While journalists were the victim of the Watch Dogs stunt it is PRs who will suffer

Following last week’s PR stunt which saw the bomb squad called to Ninemsn’s offices Lee Hall looks at whether it was a disaster for the company, or unintended victory. 

Stunts are a PR’s ‘go to’ whenever a client is looking to launch a new product or service and comes to an agency saying they want to create a ‘buzz’ about what it is they are offering. And let’s face it; stunts are one of the most fun things a PR can be involved in.

Not so much if you’re Ubisoft though. This week, to publicise the highly anticipated launch of new video game Watch Dogs, the Ubisoft PR team decided to employ a stunt that borrowed loosely from the secretive, hacking nature of the games premise.



In the game you play Aiden Pearce, a brilliant hacker and former thug, whose criminal past led to the death of his niece and his journey to get revenge. He goes about trying to attain his vengeance by manipulating the system.

With Ubisoft hoping to manipulate the media, they naturally, in an unprecedented age of security consciousness and fear of terrorism, decided to send an unmarked safe to a Ninemsn journalist with a cryptic note that alluded to a voicemail that the journalist had not received. Having tried a couple of times to enter a code into the safe (why would you even try) the device started ticking and intrigue rapidly turned to fear.

The management rightly called the police who, in turn, called in the bomb squad, which resulted in the Ninemsn team, and numerous other companies in the building, being sent home just after 3pm. When the box was finally ‘diffused’ by the bomb squad it revealed a copy of the game and some promotional material.

So where did this stunt go wrong?

The first rule of planning a stunt is to ensure that you have planned for every conceivable possibility. You try to run through every permutation and how the stunt can run smoothly, whilst being extreme enough to have the desired impact on the target audience. Secondly, execution is key to a successful stunt.

The journalist in question was supposed to receive a voice message the evening before, which referred to the delivery and most likely gave clues as to its nature and the code to open the box. The only problem is the journo did not receive a message, just a call from an unknown number and a hang up message.


The company were probably conscious not to annoy the journalist by attempting to leave the message multiple times (about the only consciousness showed throughout the entire campaign), and, it would appear, the PR simply gave up and thought that all would become clear with the delivery of the game. Didn’t exactly go to plan did it?

The failure to execute a key part of the strategy created most of the drama and could potentially have avoided the situation escalating the way it did.

And thirdly, the journalist in question does not do game reviews. This shows a staggering lack of strategic media targeting and planning. Like Santa Claus, any PR worth their salt makes a list and checks it twice as there is nothing worse than sending something to a journalist that does not even cover the subject at hand – apparently Ubisoft missed this day at the PR school for Elves.

Understandably, the Nine MSN workers were left shaken by the stunt, as relayed through Twitter, and it won’t do relations between Ubisoft and media company any favours either.

The calamitous affair has even led to questions whether this is the worst PR stunt of all time with many quick to lump it into the ‘fail’ category.

But was it a fail?

The safe contained a copy of the game, a baseball cap and a beanie.

The safe contained a copy of the game, a baseball cap and a beanie.

Considering we live in a world where the threat of terrorism has never been higher, to embark on a campaign such as this was exceptionally risky. Add to this the company’s catastrophic failure to fulfil key elements of the strategy, that likely could have prevented it going from stunt to terror threat, and one would be forgiven for seeing it as a failure.

However, the aim of any stunt is to generate awareness and get coverage for whatever you’re promoting – and this campaign did just that. No one can argue that it didn’t gain coverage (whether the right kind is a separate argument altogether), as it has been covered by pretty much every major website in Australia (since being broken on this one) and has been featured internationally.

The game itself has sold faster than any other Ubisoft game in the company’s history – and who’s to know what part of that success is due to the awareness the stunt generated?

However, the situation does little to dissuade people from the opinion of PR’s as opportunistic and without ethics (which is certainly not the case). Whilst Ubisoft has apologised unreservedly to the journalist(s) that were left shaken by the whole affair and the ill thought out nature of the stunt in general, they will most likely be secretly be elated by the response to the game and the coverage generated.

The situation has undoubtedly bruised the reputation of the company in the media and also that of the company with key stakeholders, the repercussions of which are yet to be seen.

Somewhere along the line the company seems to have forgotten that PR is more than just about trying to attain results; it’s about managing brand reputations and creating engaging content that does not harm anyone or anything. Somewhere in Ubisoft’s plans this ideology got left behind.

Ultimately, the whole affair brings to mind an old adage from Oscar Wilde: ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’. In the fast paced games world where it’s necessary to strike hard and fast before the next big thing is out, this certainly seems true. I fear the damage this will do in the long run is not to the company itself, and certainly not to sales of the game, but to the targeted journalist and to perceptions of the PR industry which, let’s face it, were already fairly bleak.

Lee Hall is a senior PR manager at Inside Out PR


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.