IS ALL PUBLICITY GOOD PUBLICITY?

[guestpost]A guest article from former BBC journalist and media consultant, Ruth Peacock. Ruth has an MSc in Management Consultancy & Organisational Change. She was part of the change management team that led the BBC move from White City. Since leaving the BBC, Ruth has worked for Street Child World Cup and now runs her own media consulting company. You can get in touch with Ruth through LinkedIn.[/guestpost] Is all publicity good publicity? Donald Trump won the American presidency despite courting negative publicity over allegations of multiple sexual assaults, promising to build a wall to prevent Mexican immigration and not allowing Muslims into the country, to name but three.

Is All Publicity Good Publicity?

Whereas in the past, negative headlines such as these would sink any political career, this time they only enhanced it. Negative publicity was good publicity because the court of public opinion had undergone a seismic shift. There was a new alignment with illiberal views that had in the past been fiercely contested in a progressive society. All publicity is good publicity if it lands among people who agree.

Katie Hopkins, star of the Apprentice, who stood down from the series as she was about to go into the final after appalling fellow contestants and judges with rudeness and strident right wing views, courted bad publicity as a virtue. She made a living out of saying things at odds with conventional norms of behaviour and opinion. The Daily Mail hired her because of her stridency, making her ability to shock and offend a virtue which increased newspaper sales.

Eric Cantona had a reputation as the 'enfant terrible' of French football, sealed for throwing a ball at a referee. His aggression and skill made him famous, bringing him to the attention of Manchester United, where huge success in the game was marred by continuing bad boy behaviour, notably his kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace supporter in January 1995.  Since retiring, he has used his bad boy image and notoriety to create fame in an acting career.

Negative publicity is a problem if it offends public opinion. Rash personal moments of madness and dreadful business decisions can cause a lifetime’s reputation to be lost forever, companies to go bust and relationships to blow apart.  The damaging consequences are much worse when the mistakes are made public.

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Sometimes, bad publicity arising from a mistake can be turned round so the public understand and forgive. But recovery through apology, self-transformation and subsequent success often comes very slowly, if at all.

The publicity surrounding BP after the biggest oil spill in US history in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, led to a decline in its share price from which BP has never fully recovered. But its response has led, over time, to some recovery in its reputation.  The replacement of Tony Hayward as CEO, the funding a clean-up campaign, the setting up a compensation fund and settling in the courts has restored some faith, seen by a declining consumer boycott of BP,  the lifting of a  ban so that it can be awarded US government contracts and a slow climb back in its share price.

British Airways suffered huge embarrassment over the opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow in 2008. Bad publicity recounting the experiences of passenger delays, lost luggage and airport chaos were compounded by a failure to communicate well in the immediate aftermath. Five months later, as operations were controlled and the systems started working, BA ran an advertising campaign announcing ‘Terminal 5 is working’. Now, while the episode is not forgotten, the company’s reputation has been restored.

Sometimes bad publicity is so damaging that a reputation can never be salvaged.

Gerald Ratner’s life changed forever after he gave a speech to the Institute of Directors in 1991 describing Ratners’ jewellery products as crap. Twenty years later, he is reported as saying that it could be described as the biggest corporate blunder of all time, leading to a loss of millions of pounds, thousands of jobs and hundreds of stores.  Ratners’ died and one year later, it was renamed, rebranded and refocussed as Signet Jewellers.

The BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall, who was sent to prison in 2013 for child sex offences, is now a shell of a man, his reputation in tatters, his wealth gone and marriage broken. Redemption has not been achieved.

For all publicity to be good publicity, a company or individual has to persuade the public that their actions and words can be defended as correct.  When opinion is against an individual or business, the worst effects are mitigated through apology, openness and a resolve to behave differently in the future. Redemption.

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Questions: Do you think all publicity is good publicity? What do you think of the role of the media in providing coverage for Donald Trump during the US election?

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