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The Art of Bad Publicity

Is there a silver lining in today’s bad publicity?

It’s been widely reported that President Trump masqueraded as his own publicist in the 1970s, 80s and 90s in order to boast about his life. The president is the self-proclaimed master of “The Art of the Deal,” but does he also own the art of bad publicity?  And does his election victory in the face of campaign implosions, leaked scandals and myriad other crises support the old adage that there is no such thing as it?  

PR missteps, even crises, happen from time to time. The online world we live in means everything is amplified and “going viral” can happen in an instant. Seventy-two percent of customers trust online opinions as much as they trust their family and friends, according to Forrester Research. This means publicity, good or bad, is highly influential in a world where we’re constantly sharing and consuming information online.  Recent cases of messaging gone wrong have included Pepsi, Uber and United. While some of these brands have suffered serious damage, the question remains: is there a silver lining in any of this bad publicity?

Let’s take Pepsi’s widely mocked ad featuring Kendall Jenner, sister to Kim (Khloe, Kourtney…you know who we’re talking about). Yes, the food and beverage corporation issued an apology after the criticism, but it’s estimated that Pepsi got somewhere between $300 million and $400 million in free media coverage out of the controversy. To put that into perspective, then-candidate Trump earned $400 million worth of free media in February 2016 while campaigning, which is close to what Sen. John McCain spent on his ENTIRE 2008 presidential campaign. Additionally, Pepsi’s mentions on social media were up more than 7,000 percent the day the ad debuted, according to Brandwatch. In one day, Pepsi garnered 1.25 million mentions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Only just over half of those mentions were negative, means that just under half of that explosion of conversation was positive or neutral.  And that negativity might not have been as painful as you would expect. Analytics experts actually say that negative mentions are given somewhat less weight than positive or neutral mentions.  Whether intended or not, Pepsi got the whole world talking about them.

Moving to the airline industry, we recently touched on United’s woes (its stock price and reputation plummeted), but that calls to mind another carrier case. US Airlines once replied to a customer complaint tweeted at them with a pornographic image. The tweet stayed on the company’s profile for a full 60 minutes before it was removed, but not before it’d received 476 retweets. Here’s the thing: After the damage had been done, US Airlines actually gained 14,000 followers as result of the Twitter attention.

Lastly, it’s been an outright battle on the roadways between Uber and Lyft, as the rideshare giants compete to dominate the streets. Uber was plagued by scandal early in 2017, including the popular #DeleteUber hashtag campaign. Lyft, whose value is approximately 10 times smaller than Uber’s, has worked to capitalize on the good feelings surrounding their platform, announcing an opt-in app feature that allows riders to automatically route rounded-up ride charges to charity. But for all of Uber’s troubles, the question of whether the company has been hurt by all the negative publicity remains to be seen. Uber announced recently that their ridership numbers in the first 10 weeks of 2017 eclipsed those of early 2016, and an eventual public offering may be looming, as has been predicted.  

In describing publicity in “The Art of the Deal,” President Trump had this to say, “Good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells.” So is any publicity good publicity? From a PR perspective, the battle to stand out from the crowd is fiercer than ever before. But where’s the line between good PR and bad? It’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.

We want to hear from you! What’s your take on the line between good PR and bad? Tweet us @HighwirePR.