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P.T. Barnum was the master of the publicity stunt

Free publicity is one of the best tools that you can use to promote and grow your small business or startup.

P.T. Barnum used it to grow his little circus to international fame. Thomas Edison used it to destroy his competition and become the only name in the game. And Richard Branson uses it to launch every single Virgin product division…from makeup to airlines.

But if free publicity brings such spectacular results … why doesn’t every small business use it? Well, knowing how to become the person everyone wants to interview is not easy.

That’s why I thought I’d share with you ten great ways to get free big media attention for your brand and examples of companies or people who have succeeded using each technique.

1. Write the best complaint letter ever

Virgin Atlantic: Photo via Wikipedia

Advertising executive Oliver Beale wrote Richard Branson a 6-page letter describing his awful in-flight meal. He opened the letter by praising Branson and the Virgin brand, then went on to detail how awful the food was.

The letter went viral on the Internet and Branson eventually called Beale and offered him a job as Virgin Airlines food tester.

Beale claims the letter wasn’t a publicity stunt, which I find hard to believe. Regardless, it generated a lot of attention.

  • Use humor: Don’t be a jerk…but never back down from a genuine complaint. Showing that you have a funny bone and that you can write on serious matters will show you have some creativity and maturity.
  • Choose who you write to wisely: Virgin is an ideal company to write such a letter to. Branson is very transparent and open about communication with his customers, and only he would offer compensation in the form of a position as a “food tester.” I can’t imagine that going over nearly as well at a company like Firestone, for instance.
  •  Write a physical letter: Scrap the email. It will get lost and will not emphasize the weight of a 6-page letter. And address it to the CEO.
  • Write several pages: While there is no magic number to page count, a longer letter is bound to get more attention than a shorter letter.

2. Create a “most-wanted” list

One of the most famous “wanted lists” is the FBI’s.

It all started in 1949 when a reporter from the United Press International asked the FBI director for a list of most-wanted criminals. When that list was published, publicity for the FBI went through the roof.

The success of the list proves to be one of its more enduring features. Over 491 fugitives have been listed, 460 of those being captured, a third due to help from the public.

A “most-wanted” list that goes viral can bring tons of media attention to your small business. Here are some tips on creating a successful most wanted list:

  • Location: If your business is tied to the local economy, like a bank or coffee house, you can create a list of the most wanted people or locations.
  • Jobs: If you’re a career technology consultant, for example, you could create a most-wanted list of the skills that technology employers are looking for.
  • Forbidden objects: If you are a museum, you could create a top ten most wanted list of art or historical objects you want to add to your museum.

Here are two things you have to keep in mind when you are creating these lists:

  • Creativity rules: Boring will not get you in the media. You must evaluate the success of current and past lists and determine how you can leverage their success.
  • Research rules: Successful most wanted lists like USA Today’s “best hospitals” or BusinessWeek’s’ “MBA programs” are interesting usually because the creators poured a lot of statistical research into creating them, giving them a substantial and scientific feel.

3. Create a visual stunt

You can draw attention to your business, brand or idea by showing people the concept behind it in a dramatic way.

For example, the housing and homelessness charity Shelter hired a family of contortionists to crawl inside a miniature home to protest children living in overcrowded conditions.

However, you don’t have to do anything complicated to get viral attention. Chris Brogan got attention when he shaved his head. David Beckham simply wears crazy hairstyles a lot.

By the way, check out How to Use YouTube to Build Explosive Product Buzz for tips on creating viral videos.

4. Hold a contest

The Italian Job. Image via IMDb

A great way to pull in a lot of interest from the public and the media is to hold a contest. The Royal Society of Chemistry, for example, held a competition to see if anyone could solve the cliffhanger dilemma from the 1969 movie The Italian Job.

Over 2,000 entries were submitted to the RSC, and the media loved the idea.

What’s great about this kind of stunt is you will get the publicity over the duration of the competition, from launch to the announcement of a winner, which could last six months.

Here are some important things to think about when holding a competition:

  • Find a relevant unsolved mystery: Search through movies, comic books, popular news or novels looking for a bizarre or unexplained event.
  • Try to keep the riddle as relevant to your company as possible: The RSC chose a topic that would have to involve physics, which isn’t chemistry but related because it is science. Netflix held a competition to build a better algorithm for their recommendation engine.
  • Give away a prize: You will get more people to enter the contest if you give away a prize. And the better the prize the better the turn out…so budget for a decent one.

5. Leak a promotional rumor

Late in 2006, the alcohol retailer Threshers leaked a voucher that amounted to 40 percent off liquor for any online sales. That nobody knew whether the company actually leaked it or was using it as a publicity stunt fueled the discussion across social media.

Part of the success of this campaign came from the fact that misinformation was shared along with the leak.

Here’s how to leak your own rumor:

  • Make it simple: A complicated rumor is hard to spread and can lead to confusion. Your rumor should amount to “Did you hear X did Y?”
  • Make it concrete: Be very specific with your rumor. Notice in the Thresher example that it was a voucher for 40 percent off booze bought online. Can’t get more concrete than that, can you?
  • Use humor: Funny rumors seem to spread faster than sad ones. Just think about how easy a good, funny joke spreads. Besides, some funny rumors never die.

6. Do something ridiculous

The CEO of British airline Ryanair is known for his ridiculous stunts to promote his company. Here is a little sample of Michael O’Leary’s publicity:

  • Ran a press conference in 2006 with a Winston Churchill look-a-like.
  • Dressed as an Irish priest to celebrate a St. Patrick’s Day sale.
  • Wore a cell phone costume to celebrate in-flight use of mobile phones.

You have to agree, those are some pretty ridiculous stunts (and it’s just a sampling of many other O’Leary publicity ideas), but they work.

Here’s how to make stunts like this work for you:

  • Be completely relevant: Churchill worked for O’Leary because the company is based in England. In the United States Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy would be more relevant.
  • Be consistent: O’Leary developed a reputation for these stunts so that people started to anticipate what he was going to do next. That anticipation is worth its weight in gold when it comes to free publicity. Media won’t just talk about your stunts…they’ll even talk about what you do next.
  • Clue the media in: Don’t forget to contact someone at the news station and newspaper to let them know what you are going to do. They love to hear about publicity stunts!

7. Do something green

Author Neil Patel

Did you know that modern-day bicycle racing came from a news courier publicity stunt?

Back a century ago in Paris bicycle messenger companies would compete with other companies to be the fastest couriers. Those who won got the most publicity.

There is a company in Paris who is reviving that publicity with bicycle messengers…Urban Cycle. They hope to beat out scooter-based delivery companies. Here’s why they’re strategy is starting to work:

  • Tapping into green trends:  Whether in France or the U.S., people are recognizing the need to be friendly to the environment. For you, is there an environmental cause you can get behind? Will it fit your brand?
  • Use beautiful people: Urban Cycles said that one of the reasons more businesses are choosing them is because the messengers are athletic, young and friendly. That’s not necessarily being “green,” but it’s a great way to get attention.

Is there a way you can tie you and your company into environmental issues like solar energy, pollution or deforestation?

8. Protest a law

If you can identify a law that you want to protest, turn it into a publicity stunt.

Back in 2003, Mark McGowan pushed a peanut with his nose for two weeks across London to give to Tony Blair to protest his student debt. The event drew intense coverage, and ended with McGowan handing the prime minister the peanut.

Here’s what you should try to do:

  • Protest something relevant:  SOPA was an example of businesses protesting a law. Websites with the best anti-SOPA pages actually got media coverage from places like the Washington Post, BBC and Huffington Post.
  • Don’t be afraid of negative criticism: Many of the supporters of SOPA viewed these protests as a “destructive gimmick.” That sort of criticism will come…which is not a bad thing. It keeps the publicity rolling in.
  • Take whatever coverage you can get: Sometimes only small media sites will pick up on your stories. Don’t complain because the larger sites are sometimes watching these smaller organizations to see if they’ve missed anything.

9. Ask for pro bono work

Some of your publicity stunt ideas will require you to hire an ad agency or talent. Even if you have it in the budget, ask them if they can do it for free. No reason to spend money if you don’t have to, right?

There are a number of reasons why they might work for free:

  • Share in the exposure: Choose talent or agencies that are trying to get off the ground and they will do the work for a share in the exposure. This means they’ll get credit for whatever work they provide.
  • Get new experience: Agencies or talent new to the business may be interested in helping you out simply to get the experience. This is something they will be able to put in their portfolios.
  • Fulfill volunteer opportunities at work: Some organizations give their employees or teams time to volunteer in the community. Call around to some organizations and ask about their volunteer policies.


I always wonder why more companies don’t try to get free publicity by pulling off stunts like I shared above. I mean…big media is always looking for news…and if you’re a guy wearing a wedding dress at a basketball game…I think I would want to cover that!

What’s interesting, too, is that such publicity isn’t just for the small businesses and startups…large, established brands can use these techniques, too! Just look at Richard Branson and Virgin.

What other free publicity stunts do you think can work for small businesses?

Neil Patel is the co-founder of KISSmetrics, an analytics provider that helps companies make better business decisions.

More from Neil Patel on GeekWireSeven signs that you might just be an entrepreneur Eleven things every entrepreneur should know about innovation… 17 things I wish I’d known when starting my first business

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