Page last updated at 11:50 GMT, Thursday, 7 May 2009 12:50 UK

Is this the greatest PR stunt ever?

Ben Southall
Global media flocked to the island

Some stories are as much about public relations as they are news. This week marked the culmination of one of the greatest examples, which has left the PR industry gasping in admiration, says Ian Hall.

In a blaze of publicity, more than a thousand media organisations around the world this week reported that the job of "caretaker" of Hamilton Island in Australia had been given to a 34-year-old ostrich-rider from Hampshire, Ben Southall.

Given that part of a PR executive's job is to sell a product without paying for advertising space, then Tourism Queensland's "best job in the world" competition has been a PR triumph that has left those whose day-job it is to devise such campaigns green with envy.

The marketing masterclass, conceived in Australia and being promoted in the UK by London-based travel PR company Hills Balfour Synergy, is now widely seen as odds-on favourite to win awards in the travel and PR industry.

What's really clever about this is that it works as a global campaign and it seems to have very good spokespeople
Margot Raggett
Lexis PR

The initiative is already being seen as a case study in how to execute a PR - as opposed to advertising - campaign. PR guru Mark Borkowski has described the campaign on his blog as "a fine example of PR left to do what it does best - spread a positive story as far and wide as possible in a glowing light".

Tourism Queensland ticked all the boxes, creating an ongoing narrative that would work globally and gather acres of free publicity.

Boasting a series of "hooks" that began in January, from the job-application process through to the X-Factor-style whittling-down of the candidates, the campaign harnessed social media to effectively create a worldwide reality TV competition that tapped into young people's wanderlust and cleverly disguised a competition prize as a "job".

One PR expert who has been watching Queensland's acres of positive coverage unfold with awe is Debbie Hindle, managing director of PR firm BGB, which advises numerous travel-related clients.

Hindle admits: "I was actually asked for a 'campaign I wish I'd thought of' a few months ago and I said this one even then."


She points out that the campaign is particularly impressive given that the product being promoted is a destination which, she says, tend to be conservative in the PR initiatives they are willing to agree to.

Margot Raggett, chief executive of Lexis PR, is equally in awe. She says: "What's really clever about this is that it works as a global campaign and it seems to have very good spokespeople and, inevitably, pictures."

Referring to the extensive coverage the campaign has garnered, Raggett says: "It just seems to have tapped into the zeitgeist - whether by accident or design - in that it's a feel-good story in grim times economically. The media seem to have largely let it pass that this story is a marketing ploy. Perhaps that's because it's a tourism campaign and not one based around, say, a company's new product."

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Meanwhile, Graham Goodkind - chairman of the agency Frank PR, which has offices in London and Sydney - observes: "The beauty of this is that it's such a simple idea.

"The PR story is also intrinsic to the brand - it's impossible to forget what this is promoting - and it's been very well executed. What a contrast it is to so many PR campaigns that use old-fashioned PR techniques such as promoting the results of surveys - so often it's impossible to remember what those campaigns are promoting."

Goodkind points out, however, that the "best job in the world" concept itself is far from novel. He admits that his own agency once ran a campaign to promote a job as a "condom tester" - but largely treated it a "one-hit" story.

Moving beyond the current success of the campaign, PR experts counsel that it is too early to assess the stunt's full impact.

As BGB's Debbie Hindle says: "Promoting travel from the UK to places as far away as Australia tends to suffer a bit from people thinking such destinations are 'place of a lifetime'-type destinations.

"The challenge is to convert media interest into real visitor numbers. But I imagine the people behind the Queensland campaign won't now let go of it. I imagine next year we'll get the second blogger being sent off there and it could all be repeated."

Inevitably, too, the flak has started. Message boards contain comments such as "the high wage might be needed to cover the cost of living on Hamilton Island - a brief holiday there left me scratching my head at the ridiculous prices charged for some everyday staples" or "I've been to Hamilton Island - you'd be bored out of your mind within two days, seriously".

£35m of publicity

But for now the champagne corks are popping at Tourism Queensland. Jane Nicholson, regional director of Tourism Queensland in the UK, describes the worldwide response to the campaign as "nothing short of phenomenal".

She says: "The campaign has largely relied on public relations and social networking activity and has captured the imagination of the world.

"To date it's generated more than $70 million [£35m] in publicity value through TV, radio and newspaper coverage, as well as special online discussion groups, bulletin boards, blogs and websites with applicants critiquing their competition, having detailed discussions and swapping ideas and tips."

As Ben Southall prepares to head off to his "job" Down Under, he leaves behind a PR industry not only "wishing they were there", but also wishing the campaign was theirs.

Ian Hall worked for PR Week from 2000-2007 and is now editor of Public Affairs News

A selection of your comments appears below.

Sure, all the attention is great. But I don't see it driving new business. I've followed and been interested in this story, but no way is it going to make me fly halfway around the world. I can't imagine I'm the only foreign tourist who feels this way.
Amy B., United States

It pales into insignificance with the PR generated for Twitter, which mostly consisted of thousands of news outlets writing wholly uncritical puff about the micro-blogging service. And I don't think Twitter even used PR for that!
Carl, London, UK

So it's the equivalent of a $70 million media buy. How precisely? PR firms are notorious for over inflating the equivalent media spend and overlooking such factors as agency discounts in the purchasing cycle, and the removal of a call to action in the creative placement. Prior to this article how many people would know the campaign was promoting Queensland? In addition how will the campaign attribute a return on investment for visitors to Queensland as a direct result of the PR activity when there's already a significant ad spend towards promoting Australia as a tourist destination? Obviously I could be wrong, so to highlight the continuing success of the campaign - I wonder if the PR firm will make known the number of unique users that visit Ben Southall's blog over the next 12 months?
Tom, London

As a current PR student at university, it is inspiring to read a story like this and see that such a simple idea can generate so much publicity! I wish that I could come up with something like to help with my final year!!
Ste Ashurst, Preston, UK

This guy is clearly emulating Boris Johnson and judging by his acceptance speech thinks he is undertaking a very challenging job (like mayor of the island perhaps) rather than a PR stunt.
Mike Muirhead, London

No doubt it was a good piece of PR. But as a PR officer myself, I believe the very best campaigns are the ones that go completely unnoticed. The fact that there is a BBC article about the campaign flies against this theory. You may or may not agree. Unfortunately for the PR industry, the general public are becoming more aware of public relations and won't buy products/services just because it's being hovered under their noses. Thank God this recession has made the sheep in society look up from their incessant grazing to wonder - 'Where on Earth has all the grass has gone?' -and the resulting head-rush has provided much needed fuel for independent thinking.
Karisma, London

Your "other notable PR stunts" include Prince changing his name to "symbol" a few years ago. This wasn't a PR stunt, he had to do it to be able to release music free from his contract with Warner Bros. who were trying to limit him to releasing only one record per year or something similar. Just so you know.
Ken, Newark

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