There’s no such thing as bad publicity

A few months ago I wrote about the plane crash in the Alps and discussed whether, and for how long, the negative publicity that the airline would receive from such a disaster would affect their business. I said then, and I still believe, that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and even when something as catastrophic as a plane crash happens, handled well the company will eventually recover from it and may even find that, over time, its publicity will increase and improve.

I am pondering the same situation now, as I watch a company that we worked for a year or so ago, handling what, they say, is a major crisis for them. But is it…? This company, whose name I cannot mention, has built its entire brand on PR – it spends (relatively) little on advertising and other activities, but it keeps the PR agencies that work for it worldwide very busy by feeding them with stories that are so powerful that they often hit the headlines in whichever respective country is handling that particular story.

In the Czech Republic, during our time working for them, we were told to investigate the sponsorship of a major sports club – something that we had been told the company was keen to do somewhere in the world, but had not yet managed. There was a lot of money at stake and the club, of course, opened its arms to us, put on a great show, took photos of everyone together discussing the sponsorship, and generally led us all to believe that this was a deal that was sure to happen. We duly notified the media and rubbed our hands together at the fantastic coverage that the press release received. And then nothing. The sponsorship was never discussed again, the people involved were understandably upset and we were left looking very silly.

After that, our relationship with the company went downhill, ending up with us having a big fight to get paid and being sworn to secrecy about all of their business antics. However, we have continued to be interested in watching how they manage their activities, and despite the fact that we are still feeling a little bit upset with them, we can’t help but marvel at the stories that they come up with and the subsequent global coverage that they are receiving. From employees suing them, to floating on stock exchanges, to hackers stealing information, whatever happens (or appears to happen) the company continues to grow and the media continue to slap them on the front pages (or in this latest case, peak time TV!) with yet more news that people can’t help but want to read or hear about.

When I first learned about this latest story, my initial reaction was that it was potentially so damaging that it must have been true. But then I watched the coverage and the stories that were coming out, and it was clear that, whilst some customers might have been nervous when the story first broke, the long-term (well, only one month!) affect is already becoming positive; now the coverage is more about the company and the things that it does than its latest problems… and one can’t help but think that the people in head office are laughing all the way to the bank.

With many of our clients, their concern about what might come out when they first start to use PR as a marketing tool, often inhibits them from doing or saying too much – the result of which is a very ‘toned down’ story may not get very much coverage. As much as we can, therefore, we try to tell the client to be brave since, generally, the only people that will read the story word for word is them – most others will just remember that they have read something about them in such and such a paper and will be filled with admiration.

Using big stories in your PR activities, such as I have described above, can be hugely effective if the people handling the PR, and, thereby, the people that are being fed the stories, believe that they are rue. If you have a really big story, then get it out there with all the bells ringing – be brave; even if you get some negative coverage, (and there is always a risk) in the long term the increase in the awareness of your brand will far outweigh anything that is less positive. But if the story isn’t true and you convince your PR people to run it by persuading them that it is true, then your biggest worry has to be how you feel about deceiving the people involved rather than how much business you get out of the subsequent PR.

In the end, as I have said and believe, there really is no such thing as bad publicity. The only way to deal with companies such as the one described, therefore, is for all of us PR agencies to refuse to work for them, and for all those media out there to refuse to write and talk about them! That would probably be the next big headline!