The Balloon Boy saga: a lesson on publicity stunts

By Matter

Coverage of last week’s “Balloon Boy” episode has been overwhelming, if not completely annoying. Now that it has “officially” been certified a hoax, people are weighing in on everything from how the media attention will affect little Falcon Heene to how aggressively child protective services should be intervening. One of the most spot-on observations I’ve read over the past week was in a blog entry from someone I worked with back in Buffalo when I was learning the PR ropes, which examines the topic for what it truly is – an ill-conceived publicity stunt.

These days, we don’t actually use the phrase “publicity stunt” that often…we usually refer to “events” or creative programs. For non-profits or charities, we might organize a protest or rally and then invite press. For technology clients, we’ve planned fun and playful programs where e-commerce technology executives stand outside their offices in Santa suits in the summer heat to provide a photo opp. demonstrating the “final days” that e-tailers should be making major tech decisions to gear up for the holiday season. For consumer clients, we’ve staged tailgate parties and “Supermarket Sweep” style visits to drugstores to deliver truly exciting broadcast segments that leave viewers with a lasting impression of everything they can get at a particular store. Yet the main considerations we always take into account when recommending these programs are: can anyone get hurt? what are the risks and rewards? will this really attract the kind of attention we want? how can this potentially damage our client’s brand or backfire?

It appears Mr. Heene didn’t ask himself these questions and in the end, his publicity stunt was the worst kind – a PR nightmare for him and his family that resulted in a huge cost to taxpayers, who knows what kind of lasting effects on his children, and the possibility of enormous fines and potential jail time. Not to mention, whatever small chance he had of getting a reality show deal before this whole ordeal is almost surely gone now. What production company or network wants to be associated with this mess?

Time and time again, we hear “there’s no such thing as bad publicity!” but it’s one of the most misleading statements about PR. Certainly, the Balloon Boy publicity stunt was a terrible one for a number of reasons. And while some may argue Heene accomplished what he set out to do by making sure that the majority of households in America are talking about him…I hardly think that what we are saying is in line with what he was aiming for.