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.  

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