Is there really no such thing as bad publicity?

Untitled-1Oscar Wilde once said that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about at all. Therefore his theory like other thinkers of his time was that any type of publicity is good publicity.

Not surprisingly though there is a chequered history of situations and results in regard to the real impact of bad publicity. Big brands such as Enron and AIG have paid the price due to negative publicity. In the meantime unknown destinations such Kazakhstan experienced a surge in interest thanks to an insulting yet comic documentary called Borat.

Therefore to challenge the popular adage, three professors from Wharton and Stanford Universities published research in 2010 analysing the correlation of books reviewed by the New York Times with their respective sales. The research discovered that established authors would increase their book sales by 42% thanks to good reviews but experience a decrease of 15% due to bad ones. In the meantime unknown authors, irrespective if they get good or bad reviews, would increase their sales by over 30%.

The key learning is that bad publicity has an adverse effect on the established and on the unknown. While for the established bad publicity can have a negative effect, the unknown can get that one-time opportunity to be noticed. It all depends on the level of awareness of the brand before the bad publicity kicks in.

Let’s face it. Consumers have high expectations on the brands and businesses they know. They expect them to walk the talk. At the end of the day a brand might have become well-known for several good reasons. For a considerable amount of great experiences and encounters with customers. So why tarnish your reputation with bad publicity? Why throw away valid brand equity that has developed over the years?

On the other hand unknown brands surprisingly can spring-board through bad publicity. It becomes an opportunity to slice through the clutter. A one-time chance to be noticed by being placed on top of the stack. An opportunity to create awareness. Ironically enough the same research mentioned above pointed out that as time passes, we may not even remember the context in which we heard something, we just know it’s familiar.

So while bad publicity is good for the new, is it game over for the well-known? Is it the end of the world? Has dooms day arrived? Not necessarily. Winston Churchill was famous for saying that difficulties mastered are opportunities won. Bad publicity can be turned into a window of opportunity. An opportunity that reinvigorates a current relationship by making it even stronger.

A recent example was the tragic massacre at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. God forbid such events occur again but through an unfortunate event the awareness of the satirical publication skyrocketed, the French and international community rallied behind the struggling government of Francoise Hollande, while liberal ideology has cemented its place in our principles and beliefs.

Another example was the recent media uproar about the possibility of British and Maltese football clubs considering the signing of convicted rapist Ched Evans. While the story was widely reported in several media across the United Kingdom, in many instances Ched Evans was pictured in his previous Sheffield United kit which coincidentally was sponsored at the time by Who knows if there was an unexpected surge of website visitor traffic for the benefit of little Malta?

Or what about the recent attack on the Corinthia’s Tripoli Hotel in Libya? While Libya is currently one of the last places to go for a visit, the recent fait accompli has strengthened the Corinthia’s reputation on the international community. Important to remember that in 2010 the same hotel hosted 35 presidents and prime ministers for the EU-Africa Summit.

Although bad publicity is not always a good thing, in some cases, negative can actually be positive. It all depends on your attitude and approach to such circumstances. Do you crumble in defeat and disappear? Or do you take it on the shoulder and regroup?

While many do their best to avoid such circumstances, bad publicity can be the much needed wake up call to stop, assess and re-plot your course. It could be that needed opportunity to stop and reflect on your relevance to the world around you, why do you exist, who are your customers, and what are your goals.

For example a brand can purposely reposition itself through bad publicity. A case in point is the sassy antics of pop-star Miley Cyrus. Gone are the days of her teenage innocence as Disney’s Hannah Montana. Now she has repositioned herself as a female rebel.

Bad publicity can also be used to energise the core customer base. A method to create sympathy and compassion. A common example is when loyal supporters back their political party through tough times. The same can be for a favourite sports team, a brand that might be pulled off the shelves, or a personality who is considering to retire.

Bad publicity can also be an opportunity for established brands to reinforce a cause or mission. Virgin Galactic was a recent example where a mission failure reinforced the brand’s endurance and perseverance to commercialise space travel. At least Virgin cannot be blamed for not trying.

10497863_10203421273667262_5801518366717543927_oBad publicity can also be a good reason to stimulate a conversation. Austin Camilleri’s temporary sculpture ‘Zieme’ at Valletta’s main gate is a great example. While Camilleri is not the type to blink an eye due to the public reaction of his works, he was spot on in his analysis that he succeeded in creating a conversation about something that in reality was not even there – i.e. the missing horse leg.

Bad publicity can also be an opportunity for a Goliath to become a David. Everybody loves an underdog. Everybody loves a come-back kid. There are many examples of brands and personalities who have shrugged off the burden of negative publicity and came back even stronger than before.

At the end of the day it is all about your attitude and level of resilience. Many shy away from the spotlight and certainly fray away from negative press. Those who embrace bad publicity and consider it as a constant challenge will be those who will most likely succeed. Mentioning Winston Churchill once again, he taught us a lot about resilience as he once said that you can never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks!

This article originally appeared in the Marketing Services Supplement, printed and distributed with The Times of Malta (Wednesday, 4 February 2015)