Is There Really No Such Thing As Bad Publicity?

There’s no such thing as bad publicity. (Right?) How often have you heard that? This adage gets tossed about cavalierly but if you take a step back and think about it — especially in today’s digitally driven zeitgeist — it’s really not true. Not even a little bit.

If you look at a brief history of media, it’s easier to understand where this saying came from. Back then there were a fraction of the media outlets that there are today. National broadcasting was comprised of three channels. There was a scarcity in where you could go to get your news and information. On the off chance your brand got mentioned, this was an amazing thing for the simple fact that, unless you were a household name — a big brand of the era — it was statistically unlikely.

It wasn’t “bad publicity” because, provided you weren’t involved in war crimes or domestic scandals, the value of the brand awareness alone had you coming out ahead. Especially for small and medium-sized businesses. Maybe you stumbled a bit but you made the news and more people were talking about you! Go get a copy of the evening edition!

The Mention Isn’t the Metric

Fast forward to today. We have a few more choices than three. Just a few. The number of entities now classified as media and/or publishers is too vast to count thanks to the Internet. On top of that, because of accessible tools like blogging and podcasts, brands themselves have become publishers and media platforms in their own right (at least the smart ones have).

This dynamic has fundamentally changed the statement that, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” or its close relative, “All press is good press.” Given this firehose of information and the fact that, as reported by Google’s Eric Schmidt, every two days we create as much information as we did from the beginning of time up until 2003, anyone can get mentioned online today.

However, today, the mention alone isn’t the metric. It’s not just the content that’s king, it’s the context. The sentiment. Ask any airline or another customer-service heavy industry and they’ll tell you that they aren’t measuring their success on brand mentions alone. It’s all about the sentiment. Are a majority of our mentions positive or negative?

Case in Point

For a better understanding, let’s take a look at a recent and somewhat local example: the Ames, Iowa tourism video that took the Internet by storm for a couple of days with a fun song sporting some unique lyrics and production choices. (NOTE: I would have embedded the video here but they’ve since removed it from YouTube.) My problem with the video isn’t founded on municipal supremacy (I live in the Corridor) or school pride (Go Hawks!). It’s not a commentary on the style of the video or poking fun.

My problem with the video is strategic, which brings me back to the mistaken idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Sure, they made a “viral video” — a thousand marketers just cringed as I used that phrase — and got exposure on Gawker, Mashable, and Entertainment Weekly but did it do what it was supposed to do? Most coverage laughed at the video instead of with it.

More importantly, assuming the objective of the video is to encourage more people to visit or relocate to Ames, is laughing at a city ranked by CNN as one of the best places to live and home to a leading agriculture, engineering, and veterinary school really the best strategy to employ?

Getting coverage isn’t enough anymore. And it’s certainly not always “good publicity.” As marketers, it’s our job to understand the destination we’re hoping to reach with our marketing in order to determine the best route — and the most effective use of media — to get us there.

Photo via Flickr user Daniel Novta