Is bad PR still good PR?

Terry van Rhyn from Ashgrove Marketing discusses the theory that bad publicity can still be good publicity for brands under fire

The age-old adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” has long been touted as a mantra for brands facing negative media coverage.

This notion suggests that any form of publicity, even if it casts a negative light on a brand, can still have positive effects on its reputation and business by raising awareness of the brand and getting it talked about.

However, in today’s hyper-connected and socially conscious world, that theory does not really stand up. The reality is that negative publicity can have detrimental effects on a brand’s reputation, customer trust, and financial stability.

There are a few instances where brands have successfully navigated through negative publicity, but these cases are the exception rather than the rule. Those of us of a certain age need only remember Gerald Ratner who sank a successful jewellery business with some injudicious comments on the quality of its products.

Open any newspaper or watch any news programme on TV and you can also witness with regular monotony how politicians and business leaders cause their careers or lives to implode for a multitude of reasons. Very few survive negative exposure as the media uncovers all the dark nasty secrets and then the keyboard warriors on various social media channels drive home the final nail. (We have had some very high profile examples of this in recent weeks although somehow some of the more political cases appear to be rather Teflon-coated.)

In today’s digital environment, consumers are inundated with a constant stream of information, and their opinions can be shaped by a single viral story or a widespread controversy. Brands that find themselves embroiled in negative publicity risk severe damage to their reputation and consumer trust, which can lead to declining sales, loss of customers, and even long-term financial repercussions.

Even in a cost of living crisis, ethical controversies catch consumer attention and can erode trust in a brand and lead to a loss of consumer loyalty. The Volkswagen emissions scandal was a prime example of negative impact on a brand. The revelation that Volkswagen had intentionally manipulated emissions tests shattered the trust of millions of customers worldwide and there will always be a question mark in some people’s minds about what they claim in future.

Uber also had a tumultuous period of negative publicity, including allegations of a toxic work culture and harassment, which not only damaged its reputation but also hindered employee morale and recruitment. The Uber model was disruptive and transformative in many ways but some of its actions, including the move by the brand in the UK to appeal a court ruling that classed drivers as employees rather than self-employed and therefore entitled to the minimum wage, also left it tainted.

Once trust is broken, it becomes challenging for a brand to regain its former reputation, and consumers may turn to competitors who align more closely with their values and expectations. I guess the trick here will be how a brand or individual reacts – and to be honest in acknowledging what went wrong and in setting out in a transparent manner how the issue will be addressed.

Aside from the potential brand damage externally bad publicity can also have serious internal implications for businesses. Negative media coverage can demoralise employees, leaving them uncertain about their job security and the future of the company. This, in turn, can lead to decreased productivity, increased turnover rates, and difficulty in attracting top talent.

While it is true that certain brands have managed to bounce back from negative publicity, they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Rebuilding a tarnished reputation can be an expensive and time-consuming process, often requiring substantial investment in marketing, public relations, and image rehabilitation campaigns. Moreover, the long-term financial implications of bad publicity can extend beyond immediate costs, as it can take years for a brand to regain the market share and consumer trust it once enjoyed.

I believe that in today’s marketplace, where consumers value authenticity, transparency, and social responsibility, brands must prioritise ethical practices and proactive crisis management to mitigate the impact of negative publicity.

Instead of relying on the misconception that any attention is beneficial, brands should strive to cultivate positive associations and maintain a strong reputation, recognizing that the potential risks of bad publicity far outweigh the potential rewards.

Of course, there is always the risk that something goes wrong, even with the best of planning. At Ashgrove, we always encourage our clients to create practical crisis management guidelines to avoid panicked knee-jerk responses when faced with a potential PR disaster.

Going through this exercise will also help identify potential weaknesses and allow you to think about what your response should be in various different scenarios.

I’m a strong believer in how you respond in a crisis is what matters most. But also to do everything you can to avoid the crisis in the first place!