Consult your doctor with a runny nose, and he’ll tell you it could be anything from a sniffle, to breast cancer to athlete’s foot; ask for a survey on a house before you buy it, and the report will tell you it’s OK, but they can’t guarantee it’s not got woodworm, death-watch beetle, dry-rot, subsidence or a leaky tap.
Everyone’s getting sued for not informing punters of things it is just not possible to predict, whatever your professional expertise. Ultimately, it makes professional advice worth less than the paper a no-win-no-fee advert from a unscruplous ambulance-chaser is printed on. Professionals can’t afford to make useful, definitive judgments, so they don’t. Short-term, lawyers and claimants are richer; long-term we’re all of us the poorer.
Once upon a time, serious derelictions of professional duty went to litigation, and people got compensated. Now – and directly because just causes have succeeded – integrity has gone out the window, and joke claims are proliferating.
It was inevitable that PR stunts would head down the same litigious road. What is going to seal the case for the prosecution is a court case today.
In August 2001, BRMB’s Breakfast Show decided to promote itself, and the Party in the Park, by organising a hoot of a challenge. Four listeners would sit on blocks of ice. The one who lasted longest would win the usual shedload of VIP booty, backstage passes, and a 15-minute flirtation with celebrity in the shape of some inane conversation with Victoria Beckham and Steps. Fantastic stuff: just right for the silly season. Ooh, and a lovely tag line. BRMB offers you the chance to win the “coolest seats”. Ha ha.
Things went swimmingly for 25 minutes. What a gas. After an hour, the jolly contestants began to get jolly numb, and then they jolly well had to get rushed to the Sellyoak burns unit. In conceiving their wacky stunt, the funsters at BRMB hadn’t considered the basic laws of physics. Namely, sitting on dry ice (average temperature -78C) for too long (even if it’s covered with plastic sheeting) causes burns. In the case of one woman, 18% burns on her legs and thighs; in the case of a 12-year-old boy, thoroughly toasted buttocks.
OK, they signed disclaimers in advance, so you could view the incident as a laughable tale of Brummie thickos who should have known better. Then again, there’s the rather more plausible construction that BRMB was totally irresponsible, and seriously endangered the health of four members of the public, in pursuit of publicity. I know which line I’d take. Some of my best friends are Brummies.
BRMB was fined £15,000 and apologised to those injured. OK, the disclaimer defence might have technically save BRMB’s bacon, but regardless, they’re the losers in this sad little debacle. As will be the wider world of PR. The station’s got a fine history of strange, headline-grabbing stunts.
Once it married two completely random listeners who’d never met each other, just to see what happened. (I don’t recall what did, but that wasn’t the point). This court case will leave its reputation as scarred as a 12-year-old’s bottom. You don’t endear yourself to the public by sending them to hospital.
The upshot of all this? Obvious. Every brand manager in the land will be scared stupid at the merest mention of staging a stunt. They’ll only consider what could go wrong. If they do agree to try anything in the least creative, it’ll be hedged by so many riders you won’t see the photocall for ambulance chasers after a quick buck, and it’ll earn as much media space as a small ad. Who knows, when Joe Public gets involved in some bizarre bit of PR-driven promo, he’ll only have an eye for the really big prize – the one he can collect in court.
Stunts have to have a component of excitement and apparent – note that word, ‘apparent’ – risk and danger. There is no risk or danger if you plan properly, if you cover all eventualities, if you use professionals and professional advisers, if you employ the theatre director’s art and the magician’s sleight of hand.
Sawing a woman in half is great entertainment. It looks a bit iffy, but iffy it isn’t. I would have thought that was pretty basic thinking. BRMB didn’t think – beyond the funny headline.
The prescient Jim Moran, legendary American stuntmeister, said as much when one of his stunts got stuffed by the city authorities in the big apple. “It’s a sad day for capitalism when a man can’t fly a midget on a kite over New York”.