That famous saying that all publicity is good publicity has been echoed by many, but is this really the case? Some truth to this can be seen in recent hacking scandals and media smear campaigns that have taught the likes of Ashley Madison, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn that bad press can yield a positive result, such as increased membership or winning a leadership race. But, on the other side of the coin, it’s not always the case – unfavourable publicity can have long lasting negative impacts on sales: BP and Toyota will tell you that for free.

Take my initial example: the much-discussed Ashley Madison hacking. ‘Hacktivists’ revealed personal information of members, which included full names, addresses, passwords, email addresses and even credit card information. Many would assume this incident – exposing millions after they were guaranteed protection – might steer prospects away from signing up. On the contrary: hundreds of thousands of new users signed up following the data breach. This is likely due to the extensive press coverage it received from broadcast and national media, making many aware of the site’s existence.

Or look at the U.S. presidential elections, or the so-called Donald Trump show, where other candidates have not had a look-in. What began as a seemingly laughable entry from the boisterous business tycoon has in fact taken the elections by storm, regardless of Trump’s scandalous past. His controversial, sexist and racist remarks have been criticised by the masses, and he displays inconsistent opinions of issues such as gun laws, migration and abortion. Yet, despite his outspoken remarks, a vibrant media conversation has grown around whether Trump could be a legitimate president.

There are some parallels between Trump and Corbyn: both outspoken, controversial and not the seemingly obvious choice for a political leader. Like Trump, Corbyn has received a lot of bad press, with reports of him being friendly with terrorist groups, criticism of his lack of involvement in a paedophilia incident as Islington MP and David Cameron calling him a “threat to national security”. It has only bolstered his appeal, and has got more people talking about politics and voting.

But it’s not all just anecdotal evidence of adultery, or the political soap-opera – there’s academic interest in the question of bad publicity too. Economics Professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, Alan Sorensen, studied the impact of negative and positive book reviews in The New York Times; he suggested that even when reviews were negative, previously unknown authors saw a one-third bump in sales. His findings could also be applied to all small businesses trying to raise their profile, as negative opinions fade faster in consumers’ minds than their overall awareness of a product. But he suggests that this is only beneficial for smaller enterprises – for big brands, bad news will not help business sales, it will do the opposite. He found positive reviews for well-known authors’ sales boosted by 42 per cent whilst negative reviews caused sales to plummet by 15 per cent. Case in point: the lasting damage the 2010 Deepwater oil spill had on BP which is still trying to recover its tarnished reputation. So for smaller brands any publicity may indeed mean good publicity, but for larger well-known brands, we’ve seen that bad news tends to linger longer in consumers’ memories.

Publicity, negative or positive, indeed raises the profile and awareness of a brand or individual. Does this mean we should advise our clients to make outrageous statements to make headlines? Maybe not. It’s a dangerous game to play and the potential fall-out from failure probably outweighs the fruits of success, but it’s an interesting question to consider and gives companies another way to look at their crises. Sometimes, just sometimes, there is opportunity in adversity. 

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