Is any PR good PR?

It seems the Hollywood adage 'any PR is good PR' is better left to the William Hungs and Paris Hiltons of the world. But when the publicity is bad any way you slice it, is there ever a way to turn a bad situation into a good one?

It seems the Hollywood adage ‘any PR is good PR’ is better left to the William Hungs and Paris Hiltons of the world. But when the publicity is bad any way you slice it, is there ever a way to turn a bad situation into a good one?

To date, the king remains Johnson & Johnson with its Tylenol brand pain reliever.

Faced with a monumental crisis in 1986 when third-party tampering with Tylenol packages resulted in the death of seven people, Johnson & Johnson responded quickly and emerged with an even better corporate image.

‘It’s hard to think of an example that’s as successful as Tylenol,’ says Bruce MacLellan, president of Environics. ‘Part of [the reason is] that some of the best-handled crises we never hear about. A really well handled crisis sometimes just means that it never made the news and it was contained.’

Still, he says, when faced with a crisis situation ‘it comes back to acting quickly, showing concern and exceeding expectations. Those are the key principles. Especially if you’re looking at how to turn it into an opportunity.’

Nike too has experienced surges in bad publicity, but unlike Johnson & Johnson, it has met with less success turning them into good news. For example, a couple of years ago, news of poor working conditions in its Asian factories threatened the Just Do It juggernaut. Part of the PR response: A 12-minute video showing workers in the factories. Nike was getting PR impressions all right. But the critics lunged.

‘Nike has been desperately trying to free itself from being the poster child for sweatshops,’ said Medea Williams, executive director of Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based labour rights group. ‘Instead of putting resources into workers’ salaries and independent monitoring, they put them into a PR scam.’

But given the severity of the issue, Nike had no choice but to respond, says Philip Koven, VP of investor relations at Toronto-based National Public Relations.

‘Nike was headed in the right direction. They wanted people to understand exactly what the situation was, but the problem they ran into was trying to convince people through video that everything was great. You can never convince everybody. Stating your case in some appropriate way was the right thing to do.’

And then there’s the highly competitive video game industry, where gamers are called ‘evangelists’ and word-of-mouth spreads news online like wildfire. In that kind of atmosphere, ‘negative PR can be deadly,’ says Stephen Smith, director of marketing communications for Markham, Ont.-based ATI Technologies.

A 3-D graphics company, ATI faced a stiff PR challenge last fall when hackers stole the source code for Valve Software’s highly anticipated PC game Half-Life 2, with which ATI’s next generation video card was going to be bundled for free.

ATI had gone ahead and made a big PR announcement to trumpet the partnership with Valve and publisher Sierra, a division of Vivendi Universal.

But as a result of the theft, the game was delayed, leaving many hardcore gamers extremely unhappy and unsure about what would happen with the offer for a free video card – especially since an entirely new video card would be on the market by the time the game actually shipped.

‘I wouldn’t categorize [the delay] as something that had a negative PR impact,’ says Smith, although he concedes ‘[there was] some initial complaining and spamming on the [online] newsgroups.’

To turn a negative into a positive, ATI used its in-house PR team and Toronto-based PR agency Porter Novelli International to create a fulfillment program and win back disgruntled consumers. It offered customers who pre-ordered the original package six games for free until the release of Half-Life 2.

‘We addressed it with the [gaming] community in partnership with Valve,’ he says. ‘It did come up as an issue, but we put together a communications plan to address it. And since the initial reaction to it, it hasn’t been that big of a deal.’

Strategy asked three industry professionals if there’s any truth to the song and dance that any news is good news.

Bruce MacLellan, president, Environics

The point I always make to clients is that the word ‘crisis’ in the Chinese language is made up of two characters: one of the characters means ‘problem’ and the other means ‘opportunity.’ So a crisis can be an opportunity if it’s handled well. And the granddaddy example is Tylenol.

The lesson from [Tylenol] is that if you are responsible and caring for your customers, you can actually overcome the problem by demonstrating your ethics and your integrity and come out of it with a better image. Johnson & Johnson really demonstrated that customer care was more important than profit.

They took a huge financial hit by recalling all of the products and destroying them. They communicated what they were doing well. They ran full-page ads to say, ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’ They introduced the tamper-proof packaging quickly and then gave everyone a coupon to buy it at almost next to no cost.

[Their response] contributed to Johnson & Johnson having one of the best corporate images in the world for decades since then.

Linda Smith, executive VP, senior partner and regional director, Fleishman-Hillard Canada

In the realm of corporate reputation, people care about companies. They care whether they are ethical, and they care to some extent about the leadership, the management and their fiscal responsibility. We’ve seen lots of scandals where all of those have brought companies down.

Depending on the extent [of the crisis, a company can bounce back]. If you’re an Enron, not necessarily. But if it’s an error where someone takes responsibility then it’s, ‘Here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we believe in.’

It’s true that when you make a positive initiative it has to be big or it has to be frequent. Or it has to have some element of believability and credibility. In our business, we talk a lot about credibility. And sometimes it’s a prolonged campaign, which should be done in good times as well, so that you are perceived as a good corporate citizen. Companies should be constantly measuring their corporate reputations.

Lars Hansen, VP, technology communications, National PR

[It's not about] the volume of opportunity to communicate. You have to determine how much you react to something and to what purpose. Unless you have something substantial or meaningful to deliver, you have to be careful about why you’d get into that conversation in the first place.

Communications cannot change the reality of a specific action or activity that took place. What it can do is have people better understand things – maybe understand where you were in regards to that situation and what you intend to do coming out of it. Forward-looking action is very important.

If you bounce around and react to everything without thinking about where your company wants to be in five to 10 years, it may have debilitating costs for you later.