Public relations professionals often incorporate stunts in campaigns to introduce the element of the unexpected, attract attention and gain awareness. If you Google “PR stunts” there are more than 715,000 results, and the majority meet the standard definition of a stunt – something unusual done to attract attention. From oversized bowls of chili to naked butlers handing out crackers to the world’s largest mattress, and even the largest human mattress dominoes, these stunts are short-lived and company-centric.
PR stunts may garner media impressions, but they rarely make meaningful impressions on publics that foster a persistent change in peoples’ attitudes, knowledge or behaviors. Clients are often charmed by the success of stunt media coverage, only to realize that the one-time (and often expensive) stunt did not garner any meaningful results. For example, the president of the company that made the world’s largest mattress said, “We are proud to crown the celebration of our 40th anniversary with a major event that will remain in everyone's minds." It’s 18 months later, and I’m confident neither the stunt nor the company has remained in everyone’s minds. And the 850 human mattress dominos representing La Quinta hotels around the world? Did that stunt garner the chain top-of-mind status when you booked your last hotel stay? “Oh, yes, I think I’ll look for a La Quinta Inn – I want to shake the hand of one of those impressive human mattress dominoes.” PR professionals should stop the stunts and consider "delights."
Human centered design models enhance product design by using a systematic process for studying and then reflecting customers’ needs, wants and delights within the product. The concept of delight stems from the recognition that some product attributes are unexpected, yet delight the customer. If the attributes are absent, customers may not even notice (because they were unexpected). Over time, delight attributes come to be expected, and thus are no longer delights. For example, in a toaster design, I expect it to toast my bread and eject it when it is done. I like the toasters that offer an adjustable toasting range because I like my toast light, and my husband likes his dark. But I was delighted to find that our new toaster has a bagel setting that adjusts the slot size to accommodate bagels. The bagel setting is a feature that none of my previous toasters had, and I never realized how helpful it is. Going forward, I would not purchase a toaster unless it had a bagel setting … this attribute has dropped off my list of delights and has become an expectation. Consider other delights you've experienced that have since become expectations: free Wi-Fi in coffee shops, newspaper content online, free streaming music and cameras in our phones.
The mistake organizations (and their PR firms) make when they deliver stunts (as opposed to delights) is their failure to recognize how their publics want to relate to them and what organizational interactions will be most valued by their publics. I encourage PR professionals to consider borrowing the concept of delight from their product design colleagues in an effort to foster more meaningful engagement with publics – delight them, don’t just surprise them.
Here are four tips to help you stop the stunts and deliver delight:
1. Empathize. Publics don’t often articulate their delights (because they are unexpected), so it requires keen observation and attentiveness. In other words, you need to engage in formative research. Stanford's Institute of Design calls this stage in the human centered design process the “empathize mode” and describes it as an “effort to understand the way they do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about world, and what is meaningful to them.” Formative research directed at listening and learning about your publics is key. Many product design teams are incorporating ethnographic research to dig deeper into the desires of their customers (to make the invisible visible). This type of inquiry requires going beyond the research your client supplies, so add budget for formative research for projects that aspire to delight.
2. Customize. Recognize that different publics will have different delights. For some healthcare patients, live music in hospital corridors can soothe and promote healing, but for those suffering from head trauma, any external noise can bring on extreme migraines. Some rail commuters want to use their commute time to make phone calls, while others want quiet reading time. Some donors want lavish thank you recognitions, while others prefer no public recognition at all. Make sure your delight is customized to reflect the variability of your publics.
3. Sequence. Remember that delights will fade into expectations over time. After your initial research, you may design several new initiatives to introduce delight. Your team may be so excited that they’ll be tempted to adopt them all at once. However, a more cost effective approach is to introduce delights in planned succession, so when your publics reach the point where the delight dampens, there’s an opportunity to reinvigorate the relationship in a new (and delightful) way.
4. Monitor, measure and modify. Measuring and monitoring the response to these delights is a crucial part of listening and learning about your publics, and takes you to a deeper level of understanding about what delights them. Track successes and failures and modify to nurture the areas ripe with delightful possibilities.
If you've read my previous posts, you'll recognize that I'm an advocate for heightening the practice of creativity in PR. One way to foster creativity is to be open to other disciplines and consider how our PR practices can be improved. Integrating the concepts of human centered design is an area that is worth considering. If you want to learn more about human centered design, Stanford offers a free Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking.