Debunking PR Myths: ‘There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity’

P.T. Barnum once said, ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. Barnum, the 19th– century entrepreneur and founder of the Barnum & Bailey circus, was no stranger to controversy; even before he was known for putting on glittering shows, he was always ready to stir up the public with scandals and scams.  

Putting on the first media circus, Barnum employed several advertising techniques, including pioneering publicists who would raise awareness for shows, media tour with performers and capture outrageous publicity stunts. To whip up a media frenzy, one stunt involved swapping out oxen for an elephant to plough his six-acre garden home in Connecticut, USA. Newspapers reported glowing accounts of the stunt which in turn successfully advertised the circus.  

However, amongst his storm of PR stunts came protests and lots of bad press circulating the ill treatment and exploitative nature of Barnum’s ‘freak shows’. In 1899, Annie Jones, known as the Bearded lady, began to stir the media once more by disputing against Barnum’s derogatory circus acts.   

Barnum’s lifetime of whirlwind press lent into his American circus legacy – a legacy to then be commended over a century later in the 2017 blockbuster ‘The Greatest Showman’ starring Hugh Jackman and Zac Effron.  

This begs the question: Is all press really good press? 

The Upsides of Controversial Press 

Visibility and Awareness 

As in Barnum’s case, controversial press can undeniably boost brand visibility. With our minds being overloaded with content from oversaturated social media platforms, our attention spans have shrunk. To grab attention, stories need to have some level of shock value to be worth the read. Controversial press can most definitely deliver on this. 

Engagement and Discussion 

Controversy sparks conversation. Creating a piece of content that discusses a polarizing topic can circle attention around your brand. Opening a discussion that allows people to engage with the brand in question can then make the brand go viral. What’s more, controversial press can even spur on its loyal supporters to rally behind the brand and promote its message.  


In a crowded market, controversy can help a brand really stand out. Embracing controversy can signal boldness and a willingness to tackle difficult topics, which can attract a specific audience that values authenticity and courage. Take for example Nike’s ‘For Once, Just Don’t Do It’ campaign that followed the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. The campaign was an urgent call for consumers and companies to fight against racism. Nike’s campaign took ownership of a controversial topic, used it to spread a positive message and, as a result, was extremely well received. The campaign built the brand’s credibility so much so that many of its competitors, like Adidas, quickly followed suit.  

The Downsides of Controversial Press 

Damage to Reputation  

In one fell swoop, controversial press can tarnish your brand’s image and lead to a loss of trust among customers and stakeholders. Once your brand has gained a negative reputation, this can be very difficult to change. Take for example the dating app Thursday that hired a camel to stand outside Liverpool Street Station in London, making it wear a handwritten billboard promoting the app. The stunt has been widely condemned for animal exploitation and this is not the first time that the brand has been faulted for using deliberately controversial marketing tactics. The controversy has damaged the brand’s reputation and polarised growing consumer groups such as vegans, vegetarians, animal enthusiasts and the like.  

Financial Repercussions 

Customers may choose to distance themselves from a brand involved in controversy, especially if it contradicts their values and beliefs. This will inevitably lead to a drop in sales. What’s more, if your brand has been marked with a bad reputation, the investment needed to rebuild a positive communication with customers would take a lot of time and money.  

Mental and Emotional Impact 

Backlash can really take a toll on people’s emotional and mental health. Employees may feel demoralised or uncomfortable working for a brand that is under negative scrutiny, leading to higher turnover rates and difficulties in attracting new talent.  

Limiting Partner and Sponsorship Opportunities 

Existing partners, potential sponsors and investors will become wary and may no longer want to be associated with a brand facing negative attention.  

Debunking the Myth 

It’s without a doubt that attracting positive media attention and press coverage is vital for increasing brand awareness and credibility. Furthermore, using your brand’s social power to spark positive conversation around difficult topics that promote strong ethics is becoming increasingly valued by consumers. However, the press is a powerful tool and hoping to build brand awareness by simply sparking outrage can do irreversible damage to your brand’s reputation and financials. Likewise, not having the right infrastructure in place to prepare for a brand crisis can also generate bad press and damage your brand’s credibility. The answer is, then, there is such thing as bad publicity.   

In times of crisis, being an effective spokesperson for your brand is essential. However, being able to keep everyone informed, maintain a clear line of communication and methodology to approach a PR crisis can be difficult when in the midst of a crisis situation. A PR team can help you work through crisis far more efficiently with a goal of keeping everyone informed and mitigating risks to reputation.  

Click here to find out more about Source PR.  


Crisis PR Management & Another Lesson From KFC

No brand or business is immune to the challenges presented when a PR crisis erupts.  Equally, in today’s digital world, no company can guarantee that a PR crisis won’t happen to them, as such all companies should at least have plans in place to prepare for the unexpected.

Crises typically fall into two camps – internal crises, generated by a business decision, action or fault, or those developed externally either by a changing consumer landscape, political issue or an unforeseen issue with a product or service.

Hopefully effective business planning and preparation should mitigate a PR crisis erupting, so it must be particularly frustrating when an ‘own goal’ is scored by simply being careless and taking your eye off the ball.

This point is perfectly highlighted by the recent PR crisis to envelop KFC.  Earlier this month, KFC sent a promotional message to German customers encouraging them to celebrate Kristallnacht by having extra cheese on their tender pieces of chicken:

“It’s memorial day for Kristallnacht! Treat yourself with more tender cheese on your crispy chicken. Now at KFCheese!”

The issue is that Kristallnacht is widely seen as being the start of the holocaust when in 1938 the Nazis led a series of attacks on Jewish businesses and community that left more than 90 people dead, and widespread destruction of Jewish properties and places of worship.

Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) is remembered on the 9 November and marked with numerous memorial events and discussions to reflect the Nazis’ murder of more than six million Jewish people.

The PR issue was placed firmly at the doors of their automated push notification that sent the message directly to their customers without human intervention.  The system effectively identifies significant days in the calendar and attaches a promotion to them, before sending to customers.

Daniel Sugarman, Director of Public Affairs at the Board of Deputies of British Jews described the original KFC message as “absolutely hideous” and left KFC having to quickly apologise and re-examine their internal systems to prevent the company from having to manage future PR crises.

The company’s tried and tested crisis PR procedures quickly kicked into place but despite the rapid response, the issue had spread to online national and international news outlets.  The issue was quickly amplified via social platforms, illustrating the speed that a PR crisis can spread in today’s digital world.

This was an unnecessary and bad own goal by KFC.  Even if the business managed to convince its audiences that it was not actually in favour of celebrating Kristallnacht with extra cheese, it exposed the business at the very least as being uncaring, poorly run and single-mindedly promoting sales without due care.

We should really have expected better from KFC, particularly after they were able to turn an externally influenced issue into a master class of crisis PR management.

Back in February 2018, the company’s biggest nightmare turned into a reality when the restaurant ran out of chicken due to supplier issues. The net result was that the company was forced to shut down more than half of the stores in the UK.

How to manage a PR crisis

With a crisis PR team, plans and creative thinking in place they were able to turn the issue into a positive PR campaign – saving not only the brand’s reputation but also building relationships with customers and maintaining their trust.  How to manage a PR crisis? They simply followed the plan.

  1. To start, they apologised and made themselves accountable for the crisis.  Rather than attempt to shift blame they apologised to the customers directly via social media channels and newspapers
  2. Secondly, they kept communication open and honest. KFC was very effective at using social media to address customer questions or concerns, even using twitter to share customer Q&As
  3. Finally, by being transparent with the issue, and how they are dealing with it, KFC showed they were taking steps to bring the operations back to normal, with web links sharing information.

The company was also humble and showed gratitude towards its customers for bearing with them and apologised / thanked all the stakeholders for their patience.  Throughout the crisis PR management they kept the emotional balance right.  This involved being apologetic when things went wrong, professional when showing they had the matter under control and yet maintaining a sense of humour in their messaging.

A sense of humour when managing a PR crisis

Finally, they were consistent with their communications and ensured that the issue went to the very top with all messages on social media coming from the fictional KFC’s founder, Colonel Sanders, himself.

It’s clear that PR crises can come quickly out of the blue, from a simple slip up or from an issue that has developed gradually over time.  In today’s digital age, they can erupt more quickly than ever so it’s important to have plans in place.  KFC had a visible presence on social media prior to the crisis and made sure they used it to reach the affected parties.

If you find yourself in crisis or in a similar situation, contact Source PR as we can provide you with hands-on crisis management support or better still help you put a robust crisis management plan in place before an issue arises.