One of the great communication myths unravelled


PT Barnum

PT Barnum: A huckster and ruthless self publicist

Three American academics recently completed an interesting study into the effects of negative publicity, effectively testing the adage that: “There is no such thing as bad publicity.”


The trio, who represent such august institutions as The Wharton School and Stanford Graduate School of Business, suggest that ‘because negative publicity can increase product awareness and accessibility, it can sometimes have a positive influence on product choice sales.’


At first glance, these ‘findings’ seem to be counterintuitive, but they would have come as no surprise to the man who is widely credited as the author of the adage, Phineas T Barnum (1810-1891), the 19th century American showman and circus owner.


Barnum was a huckster and ruthless self publicist who gave to the world the words ‘jumbo’, derived from his Jumbo the Elephant, and ‘Siamese twins’, again derived from an ‘act’, and the performing midget General Tom Thumb.


Taste aside, he was not averse to keeping stories about himself boiling by writing to the papers under different pen names, claiming that he (Barnum) was a fraud! It fed takings of $1,500 a week in New York – so literally for him there was no such thing as bad publicity.


Barnum is an extreme but even today there are companies who are content to court bad publicity – if it fits their brand. Take Ryanair for example. The myriad stories about a lack of customer service only serves to re-enforce their cheap, no-frills brand in the minds of their price-conscious consumers.


This goes some way to explaining why Ryanair came out as a lone voice in the wake of the ash cloud debacle claiming they weren’t going to pay their customers a penny in compensation to cover hotel and meals as a result of flights being grounded because some “had only paid £1 for their flights.”


Within 24 hours Michael O’Leary’s company was brought to heel by the aviation authorities and eventually forced to pay out, but by then the message had been delivered – Ryanair is a no-frills airline where you can get flights for just £1.


So if the cap fits, you should wear it. But for the majority companies who want – indeed need – to maintain a positive image in the eyes of their stakeholders, bad publicity is a reputational issue.


Visibility is important for reputation building, but it is a two-edged sword. Studies have shown there is a tipping point. Companies with more than 50 per cent negative visibility – i.e. more than half the coverage of them is bad – score substantially lower for their reputations.


Negative visibility can also prove to be incredibly sticky and it takes a long time or a very expensive rebrand for organisations to lose the pong of something smelly in the outhouse once the stench starts has stuck to the corporate HQ.


This much was not lost on the Irish author and dramatist Brendan Behan (1923-1964), who adapted Barnum’s adage to read: “There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.”


Behan notoriously described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem” and among his other famous sayings was: “The big difference between sex for money and sex for free is that sex for money usually costs a lot less.”


Like Barnum, outlandish publicity only served to enhance Behan’s bad boy image, but at least he recognised that there are finite limitations. The same is true of the study by the three Americans.


Their suggestion that “Negative Publicity: when negative is positive,” only relates to cultural items – movies, music albums or books (what marketers refer to as low involvement products) – and often when they are only “related” to the bad publicity. One example cited is a correlation between the volume of negative publicity about Michael Jackson, and sales of his albums on Amazon. There is a disconnect here – you don’t have to favour Jackson’s morals, whatever they were, to like his music.


Those responsible for looking after corporate reputations would be wise to read the study, politely note its academic references and swiftly move on, keeping at the forefront of their minds the story of Sanlu, as noted by The Economist, the Chinese company that was revealed to be peddling poisonous milk. It is now bankrupt and its top executives are in jail.


Posted by Crispin Slee, Stick of Rock

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