Cartoon Network | Publicity Stunt |Creates Need for PR Crisis Response Plan

After reading about how Cartoon Network’s ads in the streets publicity stunt set off a major terrorist alert in Boston, I wondered how far agencies and companies are willing to go to get attention. The suspicious black box that easily set off a hyper-sensitive terrorist alert system in Boston yesterday was supposed to project only a harmless LED image, not a total shutdown.

In nine out of the ten cities where boxes were placed [including Chicago – where we’re too busy putting Bears jerseys on dinosaurs and helmets on lions to notice anything out of the ordinary], the Pentagon and the police were not alerted. But, maybe our boxes weren’t supposed to go off [er, light up] yet.  

Here’s the Cartoon Network coverage from the Homeland National Security Terror Alert Response Center’s blog. Good to know they have one and let’s hope this is the only time we link to it.

Although their coverage is okay, The Hollywood Reporter’s article goes into the most detail and even names the guerrilla marketing agency behind the stunt.

And, the Chicago Tribune’s coverage quotes the two guys who were arrested as they were released from jail.  Someone’s looking at a possible penalty of up to five years in prison.  Wow . . .

There’s lots of back and forth in the PR blogsphere about this event.  Here’s my take: 

Even when we promote feel good happy events – all in cooperation with police and local government approval, we keep a crisis response plan tucked away on our hard drive just in case. Talking about anything and everything that could go wrong upfront is often uncomfortable and sounds negative, but we like to consider every angle before we promote any event that might impact people’s safety – not to mention our client’s public image.  

Key elements of a crisis PR plan:

– walk through every possible worst-case scenario you can think of relating to weather, accidents, legal liability, local ordinances, workers compensation claims, malfunctions and professional liability

– check with legal and insurance consultants and make sure to get the coverage you’ll need ahead of time

– write draft responses with workable quotes approved and ready to go if you need them

– make sure your agency will be on call [ask about their crisis planning process before you engage them]

–  identify a corporate or company spokesperson [this also works for families who are faced with news reporters at their door after a crisis or even a happy event] and let the media know how and where to get in touch with them

– Google company officers to see what comes up and be ready to respond to prior comments [although I won’t give away links here, I was able to run down a history of quotes, a blog and comments on guerrilla marketing from the agency’s founder]

– think twice before posting or commenting to controversial blog posts that flaunt a disregard for ethics or are off-color, all of these come up in Google searches.

– respond immediately with a fax and email that goes directly to newsrooms

– expect that there will always be those that overreact to almost anything, especially if there’s even a hint of controversy

– avoid any terrorist references [even kids in junior high routinely get expelled now for making off the cuff, goofy comments in front of teachers on self-imposed high security alerts]

– if you deface property, plan to pay for the clean up

– set up an 800 number with a response 

– post a link to a response on the agency and client’s homepage

– be apologetic and admit mistakes right away

– protect clients, employees, contractors and vendors by not putting them in precarious situations

– get attention without getting arrested

– set up a database of mayors, police chiefs and all municipal departments – they often co-promote events in their newsletters and on their websites

– think about how to reach your audience where they are based on their lifestyle, media, personality and career profiles

Does having a crisis PR plug-in plan muffle creativity? Not necessarily, but it does contain the amount of clean up you’ll have to do later.

At the end of the day, the people who watch the show, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” may not even care or know about the Boston scare. And, if they did they’d probably wonder what all the fuss is about.  

Looks like Interference, Inc.’s founder will be here in Chicago in September. Wonder if he’ll use this one as a case study? If he’s reading this – leave the black boxes at home, but bring your stories. We’re all waiting to see how this one turns out.  


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