How Not To Social: Are Social Media Stunts Worth the Reputation Risk?

This piece appeared in the May 2021 issue of Independent Practitioner Today as ‘How to get a Social Media Stunt to Fail’

How Not To Social: Are Social Media Stunts Worth the Reputation Risk?

A colleague once shared a prospective client’s request: “I’d like one of those viral videos, please.” My reaction made us both glad I’d not been in that meeting, as there’s insufficient Botox on the planet to provide me with a poker face.

Social media virality is increasingly thrown about as a buzzword, but, like that client, many misinterpret the concept, which may seem to skew positive or evoke the ALS Challenge, which saw hundreds of thousands of people raise awareness to the motor neurone disease.

Virality is neutral, and it is a gamble: how (or if) media generates attention depends as much on the content as it does on the audience. While the creator has control over content, it gets tricky, since posts are designed to reach the widest possible audience and therefore delivery of message is not restricted solely to the receptive. When this happens, the creator can lose control of their content as it is repurposed.

Stunts can yield tremendous success, and may even become news stories themselves – like the time I April Fooled the UK aesthetics sector to raise awareness about hideous ‘plastic surgery’ simulation apps geared toward children. When PR, social media and the stars align like that, it can be absolute magic, but they require a rock-solid strategy that considers the “what ifs.”

In the real world, one might be more inclined to tune out messages that don’t appeal – but digital stunts are far more likely to come under scrutiny, becoming exponentially amplified and loaded with sentiment as they’re shared among audiences. 

Let’s propose that the final result of a stunt breaks down like this: 

  • 20% loved it 
  • 45% hated it (and aren’t afraid to tell the world)
  • 20% are staying quiet (AKA “watching with popcorn”)
  • 15% missed it (but will find out if there’s a “train wreck”)  

Even that 20% positive gain with a 20% “neutral” response can’t justify the spend, and it certainly doesn’t offset the cost of reputation damage. 

While, at one time or another, we’ve all put effort into something, only to have it turn out with a less of a ‘bang’ than we’d hoped, the risk with stunts is backfiring into a horrific implosion – and as the saying goes, the internet is forever. 

By contrast, with the right strategy, the risk can pay off hugely – for example, when I created a campaign that first raised eyebrows (the natural way) for a multi-national implant manufacturer, it subsequently resulted in eminent Plastic Surgeons around the world participating in a challenge that showcased the product, and led hundreds of surgeons to engage with their sales team. This stunt generated positive results internationally for over two years, and cost the client a fraction of their marketing budget. 

Now, when I strongly urge you to have a social media expert at your side when negotiating the wild world of stunts, I can hear (and understand) a bristle of “well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?”  

Fair enough, but if you knew how much more business is gained in helping clinics pick up the pieces after a misstep versus through encouragement of expert assistance, you might reflect differently. 

Successful business owners know their clientele’s interests, likes and dislikes – but are they are invariably best-placed to determine how other audiences may interpret their efforts…? In my experience, those adamant the answer is ‘yes,’ are least likely to recognise when it is not the case, due to cognitive bias. 

While a desired audience may have the shared understanding vital to appreciate your effort, others may interpret or infer a drastically different, less desirable meaning. 

Additionally, efforts typically have to contend with the deliberate misconstruing of message by competitors and others with the intent to hamper (or outright sabotage) a campaign – and whether such action achieves a small-scale disadvantage, or worse: several days of scandal and serious reputation damage – even viewing the fallout from afar can leave business owners skittish about the ROI on creative strategies. 

Now, if, for some reason, it is your desire to go forth and have a stunt backfire spectacularly, I will not question why – instead, I’ll only advise the following 6 surefire steps to help you reach your goal:

  1. Ensure your message only resonates with your target demographic – whether that’s “those with a sense of humour,” or “those who would actually undergo this treatment.” (Bonus fail points if it only resonates with your peer group.) 
  2. Whenever possible, use stereotyping – history has demonstrated this is never problematic. Use your judgement, ignore “naysayers.” (Crucial if you want your effort to fail while reaching a whole community, especially if you otherwise have no connection to said community.) 
  3. If you really want to fail in the aesthetics sphere, why not exploit psychologically vulnerable people? Capitalising on emotionally fraught experiences like divorce or bereavement are certain to capture that negative attention you crave. 
  4. If there’s one thing women love more than encountering the male gaze, it’s catering to it – so fail with oomph by honing in on how they can/should exist in the world. 
  5. Everyone loves a fail with a “gotcha” moment – so shove a camera and mic at a stranger during a global pandemic, to teach them about facial ageing. (Bonus 100M fail points if the cost of proposed treatment is 30% or more than the cost of producing the stunt.)
  6. If you want to fail with maximum impact, piggyback your stunt on a controversial topic getting a lot of news coverage, then fail hard by innovating an aesthetics-adjacent hashtag – such ingenuity will definitely be an asset for crazygluing your professional reputation back together.

For everyone else who do not want to risk reputation, I offer this: no matter how certain you are that your creative idea will result in positive attention, bring it to a trusted social media expert – one who crucially has experience executing stunts within the aesthetic sector, and beyond. 

Nikki Milovanovic is the founder and managing director of Sophisticated Comms, a London based agency specialising in creative strategy, social media and public relations for the lifestyle, beauty, health and wellness sectors.