Few in the PR fraternity would dispute that a well-conceived publicity stunt is one of the best ways of getting widespread media exposure.

But as an Australian regional development agency discovered at its peril, if you’re going to put yourself in the media spotlight then at least make sure that it is for the right reason.

Advantage SA, a government body which promotes business in South Australia, had just launched a PR campaign to promote Adelaide and the surrounding area only to see it immediately backfire on a catastrophic scale.

The organisation decided to try something different by hand delivering live goldfish to influential media executives, each coming in its own special bowl inscribed with the message: “Be the big fish in a small pond and come and test the water. SA.”

But it turned out not to be such a clever idea after all when press reports started to filter through that many of the 55 fish sent out were already dead on arrival.

Advantage SA was very quickly forced to respond to exaggerated media allegations of mass goldfish killings and apologise for a ridiculous stunt that had gone so desperately wrong.

The organisation also formally told the press that in hindsight it would probably not do the same thing again.

As PR practitioners ourselves we sincerely hope so – not only that Advantage SA will avoid such high-risk novelty publicity stunts in future but they will also learn from the harsh lessons of the whole debacle.

And perhaps the most important lesson wasn’t so much about the decision to send out live goldfish, but more about whom the organisation decided to send the fish to in the first place.

Give any journalist an inch and they will jump at the chance to get one up on their PR counterparts. So if they see any opportunity to ridicule them in any way they will blow a potentially humiliating story out of all proportion and milk it to the full.