How to embrace a PR disaster

A PR disaster isn’t always a bad thing. We take a look at the companies who threw caution to the wind and embraced their bad online press.

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Amongst the gems of fantastic content we come across, there are always a few less impressive pieces too…

There’s the social media guy who got carried away, the ill-thought out blog post or the poorly timed campaign initiative. And then there are my favourites, the companies who throw caution to the wind and embrace bad PR or mis-judge a campaign on purpose, the brands who can take that potentially awful fail and turn it into something great. I think this is PR at its greatest – when it turns a potential disaster into a win.

It was apparently the 19th century American showman and circus owner Phineas T Barnum who coined the phrase “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. Although when this phrase was coined there were no drug addled celebrities, no political expenses scandals and no drunk ex-employees ranting over twitter, I still think it rings true today. You just have to look at all the brands who have approached a potential PR disaster with gusto to realise that being the bad guy isn’t always such a bad thing.

Take the #susanalbumparty, created for the the launch of the new Susan Boyle album in 2012. Admittedly not for the right reasons, the hashtag was trending all over the world. And for Boyle, with a new album to promote, being noticed was all she really cared about. The team behind Susan Boyle claimed it was a genuine error – I find this unlikely – but this stroke of PR genius did what it set out to do; get a lot of attention.

Waitrose is another great example. When Waitrose asked people via Twitter to send in customer feedback using the phrase “I shop in Waitrose because….” they received a barrage of mocking for their middle class status. Answers like “’I shop at Waitrose because Clarrisa’s pony just WILL NOT eat ASDA Value straw” and “I shop at Waitrose because everyone on our estate does. Even the gamekeepers.” would have seen a lesser brand embarrassed. But Waitrose tweeted saying they enjoyed all the answers and they found the whole thing very entertaining, encouraging more entries in the same vein. Everyone loves a brand with a sense of humour. And the overall result? Waitrose enforced their brand identity of a quality, upmarket supermarket.

I also love the story of American author James Frey. His autobiographical book ‘A Million Little Pieces’ became the talk of America when Oprah Winfrey picked apart his ‘memoir’ on her show after it was claimed that large parts of the book were fabricated. Oprah took this quite personally and verbally trashed Frey anywhere she could. The whole thing turned rather scandalous and the publishers of the book were forced into offering full refunds to anyone who had purchased the book and felt they had been deceived by Frey. I purchased the book, I read it, loved it and couldn’t care less if some of the bits weren’t real. Seems I wasn’t alone, as in March 2009 less than 2,000 people had claimed refunds while the book had sold over 5 million copies worldwide. As the majority of these sales occurred around the time the controversy hit, seems like the book only benefited from the bad PR.

Depending on whether you are the target market, some things can either irritate or amuse you. Durex wandered into this territory when they decided to run a PR campaign with the hashtag #DurexJoke. They tweeted ‘Why did God give men penises? So they’d have at least one way to shut a woman up. #DurexJoke’. This went very badly for them, and no one was amused. But with all the outrage over it, Durex got quite a bit of publicity, and (please excuse my blatant sexism) as with things like the LadBible, if the target audience of men found it funny, I’m not sure that in the long run things went all that badly for the brand.

Oscar Wilde once said “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” And I truly believe in that – whether it’s in a sea of controversy or not, good brand awareness is getting your name heard and talked about. Taking risks on PR has paid off for a number of brands, and sometimes it can be bad to stick your head in the sand and wait for a potential storm to just blow over. Admittedly this won’t always be the best thing to do (situation dependent), but for the most part, giving your brand a personality, a sense of humour and an opinion can often earn the respect of your customers. And for better or worse, it will certainly get your name noticed!

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