I had been planning to write about football star Mo Salah’s boots going on display in the Egyptian section of the British Museum, a genius low-cost stunt, but time changes everything. One moment Mo was carrying the hopes of Liverpool and the entire nation of Egypt on his shoulders, the next he can’t even open a tin of beans because of his shoulder.
And then something else, much more left-field and fascinating, grabbed the attention.
It concerned the murky world of Vladimir Putin, his FSB secret service and the tendency for Russian journalists who expose state corruption to meet grisly ends. It’s a serious issue: since Putin came to power 19 journalists have died in mysterious circumstances and the latest with good cause to fear for his life was prominent critic Arkady Babchenko.
The Big Idea
Harbouring the very strong belief that a Russian state assassination attempt was imminent, Akady and the Ukrainian Security Service hatched a unique plan. What if we stage the murder of Arkady, announce to the world’s media that he has been murdered, make the FSB believe the job had been carried out and turn it into a global news event that would highlight the constant state of fear that Arkady and others constantly live under?
What They Did
The hoax was planned over two months and culminated when Arkady’s wife found his limp, bloodied and lifeless body outside their apartment. He played dead as he was carried into the ambulance and all the way to the morgue. Arkady had in fact been given acting lessons on how to fall as if shot, his T-shirt had bullet holes and was then soaked in fresh pig’s blood.
For complete authenticity, even Mrs Babchenko was not informed that it was a fake hit. (Just imagine the explaining he had to do when he got home.)
Twenty-fours later, after it had become the lead story around the world, after political condemnation and Kremlin denials, Ukrainian police held a news conference to update media on the investigation. Lo and behold, to stunned gasps of the assembled throng, Arkady appeared alive and well to explain the true purpose of why they were there.
This was what we in the world of disruptive consumer PR call the classic tease and reveal. One can imagine the Ukrainian security service writing the award entry for a Cannes Lion: Headline news, 24/7 coverage, trending on Twitter, obituaries written, vigils held, Russia on the back foot in denial and Mrs Babchenko in an absolute state. Even Boris Johnson was fooled (ok, bad example).
Of course, the consequences of the stunt hadn’t been thoroughly
thought through. We live in an age of Trump, fake news and conspiracy
obsessed nut-jobs who attribute everything from air disasters, school
shootings and even ISIS terrorist attacks to Western governments and the
‘deep state’. Indeed, when double agent Sergei Skripal was poisoned in
Cheltenham, the Kremlin threw a smoke bomb counter claim that it had all
been staged by the British MI6.
Possibly a cultural reference that is lost on younger readers, but
one is reminded of Baldrick in the TV comedy Blackadder and his cunning
plans. ‘If the Kremlin is constantly saying that unexplained murders of
its critics are a conspiracy to discredit them, why don’t we stage an
unexplained murder as a conspiracy to discredit them?’
The reaction from politicians and media (including friends of Babchenko who had already purchased a black tie) was to be relieved and seriously pissed off. The International Federation of Journalists criticised the ‘intolerable’ stunt for ‘damaging the credibility of reported information’.
This is an idea on a post-it note that should never have made it out of the brainstorm session.