Tucker Max is not the first person you would normally turn to for advice on how to avoid bad PR.
The New York Times-bestselling author has built a (hugely successful) career monetizing debauchery, outrage and the raw, unrelenting force of his own obscenity. It’s hard to imagine how anyone who’s sold over two million copies of books titled “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell” and “Assholes Finish First” could have any meaningful insights to offer into the pitfalls of catching an ugly rap in the media.
Whatever else he might be, though, Tucker is also a shrewd and thoughtful entrepreneur, as I learned firsthand during a recent conversation we had in Austin. He is also uniquely qualified to discuss the alluring but volatile work of PR stuntsmanship.
Tucker’s Main Advice on PR Stunts: Don’t Do Them
While he neither recommends nor apologizes for the raucous antics described in his books, Tucker Max advises strongly against the stunt-based approach he used to promote them.
He’s well known for his PR stunts; he once offered to sponsor a new Planned Parenthood health clinic to the tune of $500,000. But six years ago he pursued a stunt that he wishes he could take back.
In 2009, Tucker Max, already a bestselling author, was on tour promoting his upcoming movie. The bus stop ads for the film had drawn sharp criticism from feminist groups that felt they were offensive and supportive of “rape culture.” But rather than take down the ads or apologize, Tucker contacted these groups directly to garner media attention, exchanging antagonistic emails with the organizers.
Tucker’s brand of crass, reckless humor had always had a strong element of womanizing, but it was a PR blunder, rather than his writing, that drew the first real associations between his name and the ugliest corners of sexism.
If you run a Google search for “Tucker Max” and “rape,” you’ll find virtually no results prior to 2009. Following the 2009 PR stunt, there are hundreds. As Tucker told me, “There is nothing about me or my books that is connected in any way to rape–until I started provoking the ‘rape culture’ debate.”
Years later, as Tucker prepares to embark on a new chapter in his life, he’s finding that the connection to the stunt he played such an active role in creating is not so easy to shed.
Managing a PR Stunt is Difficult
Tucker’s story stands in a long line of PR stunts that failed due to poor taste and a less-than-effective reaction to resulting backlash. Plenty of others fall apart due to perfectly mundane planning mishaps, but they still make for important cautionary tales.
In 2005, Snapple watched the inspiration for one creative stunt literally melt around it, when 80-degree weather reduced the world’s biggest popsicle to a giant puddle in New York’s Union Square. In 2007, one radio station’s attempt to spin a pun into a PR windfall ended in tragedy, when one participant in the “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest died from water intoxication.
Fiascos like these may seem preventable in hindsight, but according to Tucker most entrepreneurs don’t have the time, experience, or resources to fully vet the spur-of-the-moment ideas that PR stunts tend to stem from.
Even Tucker, with his many years of experience, says he still runs into challenges organizing such stunts.
“PR Stunts Are Like Wild Fires”
According to Tucker, publicity stunts are difficult to anticipate and nearly impossible to manage. They can also be highly dangerous to companies.
The idea is to generate compelling reactions–but once you’ve lit that fire, there’s no telling which way the winds will blow.
By Tucker’s estimate, there are only 50 people in the world who can properly manage a PR backlash, and he believes these individuals work in either Hollywood or politics. Even with one of these PR wizards on board and all the planning one can hope for, be believes there’s still too much that can go wrong to make such stunts worthwhile.
Financial Risk & Lost Opportunities
In 2007, two years before Tucker’s movie rollout, Cartoon Network placed glowing LED signs around multiple metropolitan areas to promote a movie of its own: “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”
When a group in Boston noticed the devices, they called the police to report hidden explosives. Turner Broadcasting and its marketing company ended up paying $2 million in damages.
That may be an extreme example, but the financial repercussions to a PR stunt gone wrong can express themselves in any number of ways, whether it’s lost revenue or a more permanent public image stain.
In Tucker’s case, he says that there are a lot of universities that won’t let him give talks now because of the conversations surrounding his name and “rape culture.”
Entrepreneurs need to take to heart that, while buzz of any kind may have financial advantages in the short-term, this “no such thing as bad press” mentality can have lasting negative impacts on business prospects.
The Best PR Strategies Don’t Pay Dividends Overnight
Successful entrepreneurs aren’t the ones who latch on to get-rich-quick schemes and chase immediate payouts. They have the instincts to know a good idea when they see one AND the patience and foresight to execute.
Good PR works the same way. Even in the best of scenarios, no PR stunt can hold up to a sustained, thought-out strategy that builds a brand steadily and puts real substance behind it. PR should be the public face of your company, not a mask you put on once to get a rise out of the public.
Besides, pick the wrong mask and people won’t soon forget it–no matter how much careful work you’ve done before.
Just ask Tucker Max.
*Image via Randy Stewart
Conrad Egusa is the CEO of Publicize.