR appeal.
It uses existing assets well. This was one of the measurements used by The Guardian’s “cities brand barometer,“which ranked Chicago 13 out of 57 major cities with the most “powerful brands.” Turning the river green makes use of Chicago’s greatest physical asset. Imagine trying the same stunt in a city like New York, where the rivers run along the edges of Manhattan and are accessible only at certain areas. Chicago’s river, by contrast, winds its way west directly through the heart of the city’s downtown, allowing for maximum exposure and enjoyment by onlookers, who can easily view the spectacle from many vantage points. Cities that promote themselves well know how to take their greatest assets and turn them into PR gold. And that’s a worthy goal for St. Patrick’s Day, or any day.
It’s big. When attempting a PR stunt, it’s not the time to be bashful or think conservatively. The whole notion of a stunt is in-your-face, over-the-top, attention-grabbing, so think big. The idea of turning the entire river green is big enough (and bizarre enough that it had to happen by accident) that it elicits an incredulous reaction from people — which is precisely what a good stunt ought to do.
There’s a smart tie-in. Doing a stunt like a green river for St. Patrick’s Day makes sense in a city like Chicago, with its large Irish population dedicated to keeping its heritage alive and strong. The demographic has also played an important role in the city’s political history, so a big splash on St. Paddy’s Day is apropos.