Public Relations Gone to Hell’s Angels: Where Were the Lawyers?

The lawyers say “keep a lid on it.” The public relations people say “transparency” is what wins in today’s online media world. I’m not sure this classic conflict will ever be fully resolved. However, I will say there is one corporate publicity stunt that should have called on all the lawyers first.

B2B Magazine has an article titled, “Dell’s Angels.” The story is about how a sales manager at Dell wanted to find a clever way to let the employees know that the new Dell Streak tablet featured an integration dock for Harley-Davidson motorcycles (I’m sure when my two year-old reads this, she’ll want a docking station on her tricycle for her Pod). This sales manager decided to storm Dell’s offices in a skull mask and all black biker outfit, while holding up two metallic objects and trying to pretend it was a hostage situation by demanding that the uninformed co-workers gather in the lobby. You can read the story to see how this ridiculous stunt ends. What I want to know is, did anyone think to ask about the potential liability with such a risky promotion in the age of being stuck in “orange alert” for terrorism?

I think this example illustrates when public relations professionals are looking for a stunt that can go viral, they need to walk into their legal counselors office first. Here are times where I see the need for the person who handles public relations to talk to the attorneys:

  • When a Surprise Can Quickly Turn Into a Crisis: Publicity stunts are designed to draw attention to something in a fast attention-grabbing way. Yet this is a great place to ask the lawyers: What could go wrong? What are the liabilities if someone is not amused or the shock is so great that it causes physical or emotional harm? The issue here is “surprise” that can literally trigger a fight, flight, or fright reaction in most people.  
  • When It Really Won’t Serve The Brand: I assume the sales manager at Dell was hoping to creatively communicate the company’s innovation. That’s great. Apple does it all the time and makes front page headlines. However, creativity is good when it stays in the character of the product or service. Who really wants to see Jim Carey in a dramatic role? Again, it would be helpful to run this past corporate counsel because if something goes wrong, they might be the ones defending the brand in court.
  • When the Only Value of the Stunt is the Stunt: When one of my clients suggests something that could draw more media attention, like a publicity stunt, I also push back with questions such as: What do you hope to accomplish? What do you want people to remember about your business? If we didn’t do this stunt, how would that impact the objectives in your marketing plan? My point is that if the stunt has a purpose beyond getting a couple of YouTube videos to go viral (many times in the wrong direction), then it might be worth talking to the attorneys and the chief marketing officer.

By the way, I wonder how this will play with driving safety laws? How does one put together a blog post on their computer while driving a motorcycles? Seems like a disaster in the making, regardless of whether the driver is wearing a helmet or not.