Secrets Behind the Most Successful PR Campaigns

How to use publicity campaigns to go viral and boost business.

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When company leaders sit down to strategize a PR campaign, they usually picture the best-case scenario for their business. What story angle would position them in the best light, how many customers will convert from the exposure, and what credibility they’ll be able to garner as a result? While these are all objectives that should be defined, the best campaigns are modeled after previous ones that swept the nation (or, even the world). There’s a blueprint for PR campaign , and that blueprint is evident in the most successful PR campaigns that we can collectively remember. 

The following are examples of successful campaigns that offer something we can learn from. Each of these campaigns succeeded for different reasons but at the heart of it was relatability, impact and the ability to solve a problem. These successes may spark ideas related to your own business as you strategize your upcoming campaign. 

1. Shock appeal with a heartfelt message

When soap company decided that it wanted to build its around self-love and confidence, it created a campaign called "Real Beauty." First was a short commercial showing how beauty perceptions are distorted. A “normal” woman comes into a studio, gets her hair and makeup done and then her photo is photoshopped dramatically before it finally lands on a billboard. This video hit on multiple points: shock value, a sinking truth and the overall powerful message that as beautiful as you are, and the marketing images that we’re usually surrounded by are simply fake

That commercial was just one installment of the campaign. Dove hired real women instead of models to represent the face of their campaign and booked these women on shows like and Oprah. And it worked. A report from PR Week noted that the annual sales for the brand nearly doubled over the decade course of the campaign, from $2.5 billion to $4 billion.

Related: 4 Risky Marketing Ideas That Paid Off

2. Timeliness and problem-solving 

Just over the pandemic, many businesses attracted PR attention for their response to unforeseen needs. One significant example of this was Shopping Slot, a business that centralizes all available delivery times in one place, which was a welcome reprieve when delivery slots seemed seldom available. Its PR campaign started with just one article that led to a frenzy, 3 million site viewers, a crashed site and half a million users. What made it so special? 

“In addition to its timeliness, we also created a corporate incentive that gave back to the community,” explained Sabrina Stocker, the co-founder of Shopping Slot and now founder of Two Comma PR. As for the stories themselves, Stocker also swears by the power of relatability. “We used real-life case studies and stories of how the service was bettering lives — these are the stories that stick.” 

3. Fun and viral consumer participation with social impact

Now that social media dictates what’s important to us as a society, it should be looked to as a resource for real campaign exposure. Nothing spreads like wildfire more than a good challenge, down to the step of nominating three friends at the end. Everyone seems the remember the famous #ALS ice bucket challenge, which had all the components of a campaign with wheels. First of all, it was fun to watch. It didn’t matter if it was from celebrities like Lady Gaga or just someone from your high school. Watching someone get a bucket of ice-cold water poured on them was just good

Of course, the good fun was exacerbated by the fact that the videos were for a good cause: raising awareness and money for the ALS Association. And that, it did — according to Agent99, the overall campaign raised a whopping $115 million for the association and cumulated over 2.4 million online videos with people of all ages and backgrounds wanting to participate.

Related: Are You Wasting Your Money on PR?

PR campaign success takeaways 

It can feel intimidating to measure up to the success of these viral campaigns, so here are some key takeaways. Remember, these should be for inspiration more than anything else. 

1. Say something worth listening to. Many think PR campaigns are solely for . However, if you can capture an audience based on a compelling message, the advertising becomes implicit. Make it more about brand reputation and less about sales. What do you stand for? How can you take a stand? Yes, this can be a reach — a soap company doesn’t always immediately spark thoughts of helping women embrace their real beauty. But, when taken from a values perspective, it makes sense. Get creative, but stay reach within. 

2. Turn to your customers and clients. This rests on the advice "Show, don’t tell." Rather than making claims about your business, lean on the aspect. Who is benefitting? What crazy or heartfelt stories have happened as a result? 

3. Include an aspect of social impact. This isn’t always necessary, but we’ve seen success from companies that do it well. Just as Shopping Slot allocated profits to the NHS and the #icebucketchallenge was for the ALS Association, people love getting behind something they can feel good about.

4. Invite social participation. There are many fun #challenge ideas your team can brainstorm — from funny "dares" to opportunities to share one’s story. Aim to bring laughter or inspiration, and always connect it back to your brand mission.

These steps can make all the difference in true audience exposure.

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