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Is all publicity good publicity?

Integrated PR - 3rd March 2011
Is all publicity good publicity?

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” said Irish author and dramatist Brendan Behan, “except your own obituary.” The first part of the quotation lives on, and is often used in partial defence of an organisation’s ‘bad press’ – but just how true is the assertion?

According to an article in this week’s Economist, there could be some circumstances in which bad publicity is helpful. The newspaper reports on the work of a Stanford economics professor who believes that for little-known businesses, bad publicity can be a positive thing.

However, in our view, for most businesses ‘bad’ publicity is to be avoided at all costs. Many organisations have found that it takes just one or two instances of negative publicity to undermine a good reputation developed through months – even years – of positive PR activity. Just ask Toyota about the impact of its multiple product recalls over the past 18 months.

‘Good’ publicity can take various forms. It may include favourable media coverage of company news, publication of a CEO’s thought leadership article, a corporate comment on a current trend or topical news item, or a simple mention of the company name in news columns.

‘Bad’ publicity may result from, for example, a disastrous industrial accident, complaints about poor products or services, a rotten financial performance or a serious ‘PR gaffe’ by an executive (or, indeed, a prime minister). Sometimes a “no comment” can be as damaging to reputation and profits as a product recall.

In fact, we would argue that Behan’s aphorism conceals a greater threat to the 21st-century enterprise, which is the danger of focusing on ‘publicity’ at all. ‘Publicity’ simply means ‘getting your name in the papers’ – for whatever reason, good or bad. It differs markedly from the considerably more important discipline of strategic public relations, which is the communication framework responsible organisations should be using to develop their corporate reputations.

Reputation is vitally important for any organisation, from government department to commercial enterprise. A good reputation encourages respect and trust. It helps to drive sales, attract and retain good employees, facilitate valuable partnerships – in short, to increase the chances of meeting your objectives. Therefore, in developing a PR strategy, consider carefully your commercial objectives and the communication activities that will best support them.

A sound PR strategy should include tactics designed to build positive perceptions – as well as procedures for dealing with potentially reputation-damaging events. A skilled PR response to a crisis can be much more than mere damage limitation: it can actually enhance corporate reputation.

Without wise management and an effective PR strategy, bad publicity could become the organisation’s obituary.