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MythBusters: PR Edition

Posted: April 13, 2015, 2:23 p.m.
by Esther Workman.

In January 1915, the Atlanta Constitution printed, “All publicity is good if it is intelligent.” In the last 30 years, that phrase has evolved into the well-known PR cliché that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

This idea existed in the early 20th century when national broadcasting consisted of three outlets and getting your company’s name out to the masses, no matter the context, was worth the exposure.

Rick Looser, president and COO of the Cirlot Agency, argues that times have changed and brands must be aware of what is said about them.

“That quote has outlived its usefulness,” Looser said. “In today’s media, unless your name is Kim Kardashian, that quote doesn’t hold water.”

15622173112_814598058c_zRegardless of her past risqué activity, divorce from Kris Humphries after 72 days, and overall scandalous reality television lifestyle — qualities that were once considered unforgivable in the eyes of the public — Kim Kardashian’s brand continues to grow in popularity.

In Forbes 2014 Celebrity 100, the queen of famous-for-being-famous, Kardashian, ranked 80th with a $28 million net worth. However, Kim Kardashian is the exception, not the rule.

Social and digital media have now turned everyone into a critic. According to The New York Times, people are likely to remember negative experiences more strongly and in more detail.

For example, when multiple rape allegations were made against Bill Cosby, it didn’t take long before public admiration for him turned to anger. A man who built his entire career on promoting family values and old-fashioned ideals is now the face of manipulation and disrespect toward women.

“When news comes out that is so diametrically opposed to a lifetime of what his brand stood for, there is hardly any way to salvage that,” Looser said. “This is the worst accusation his personal brand could have endured.”

15818694855_cc60c14472_zThe accusations against “America’s Dad” include 16 sexual assault victims and multiple mistresses throughout his 30-year career. After a public bashing by comedian Hannibal Buress, a victim’s personal account published in the Washington Post, and an awkward NPR interview, it is impossible to see how this news is doing any good for Cosby’s career.

If that situation isn’t convincing enough, think back to the infamous 2009 Toyota recall when the automotive company called back more than eight million vehicles, many of which were pulled because of faulty accelerator pedals and braking systems.

The recall itself isn’t what brought about bad karma for Toyota. Brandon Wilson, president and CEO of Lewis & Company Inc., believes that Toyota’s handling of the recall is what drew the eye of the media.

“Toyota is a sound case of the impact that responding slowly and non-comprehensively can have on brand reputation and public confidence,” Wilson said. “Toyota responded 19 deaths too late, and did so with a lecture about how [you] should use your floor mats to remain safe.”

The following year, Toyota watched as its competitors made monumental gains. The New York Times reported that the company offered extra incentives, such as zero-interest financing for five years and low lease rates to attract new customers, but Toyota’s sales fell below 100,000 units for the first time in a decade.

Toyota has since changed its motto from “I Love What You Do For Me, Toyota” to the current “Moving Forward,” in an attempt to rebuild consumer loyalty and re-establish itself as the gold standard for quality.

There IS such a thing as bad publicity.

5020370697_c699fcf846_mHowever, it affects brands in many different ways. Some can shrug it off and continue business as usual with little consequence, while others stumble and fall. When dealing with this type of situation, it is important to be proactive rather than reactive. Brands must take responsibility for the mistake and work to correct it.

“Regardless if a brand is held by an individual or corporation, communicating with transparency is the first step toward managing a brand in a crisis,” Wilson said. “People are generally forgiving and understand that mistakes happen.”

Time is the healer of all wounds.


  1. Post comment

    Interesting article. Great relevant example with Bill Cosby–couldn’t agree more that one piece of negative publicity (whether it be false or not) can really damage your public image. Another reason to “communicate with transparency” and hope people understand!


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