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PR is all around us, but simplicity is king – three golden rules to going viral

by AprilSix Proof

Earlier this week a colleague and I visited an industry event and presentation entitled‘For the love of spin: Good, bad, ugly PR’ organised by The Westmont Enterprise Hub at the University of West London. It was a great talk with a number of excellent points made about the world of PR, but the main takeaway for me was the power of a simple, highly-creative idea to make a huge splash.


In PR, we are often guilty of over-complicating our work, flooding our copy with a sea of acronyms and unnecessarily-complex terms. However, at the heart of any effective, successful PR campaign are the answers to two questions all companies or organisations attempt to answer: who are you and who do you want to be. This industry is about supporting everything in between, shaping public perceptions and reputation along the way.


While there are countless strategies and tactics that can be used to achieve this, the most eye-catching and attention-grabbing campaigns take a simple objective and boil it down to its core ingredients, leveraging human psychology and the news agenda to draw in audiences and deliver the desired message both efficiently and effortlessly. This blog will dissect three examples of PR campaigns that did just that.


Greggs’ vegan sausage roll


While it certainly doesn’t need repeating, harnessing the power of social media in today’s digital age is key to engaging the masses and maximising any brand’s visibility. As an added bonus, it is normally quite cheap to do – there is perhaps no case as clear as that of Greggs’ January 2019 launch of its vegan version of the classic sausage roll.


As well as taking advantage of a skyrocketing public interest in veganism – the launch coincided with ‘Veganuary’ -, an initiative where participants trial the diet over the course of January, the bakery chain opted to satirically present the new pastry to journalists in iPhone-style package, resulting in major media interest within hours of the first day of its release.


The meteoric popularity of Greggs’ latest addition to its range has in just over a year led to a whopping 13.5% sales increase for the chain, but the true genius behind its promotion came in the form of its social media team’s witty, sarcastic responses to the initial backlash to the company’s announcement.

Not only did these responses enhance interest in the product and feed into sales, the campaign serves as a case study for low-budget, low-resource promotional content that resonates with a target demographic (in this case millennials, either already vegan or exploring the diet).


UNICEF’s Dirty Water campaign


Back in 2010, the United Nations Children’s Fund had a simple goal – to make people around the world aware of the dangers of drinking dirty or contaminated water in impoverished nations. The cause was and still is one of great urgency, with around 200 children at the time dying of water-related diseases such as malaria, cholera and typhoid.


UNICEF took this mission, combined with the knowledge that humans are intensely visual by nature, and took to the streets of Manhattan with a guerrilla marketing campaign designed to highlight the gravity of the problem, as well as the simplicity of its solution. The charity set up vending machines that offered passers-by bottles of branded ‘Dirtywater’ filled with the kind of green, murky and muddy water that many in less-developed African nations are forced to drink every day.


Additionally, those that chose to purchase a bottle were prompted to insert 1 dollar into the machine – which, a notice on the machine read, is enough to provide 40 days of potable water for a single child. For those that weren’t carrying cash, there was the option to text a number and donate an amount of the individual’s choosing to the cause. As well as generating a large number of donations through the stunt alone, the campaign gained significant international broadcast and media attention, markedly boosting global awareness and proving the global effect that an honest and straightforward campaign can inspire.


R.I.P. Payday loans – Wagestream


Wagestream is a financial start-up that allows workers to access their earned wages incrementally during the month – its explicit aim is to end the workforce’s reliance on payday loans and the financial problems it causes.


In line with this, and contrasting the serious nature of its goal with dark comedy, in September 2018 the company developed a ‘death to pay day loans’ campaign and staged a public ‘funeral’ in central London to mourn them. As in the Greggs example, the campaign was cleverly timed to follow the collapse of payday lender Wonga, which had become notorious for its extortionate interest rates.


Armed with the cutting, topical slogan: ‘the ability to stream people’s wages should be as easy as streaming Netflix’, Wagestream achieved major media cut-through with the campaign and brought an element of light-heartedness and fun to an otherwise potentially bland company vision.


This campaign further demonstrates that a spark of creativity and a snappy, culturally-relevant soundbite can be all that’s needed to ignite a target audience’s interest. Outside of the box thinking, as Wagestream showed, can be the difference between being seen as ‘just another tech start-up’ and appearing in a stand-alone national feature.


While the man on the street today might struggle to explain what PR stands for (let alone begin to explain the different tactics PRs can deploy), what these examples have in common are a few simple ingredients that come together to create a memorable, effective campaign that made a real, measurable difference to business objectives.

  • Make the world around you fit into the story

The news doesn’t stop – the best campaigns piggyback on current events and insert themselves into the news agenda with clever positioning, timing or narratives.

Greggs knew that Veganuary was likely to be a central fixture in the media landscape, UNICEF were aware that New York commuters, tourists and locals would swarm the city streets on busy lunchtimes and Wagestream identified an opportunity to jump on Wonga’s demise and become a central part of a wider financial story.

  • Low budget doesn’t mean low impact

The largest cost required for any of the campaigns discussed was likely the cost of a standard vending machine or joke coffin, while the lowest effort (and arguably best-known) stunt of the three involved only creating mock iPhone boxes and a 10-minute briefing with the company’s social media manager. With the right idea, strategy and clear objective even household names like Greggs can hijack the attention of millions without needing to spend large amounts of money.

  • Preparation is key

Another common feature of these campaigns is the level of forethought and planning involved in their success. While it can be easy to mistake low-cost and low-resource with a lack of careful organisation, even the most ingenious ideas require methodical planning and synchronised execution.

For example, Greggs needed to target key journalist they knew would publish their story, while UNICEF will have prepared media collateral well ahead of time and gained permission from local authorities, to name just a few of the countless considerations the companies will have needed to make. Wagestream, on the other hand, will have carefully crafted their messaging to fit with conversations in the media and the firm’s specific values and mission statement.

If these three case studies achieve one thing for the world of PR, it’s to illustrate that there really is no need to over-complicate when it comes to reaching your target audiences and moulding the way they perceive your brand. With simple brainstorming and an awareness of the media landscape as well as human nature, organisations can see transformative results on a shoestring – all it takes is a light-bulb moment and the dedication to plan and follow through.

Written by Piers Grassmann from our Tech division, if you have any questions or comments please email