Beware the PR pitfalls of contests

theend.jpgBy now, you’ve heard the story of the 28-year-old California woman who died after drinking too much water in a radio-station contest. The story spread across the globe like lightning. I’d laugh if it weren’t so tragic.

Seems the woman was a contestant in a radio-station gimmick called “Hold Your Wee for a Wii.” The winner? The person who drank the most water without making a trip to the can. The prize was a Nintendo Wii video game worth about $500.

Don’t ask me why, but the media are suckers for such contests. They report on them, they promote them, and they send their cameras to capture the goofiness. It’s been this way since P.T. Barnum, so that means PR folks have been dreaming up this crap for more than a century. It’s just too easy.

murphy.jpgThe lesson here? You must run every marketing and promo idea through worst-case-scenario planning. Because Murphy’s Law is especially applicable to crazy contests. Your reputation and your bottom line may be at risk. You gotta wonder how many lawyers are lining up to help this woman’s family sue the radio station.

Could folks at the “107.9 The End” have anticipated that someone would die of “water intoxication? Maybe not. But what does it cost to get a medical opinion before asking people to do extraordinary things to their bodies? The station’s attorneys have no doubt gone into “no comment” mode, though an executive did publicly express regrets. There’s nothing on the station’s website about the incident.

ToysRUs learned another lesson with its contest that promised $25,000 to the first American baby born in 2007. As luck would have it, one of the first kids was born to a Chinese couple who happened to be in the U.S. illegally. Opps.

All hell broke loose when the company enforced the rules and awarded the prize to an American baby. Soon after, ToysRUs retreated and gave $25K savings bonds to all three babies born at the stroke of midnight — even the one belonging to the illegal immigrants. Mea culpa, mea culpa.

toys_r_us_logo.pngHey, ToysRUs can afford the $75K. What the comany can’t afford is the illwill and negative publicity that comes with such a miscue. They upset the Chinese-American community. They upset the anti-immigration community. Hell, the only happy people are the couples who got the money.

Once again, don’t you think a little worst-case planning would have turned up the issue of illegal immigrants?

The next time you get a wild idea for a contest, think it through. Whatever can go wrong probably will. Major Murphy taught us that.


7 Responses to Beware the PR pitfalls of contests

  1. Andy Curran says:


    The station has suspended their morning team. Here’s the link to their statement on the website:

    As a 25-year vet of the radio wars, I can tell you that the first response in these situations is to fire or suspend the air talent. The problem I have is that they tell their talent to be “edgy” and “outrageous”, but many times they don’t give them any guidelines.

    Management had to know this contest was going to take place, but did nothing about it.

  2. Andrew,

    You’re better at navigating websites than I. Couldn’t find anything serious on that one. Will check your link. I suspect everyone knew of this promotion. Management here is simply distancing themselves from the controversy. Could be a legal move, but I suspect it’s just typical radio biz — run by nitwits, serving nitwits. Hey, thanks for sending this idea, which I should have acknowledged in the post. I’m trying to cut the length of my posts by 50% this year. Those first 50 knocked the longwindedness outta me.

  3. Andy Curran says:

    Another update (credit to the trade publication Radio & Records (a.k.a. R&R) :

    Updated Jan 17, 2007 6:32 PM ET

    Criminal Charges Possible In Water-Drinking Contest

    The Sacramento sheriff’s office is furthering the investigation into the death of Jennifer Strange, who died last Friday in the water-drinking contest on Entercom CHR/Top 40 KDND (107.9 The End)/Sacramento. However, Sergeant Tim Curran of the Sacramento sheriff’s department tells R&R that the district attorney will make the call as to whether criminal charges will be filed, and he cautions that the D.A. won’t file anything until the investigation by the sheriff’s department and the coroner is concluded, which will take weeks.

    BTW, I am not related to the sarge.

  4. Bit of irony on this one that I saw on one of the tabloid news channels in Cleveland last night — which covers most of them! Seems one of the DJs actually joked about “water poisoning” on the air while the contest was going on. On-air banter also included several jokes and inquiries in the vein of “anyone dying in there?” The contest idea seemed harmless enough in retrospect. But I’ll betcha the station’s lawyers are already seeking a settlement, knowing full well that a jury will see it as neglegent.

    Firing the city’s No. 1 morning crew seeks a bit harsh, but with such a pall hanging over the show, whatcha gonna do? Criminal charges? That’s over the top.

  5. Andy Curran says:

    And, yet another update, courtesy of R&R, 1-18-2007:

    Sacramento law firm Dreyer, Babich, Buccola & Callaham will file a wrongful death suit against Entercom CHR/top 40 KDND (107.9 The End)/Sacramento on behalf of the family of Jennifer Strange. As you well know by now, Strange died Jan. 12 after taking part in The End’s “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest.

    Firm partner Roger Dreyer told R&R that he plans to file suit against Entercom, The End, the fired jocks and “management-level folks who we believe were involved in the decisionmaking process to proceed with this ill-advised contest,” but may also extend the suit to include anyone associated with the stunt, including Wii manufacturer Nintendo. He also said the Strange family hopes that “because this case has gotten national exposure, this will send a real strong message about trash radio like this.”

    “The conduct of the radio station, the personnel of the radio station were obviously irresponsible, poorly advised and, from everything we’ve been able to determined so far in our investigation, demonstrates that they just didn’t pay attention or even take the time to investigate or even research what was the potential consequence of this contest,” said Dreyer.

    Meanwhile, members of the now-fired “Morning Rave” have posted messages on their MySpace profiles regarding the incident: “At this time we would like to express our deepest condolences to the family of Jennifer Strange. We want to thank all of our listners [sic] for their continued support … and we ask that you join us by keeping Jennifer and her family in your thoughts and prayers. Lukas, Maney and Trish.”


    And again, the air talent gets hung out to dry while the managers apologize and keep getting the big paychecks. The managers are responsible for the actions of their employees. Obviously, this contest was going on for aw hile on the air that morning, so management could have stopped it, but didn’t. All parties involved should be canned, or none of them. Not just some of them. I know my view is slanted toward the talent, but that’s just the way I feel about it.

  6. Nicole W. says:

    My boss at Hillcrest told me a nurse called in during the contest and told them there would be a risk…

  7. Andy Curran says:

    Wham-O! The hits just keep on comin’ (R&R again get the credit):

    Wrongful Death Suit Filed In KDND Incident

    As he promised, attorney Roger Dreyer filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court this morning on behalf of Jennifer Strange’s family. The wrongful death suit names as defendants Entercom (both the cluster and the parent company), Sacramento GM John Geary and now-fired employees Steve Weed, ex-PD; former promo director Robin Pechota; ex-morning show producer Liz Diaz; and former morning personalities Adam Cox, Steve Maney, Patricia Sweet and Matt Carter.


    FCC To Investigate KDND/Sacramento

    Following attorney Roger Dreyer’s letter to the FCC requesting that the commission revoke KDND (107.9 The End)/Sacramento’s license in the wake of Jennifer Strange’s death, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has directed the FCC Enforcement Bureau to look into the matter.

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