is any publicity good publicity?

Is there really no such thing as bad publicity? Probably the biggest unresolved mystery on Planet PR. Blogs are full of it and no publicist will be able to give you a proper answer. First of all what is publicity? Above and beyond its definition from the schoolbooks, it’s greatest strength – gaining true trust from consumers – relies on its greatest weakness – a lack of control in its creation and deployment.

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Isn’t that adage misleading? Ask BP after its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, who had to spend millions to rebuild its image, and is – regardless – remembered for it, whether it is through some bad press or through infamous Halloween costumes. How about Tiger Woods and the loss of 6 sponsorship deals, let alone his recent performances on the green? Toyota and its products recall? And the list goes on. As it would be too easy otherwise, there are also examples of brands that did benefit from bad publicity. Kanye West (like other singers) and all his related controversy ended up being at the top of consumers’ minds and saw his albums sales jumping. How about these awful movies which always end up landing at the top of the box office?

Last summer, at the Cannes Lions (the biggest worldwide annual event of the advertising industry gathering agencies, clients and like-minded), Grey thought they’d make a splash by hiring a plane with one of those trailing banners. One human mistake later, they were all over the press and blogosphere as an agency that cannot even ensure quality-checks on a 4-word banner – hardly a reliable partner for a client. Working for that same agency, we discussed it internally, not accepting that it was a “mistake”. Some argued that if the job was to get Grey’s name out there at an Industry event that is pretty much the equivalent of the Superbowl, the job was purposely well done. Some accepted the mistake but thought the best way to handle it was indeed to claim it was a clever stunt.

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A study ran by Alan Sorensen (Stanford) showed that when a known author was subject to bad critics, his book’s sales would plummet. He also realised that the opposite was happening for unknown authors. We can therefore claim that bad publicity actually helps unknown brands. That school of thought can be supported by the fact that a dissatisfied customer will tell 10 people whereby a satisfied one will only tell 3. If it’s noise you need, then maybe there is no such thing as bad publicity.

So, is there really no such thing as bad publicity? I don’t think there is a straightforward answer. It’s all down to the specific brand and publicity (no doubt that if Kanye West would have rapped a teenager, that controversy wouldn’t have helped him sell albums, let alone that he’d be writing it from jail). If one thing is sure though, it is that all publicity is good if it is intelligent, whether bad or good and depending on the way it is handled. Grey managed to be famous and to get people talking, Apple managed to reinforce its strong position and to seize the opportunity to trash its competitors, and some politicians managed to gain their audiences’ sympathy using auto-derision. Is all publicity good publicity? No, but all publicity is good if it is intelligent.

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