Is There Such a Thing Anymore as Bad Publicity?


First, let me start by saying this is not a political statement or an affiliation to any certain political party at all. But after watching countless hours of the presidential debates, the DNC and RNC conventions, media coverage of both candidates and the absolute masterful manipulation of the media by one Donald J. Trump — it got me thinking again on that age old question one has as a publicist: Is there really no such thing as bad publicity?

‘There’s no such thing as bad publicity’ is often associated with Phineas T. Barnum, the 19th century American showman and circus owner. Barnum was a self-publicist of the first order and never missed an opportunity to present his wares to the public. The thought behind the proverb had also been expressed earlier by Oscar Wilde: When he said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

This theory is boosted by a 2011 study from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where they stated that, in fact, bad news isn’t always bad for business. They noted that after the movie Borat made relentless fun of the nation of Kazakhstan, Hotels.com reported a 300% increase in requests for information about the country, and a wine described as “redolent of stinky socks” by a prominent website saw its sales increase by 5%.

“Most companies are concerned with one of two problems,” said Alan Sorensen, an associate professor of economics and strategic management at the business school at the time and one of the authors of the study. “Either they’re trying to figure out how to get the public to think their product is a good one, or they’re just trying to get people to know about their product. In some markets, where there are lots of competing products, they’re more preoccupied with the latter. In that case, any publicity, positive or negative, turns out to be valuable.”

As a publicist, I like to look at negative publicity as an opportunity, and this is how I want clients to look at it. The public loves a good comeback story, and is usually willing to give an underdog who acknowledges a problem and apologizes a second, or third etc… chance. Think Hugh Grant after the Sunset Strip scandal, facing the public head-on with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. When Leno asked Grant the pointed, now-famous question, “What the hell were you thinking?!” Grant replied with a sheepish grin, “You know in life what’s a good thing to do and a bad thing to do. I did a bad thing.” And in an instant, all was forgiven.

The key to me is honesty and integrity in all situations with all clients, and to facing the problem, fessing up and righting a wrong as soon as possible. The public is amazingly forgiving, as long as you are sincere in your efforts to right whatever wrongs are attributed to you.

One of my favorite adapters of the “There is No Such Thing as Bad Publicity” quote is someone from the Dublin literary scene, an Irish Republican and “drinker with a writing problem” Brendan Behan. Behan’s boisterous lifestyle meant for him, more than others, there was truth in his opinion that: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”

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