The PR challenge that faced Sterling Hager, Inc. (SHI) was standard: build awareness for a start-up Internet company.  The client, e-tractions, designs a wide range of Web-based entertainment for one-to-one marketing campaigns.  The PR campaign ended up as anything but standard.  As a result of SHI's PR efforts, e-tractions showcased its abilities while leveraging a trend in the PR community with a healthy dose of humor.  The campaign did for e-tractions what e-tractions does for its clients: generate Web traffic, stimulate commerce and build brand loyalty.  What's more, this slightly offbeat PR campaign resulted in more than 60,000 visitors to the company's Web site and converted more than 10 percent of those visitors into qualified leads for this unknown client in a crowded marketplace.


e-tractions was new to the Internet marketing marketplace and faced the challenge of gaining significant media attention.  Through brainstorming at the start of the client engagement, the SHI team decided that a "viral" marketing game specifically targeting the media community would demonstrate e-tractions' expertise in marketing, interactive entertainment and Internet technology, while getting the attention crucial to establishing the company's brand.

The research needed for the campaign was minimal.  The months prior to the campaign saw several prominent articles about the lack of competency in the PR industry, including articles in Upside and Red Herring.  With this tenuous media-PR relationship in mind, the SHI team used its own industry insight to help e-tractions structure an entertainment concept as an outlet for media frustrations.  SHI selected the target list of media and analyst influencers based on existing Agency relationships.

SHI worked with e-tractions to crystallize the concept for the campaign and named it "Whack-a-Flack." Loosely based on the carnival game "Whack-a-Mole," the game would focus on the growing rift between the media and public relations firm "flacks."  Flacks, a derogatory term derived from "flack catchers," are employees in PR agencies reviled by the press for relentlessly trying to promote and enhance the image of their clients in the eyes of the media.  Too often, these so-called flacks alienate the very writers and editors they target with their constant phone calls and never-ending stream of benign press releases.  

Players would select from drop-down list of options one of 20 PR agencies to "whack" as well as the corresponding positive or negative reason for selecting that particular agency.  In the first part of the game, a humorous story line would describe the game play.  Instructions would include throwing paper airplanes (cleverly constructed from the flack's own press releases) at various flack characters as they jump and dodge behind their office cubicles.

Successful players would advance to new game levels where the flacks become increasingly quicker and harder to whack.  Prior to game play, players would be prompted to complete a few simple registration fields.  These customizable registration fields would include email address, gender, job title and an opt-in granting permission for contact by e-tractions.  This registration information would demonstrate the effectiveness of entertainment marketing as a data collection tool - especially given this rather jaded audience.


The SHI strategy was to target media contacts to gain attention and generate press coverage, which the company's target prospects, marketing and PR professionals, would read.  In stimulating buzz and building brand awareness, the campaign would:

Collect media email addresses from game registrations via the Web;

Gather qualitative PR industry data and business leads from visitor feedback regarding the perception of agencies; and

Increase press coverage for e-tractions in key publications by gaining the attention of media contacts.


With the concept and game format decided using SHI's insight into the PR/editorial communities, e-tractions adhered to an aggressive production schedule for Whack-a-Flack beginning in early July 2000.  The plan put the SHI team in charge of overseeing the entire campaign.  e-tractions took responsibility for implementation using their in-house creative, development and marketing expertise, and the company's extensive data collection and reporting capabilities. 

In less than a month, the email copy and initial distribution list were in place, the game was ready and testing was complete.  e-tractions was set to collect registration data, validate email addresses and support reporting, and the servers were prepared for traffic and hosting.  


The Whack-a-Flack campaign launched on July 27, 2000 with only 150 initial email messages.  In this first week, these 150 emails quickly generated 2,095 site visits and 1,380 player registrations - a 66 percent conversion rate of those who visited to people who actually registered to play.  As of the January 2001, the site had received more than 60,000 visitors.