Stinking It Up: Lessons From a PR Failure

We had a big party, but got no buzz. Lessons from a PR failure.

I've been thinking a lot about poop lately, and not just because I have two young kids. In particular, I've been pondering that clichéd philosophical question: If a bear poops in the woods and nobody's around, does it still stink?

Recently, hosted what I'd normally consider a successful party. The event raised half a million dollars. We honored five amazing youths for doing amazing things, from building an orphanage in Nepal to registering thousands of new voters. (Read their stories at Our red carpet at Harlem's Apollo Theater was packed with celebs, and performers including Boys Like Girls and Akon — who crowdsurfed — rocked the place. The 1,600 people there were floored. But did anybody else smell what we were cooking? Nope.

Our event PR, it turns out, was crappy. We generated almost no buzz. For the time, energy, and money that go into an event, it ought to reach well beyond the room. You want that poop in the woods to stink far and wide.

After the event, I sat down with my staff to analyze what went wrong and then I called some PR experts for advice. Given how many other organizations — for-profit and not-for-profit — do events, I thought the lessons might be worth sharing. Here's what we'll do next time.

Do some digging. We ended up with some run-of-the-mill photos, but Tess Finkle of Metro PR says our shots could have been better had we done more research: Find a juicy story. Get the photo. Were there people in the room who once dated? Which people were meeting for the first time? (The answer was yes: Boys Like Girls have a pet turtle named Dorota, named after the Gossip Girl character, and they met Zuzanna Szadkowski, who plays Dorota, at the event. Unfortunately, I have no photo.)

Be exclusive. We had celebs at the event, but we didn't exploit them well. Nobody loves exclusivity more than the media, so give a blog, a TV outlet, and a magazine one-on-ones with the night's big names. The sidebar exclusives benefit the talent, too: It's a chance to build their bleeding-heart brands.

Get help. Especially for youth-focused orgs like mine, the Web is crucial. Next time, I'll give free flights and hotel to Fred Figglehorn, the 16-year-old You-Tube star with more than 55 million views and 276,000 MySpace friends. And Lisa Witter, COO of Fenton Communications, told me to think beyond "official" bloggers: "You've got a zillion Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Don't forget to recruit them. You never know who has what friend." Had our 18 staffers and 12 interns utilized their Facebook networks, we would have reached 12,781 people.

Feed the paparazzi. I don't mean stories or photo ops. One of our interns gave cupcakes to the voracious photographers who were shooting our red carpet. Smart kid. Good move. I'm told those photogs will remember us now — and we want as many of them as we can to come back for our next event.

Make your own paparazzi. At most events, they tell you to turn your cell phones off. Next year, I'll ask the crowd to turn them on. Then they can take photos, tweet, upload clips, and update their Facebook statuses. A key to maximizing the multimedia maelstrom, says Attention PR's Naomi Hirabayashi, is to "ask those people to use the same keywords in titles. It will make it easier for you to search for those items later."

Strategize ... after the event. Right after the event (as in that night), gather the staff to review what happened — and I don't mean what went wrong. What nuggets of info did each of us collect? Nick Cannon presented an award while on a "bathroom break" from an event where he was accompanying his wife, Mariah Carey? Really? Is that a Perez Hilton item? Or maybe we'd rather give him the bit about the Real Housewives of New York City and send Nick to This is exactly why all the items need to be collected quickly and divvied up strategically.

Follow up. This doesn't just mean pestering people to write stories, which we did. When those stories show up online, it means Digging, retweeting, forwarding, and using every other tech tool out there to spread the word.

And having a column in Fast Company doesn't hurt either.

Nancy Lublin is CEO of Do Something.

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  • Charlie Adam

    PR can be a tricky business and these pointers seem to be pretty accurate. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are great for getting the word out but obviously it depends on who your friends are.

    There was a story recently about a birthday party that went hideously wrong after someone posted the venue on their Facebook account and inadvertently invited thousands of people. Police were called and it all got a bit messy.

    I agree with the point about as they will always attract the paparazzi which will ultimately turn your normal event into a glitzy one that people will really want to attend.

  • Susan Clizbe

    I agree with several of the comments above, especially the suggestion that you need(ed) to be clearer about the buzz you wanted to generate, and to whom - maybe even before you planned the event. If you want the celebrities on hand to help recruit more young people to your cause, then THEY need to speak out, via interviews or their own social media, in their own voices. A Perez Hilton item about Nick Cannon sneaking over on his potty break from something more important might get your name in that questionably valuable real estate, but in what context? As a joke at your expense, I suspect perhaps to young Mr. Cannon's annoyance as well.

    Sometimes events like yours are great for their own sake, but not necessarily great for buzz. If you sold all your tickets/sponsorships, raised a nice bit of money, recognized great accomplishments, and everyone there had a good time and got their money's worth, then it was a success. The WireImage idea is also a good one, as they always have great placement in Google image searches, and they stay online for a long time.

    If your folks, in advance of the event, had used their social networks to talk it up, the main response would have been those 12,781 people trying to find out how to get in free and/or meet the celebrity of their individual dreams. Seriously, who really cares about a party they can't get into? There are exceptions that prove this rule - and when you start handing out Oscars or getting the President to sit still for jokes at his own expense, you can expect that kind of buzz for the party itself. Until then, the good works and famous people endorsements have to stand on their own, and be promoted as themselves, not as the fringe on a big sequined event.

  • Peter Flatow

    Long long ago I learned a nasty truth about PR (and maybe lots of other things) it is the nasty and negative that gets the ink. All one has to do is consider why Glenn Beck gets so much press to make the point. It is hard to being doing something good and get great press.

  • Sara McCormick

    While the major bullet points here are valid, you are forgetting one very key element that should be the drive behind your entire PR campaign and that is your MISSION...not your org's mission statement, but your PR campaign's mission (or purpose).

    After reading this article, I have no inkling of what the purpose of's PR campaign was. These are questions that should be asked well in advance of the event:
    1. Why are you creating buzz?
    2. Who are you wanting to reach?
    3. What do you want the audience to learn?
    4. What do you want the audience to do once it has been exposed to this event PR?

    Without thinking this all through STRATEGICALLY, there is no point to all the work you've outlined here. For example, did you think about how getting some juicy celeb gossip on perez would help you gain exposure for your event or the youth you were honoring?

    In addition to what Nancy proposes here, I would recommend a PR plan - TV/print/radio/internet - be developed in advance with a clear understanding of who you want to reach, why you want to reach them, and what you want to say. Everything else you do should follow.

    (And always have at your event if you've got celebs there. Terrific resource and the only photog you really need!)

  • Erica Salamida

    While I agree that several of these tactics would help you build more buzz from the celebs in attendance, I'd place more stock in a placement about the personal stories of the youths you've honored at the event. This would likely hold more water for your org than a blurb about Nick Cannon on Perez (although fun). It was a big win to get these stories out there on Fast Company!