Are PETA’s PR Stunts Stellar or Stupid? Why 240 Events in Four Months Don’t Really Build the Brand

James Ernst

By James Ernst, AE, KCD Public Relations, Author, Do It In Public 

PETA has a very interesting approach to publicity, and it certainly is getting some attention. Having interns walk around Washington, D.C. dressed as pigs, chickens, and “lettuce girls” is definitely a way to get attention, but do these 240 public relations stunts really qualify as effective public relations?

It is true that these stunts fall into the realm of public relations and they are effective. If they weren’t effective, they wouldn’t have caught the attention of so many people and wouldn’t have lead to writing a story on their efforts. Anything that catches the attention of the public and has a chance to build and strengthen the relationships of the organization is public relations. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that these are quality PR efforts, though. If the shelf life of PR stunt is so short that you have to put on 240 “events” in a three to four-month period, it doesn’t register as a quality effort.

It is also true that they have mastered the art of the photo opp. Nothing attracts the media’s attention like quick one-off stories that have a good photo that can go with them.  PETA co-founder and President Ingrid Newkirk was quoted saying, “I don’t think you need a couple of hundred people on the street or a giant march every day, but you do need to reach people every day. So we’ve come up with gimmicks and strategies, and we don’t mind making fun of ourselves.” I think that Newkirk has something going if she doesn’t plan on building solid relationships with potential new members. Most people will get a kick out of seeing a person in a costume handing out free food on a hot summer day, but it won’t have a lasting impression.

If I came across the stunt, I would think I was walking into a PR stunt for the veggie dogs, not for PETA.

So what can other PR professionals take from the efforts that PETA is putting forth? If you need to get quick press and make a statement for your organization, then try one of these quick one-off stunts. Get some way to make a public statement where media can easily capture the event or where there will be plenty of passerby’s who can easily capture the moment. Heck, flash mobs are a great way to catch this kind of attention. I don’t see the need for any organization to perform the amount of stunts as PETA does, however, because eventually the same stunt over and over becomes boring and repetitive. News is only news for so long.

So since PETA isn’t building and strengthening the relationship with their supporters via its one -ff stunts, it must be building there relationships somewhere else. The most logical place is through social media. I noticed that its Facebook page was pretty light on actual relationship-building material. Yes, they are updating it a lot, but it is filled with knowledge-sharing articles from a variety of media outlets. It is always nice seeing cute stories about “animal companions” being returned to their owners or saved from a shelter, but where is the give and take? Where is the “engagement”? Where can members go to interact and share their own stories.

I was more impressed with PETA’s Twitter feed. There was a nice balance of story sharing. and PETA’s own staff members’ personalities and passion for the organization obviously shines trough. I was impressed to see the face behind the Twitter feed, and to see PETA interacting with other people in the Twittersphere. From a PR standpoint, the tactics that Jessy Easton, “PETA’s animal rights advocating twitter girl,” uses are impressive. She gives us a call to action to be involved in events and causes. In fact, a recent post encouraged followers to, “Help ban fur sales in West Hollywood Tonight,” which shows me they are active and gives me a way to step into the PETA community.

Overall, I believe PETA is successfully using PR to grow its brand—but the organization will have to continue to do these “PR stunts” until it can find a realistic way to make its message stick over the long term.


Jim Ernst
 is a public relations professional in San Diego, Ca. He is the author of PR Blog Do It In Public and currently works at KCD Public Relations as an Account Coordinator. He has a B.A. in Communications from St. John Fisher College and is currently working towards his M.A. in Public Relations from Kent State University.



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  2. Disappointed on September 26, 2011 at 11:56 am

    The grammatical and spelling errors in this commentary (“there” instead of “their”, “amount of stunts” rather than “number of stunts,” “passerby’s” with the unnecessary apostrophe, among other grammar problems) are embarrassing for our profession.

    What is more distressing is that this “expert” evaluates this organization’s PR effectiveness based on looking at one PR stunt campaign, and then evaluating the organization’s social media efforts.

    Commenting on those three efforts is certainly fair game, but then making a sweeping generalization about the organization’s total PR program is certainly overreach. The writer feels comfortable making an overall evaluation, without having done any fact-finding about other PETA PR and communications efforts, including direct communications to and involvement with members and target audiences. I’m not involved in PETA’s issues — in fact, I disagree with their entire premise — but I know that they have an incredibly engaged and activist base of members, so obviously they are doing some things right.

    To pass judgment on an organization or company’s entire PR program based on looking at stunts and social media is a superficial exercise and certainly doesn’t exemplify the excellence in PR that the writer espouses.

    (And I know that young PR professionals have gone through high school and college being told that spelling and grammar are archaic, but there are still a lot of us out there who think that if you can’t follow basic grammar rules and can’t spell, then the quality of your thinking and analysis is suspect.)

  3. Jake D on September 26, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Speaking as an average consumer (and animal lover!), I’ve always thought that PETA’s events were anything but stellar. And speaking as a communications professional, I agree that they’re sacrificing engagement & messaging that lasts for the sake of quickly grabbing the impulsive consumers’ attention. Perhaps it’s fitting that PETA is all sizzle, no steak:)