Is there such a thing as bad PR?The odds are good that you’ve heard the phrase, there’s no such thing as bad PR (public relations in this case – meaning getting your name out to the public). But is this really true? I’ve been thinking about it lately and I have to say the answer is no – there is such a thing as bad PR. But (you knew there had to be a “but” there, right?) this “no” has limitations. Here’s what you need to know:

What is PR?

A brief overview before we dive into this discussion. PR, which as I said, stands for public relations means getting your name out there before the public. Ultimately, when you do SEO or internet marketing, that’s what your goal is – to get your name out there before the public so that people will notice you and buy what you have for sale.

Bad PR

Bad PR means when you get your name before the public for the wrong reasons (i.e. Anthony Weiner, the former congressman from New York got bad PR when he was exposed as being a bit of a sex pervert).
Just as an aside, my favorite example of bad PR is from a truly bizarre series of books called Mission Earth. These books were written by L. Ron Hubbard and show an extremely distorted image of earth as seen by aliens. In the series, there is a guy who tries to do PR for the alien and tries to arrange for him to be kidnapped so he can become responsible for starting World War III (on the theory that there’s no such thing as bad PR – never mind that billions of people could die). It’s funny and frightening all at the same time…anyway, back to the question at hand.

Why People Say There’s No Such Thing as Bad PR

Now, people say that there’s no such thing as bad PR because even bad PR at least gets your name before the public. It’s also easier to get bad PR because people are often interested in reading about scandals (check out newspaper headlines, especially on tabloids like the New York Post and you’ll see what I mean). The theory goes that if people are talking about you, that’s a good thing because it at least gives you a chance to get your own side out there and try to spin the story.

Why I Disagree

I disagree with this philosophy though for one simple reason: you can easily lose your shirt with bad PR. If you are running a small Internet startup company and just put out your new product, you may be hoping to make some quick sales in order to help the bottom line.
However, if a scandal breaks where your software is accused of installing malware on customer’s computers, you’ll have a tough time finding a way to spin that in a positive way. A big company could afford to bury the story and move on, but a startup may well be sunk.

The Exception

Now, as I said, I believe there is an exception to this rule. There is a case where bad PR isn’t really bad PR at all. First, your company needs to be a virtual unknown. I mean that you’ve pretty much never had a major newspaper or news channel do a story about you and so almost no one knows who you are. In this case, even bad PR can be good because it can at least get your name out there and, when you fix whatever the problem was, you’ll generally get a follow up story to mention this as well.

The Key to This Exception

However, the key here is that the bad PR has to be something spinable. For example, the above situation where you are accused of installing a virus on your client’s computers is pretty much not going to help you because people will have a tough time trusting you.
However, if the bad PR is in the category of an amusing goof (i.e. your new word processing software came with a sample page which had a personal love poem you wrote to your girlfriend in high school), then you can spin this and recover by laughing at your own mistakes and promising to include something a little bit less racy in a new release.
Or you could even embrace it and make it into a company joke which you become known for. A great of this example is Lands’ End (the catalog clothing company) – when the company was first starting up, the printers made a mistake in writing Land’s End. They didn’t have the money to correct it and so they went with it as is. Today, the company still goes by the grammatically incorrect Lands’ End and makes it part of their corporate story.

Bottom Line

The bottom line though is that in this hyper competitive age, when news spreads at light speed and the blogosphere and social networks can sink a company quickly, it’s best to stay away from bad PR if you can. If you get caught up in it though, try to laugh with your customers if you can so that you can turn it around and make it into positive PR.