Publicity at any cost – Good or Bad?

bad-publicityHow often have we heard the statement, “Any publicity is good publicity”? Our guess is – a good number of times! Brands, big or small, know the power of this statement and at some point of time or the other have tried to take advantage of a bad publicity or bad press. Though it is not exactly something experts would advice, brands and individuals on more than one occasion have benefitted out of a negative publicity.

But, bad publicity is not good for everyone. If a brand is relatively unknown then, it can benefit from the exposure. On the other hand, the image of a bigger brand might get hurt with bad publicity. For example, a theme park in California, USA. The 2013 documentary Blackfish, that won an Academy Award for its depiction of what many believe is animal cruelty, affected the operations of the park. The park’s revenue went down, as the number of visitors had dropped significantly. Laws were proposed in California that would make it illegal for the company to conduct some of its operations. It paid a huge price following the allegations made in the documentary.

On the other hand, a study found that sales of popular singer and entertainer records rose during periods when the singer was in the news for child molestation or dangling his baby over a balcony. So how do we know who gains from a bad press?

On negative publicity, a study by three professors from Wharton and Stanford stated, “A crucial factor is how familiar a brand or product was before the negative publicity. Crunching data that cross-matched book sales against critics’ appraisals, they found that negative reviews of a new book by an established author hurt sales.”

An Indian real estate company, which has been in the news lately due to the controversy that its co-founder and ex CEO, had stirred, might have gained quite a bit. Though the company was launched in 2012, it was only early March 2015 that its nation-wide brand launch took place after its third round of funding and people started “looking up” to the brand. The brand revealed its new logo, colours, brand philosophy and tagline. The launch was also advertised in national newspapers with big hoardings put up in several cities across India with notable posts on the company’s social media pages. This got everyone talking about the brand even giving sleepless night to its competitors.

The company was growing too fast too soon and this was perhaps what made its CEO, a wee bit arrogant as he started displaying his callous attitude. The company became a talking point on several occasions thanks to his actions:

  • Public spat with other industry leaders, where he accused the leader of poaching staff from the real estate portal
  • Tiff with a leading media house where he said, “Who needs a girlfriend when you have the Times group.”
  • The famous spats with the CEO of an online restaurant search and the CEO of a well known cab service, which caused much buzz on the Internet. After his public firing, one of the CEOs even tweeted that it felt like reality entertainment show Bigg Boss season had just ended
  • Resigned from the brand after sending on to the board where he mentioned, “investors were intellectually incapable and not worthy of his time”
  • Gave off 200 crore worth of his shares to the employees of the company
  • Took a pot shot at a software giant’s CEO by posting a picture of him sleeping at an airport lounge

But the bad publicity that he received from the controversies that he created for himself over a period of time did not work for him. Instead, it looked like he dug a pit deep enough for himself to fall as he got fired by the same board that he had referred to as ‘incapable’. He lost the control over his own company, the company that he had worked hard for and co-founded with 11 other people. He became a butt of jokes, especially on the social networking sites and was even trending on Twitter the day he got fired. He is now referred to as the ‘bad boy of Indian startups’.

While it worked in a negative way for the ex CEO, the brand seems to have benefitted from it quite well. Every time he posts something on his face book page or makes a statement, people directly associate it with the brand that in turn gained mileage whether offline or online. Meanwhile, there bound to be some repercussions of this exit internally. He was after all the founder of the company and his firing left the employees in a lurch with reports in the media stating that investors were keen to sell the startup as other companies were keen on buying it. Employees have been worried about their job security and his shares would be distributed to them that they put across to the board.

Interestingly, the brand lost about 15% of its top employees since news of his likely departure was first reported in March. After his exit, the senior executives and investors of the company met and assured the employees that the three-year-old startup can still become a billion-dollar company. As per reports, many companies are interested in buying the brand. The biggest investor of the company was heard saying, “Innovation, product and design are the key strengths of the brand and if we stick to it then we don’t need to worry about competition.”

What most people feel is that the startup though has gained from the entire controversy will play safe now instead of getting innovative.

So how does a brand or an individual handle a bad press? Here are some pointers:

  • Leave the Internet alone. What is posted on the Internet remains there for eternity. Half of the problems come from ranting on the Internet or the emails.
  • Keep a publicity plan in place. Foresee problems and have forecasts of any future problems and accordingly have a contingency plan in place to deal with it
  • Learn from other’s mistakes. The above example should be a lesson for all startups to make a note of the things to avoid
  • Don’t stay silent. Keep people informed, especially your employees as to what is going on with the company
  • Appoint a spokesperson. This person should be someone who can calmly answer any questions related to the company
  • Your first contact with the outside world is your website, so make sure that the website is updated with the current going ons and carries a statement
  • Issue a press statement. Whenever there is a controversy, make sure that you take the initiative to send out a press note first
  • If you don’t have a PR team in place, consider hiring a PR firm that will do the crisis management for you and your brand
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