When good ideas go bad: in 2023, is all PR good PR?
Recent examples of major backlash to well-intentioned campaigns abound. Did the old dictum that ‘all PR is good PR’ die with Bud Light’s stock? We asked PR leaders from The Drum Network.
With so much backlash about, how can marketers make sure that their good ideas don't rot on the vine? / Joshua Hoehne via Unsplash
You can take your pick of recent campaigns turning sour for their well-intentioned brands. This month, we reported on the staggering $395m costs of AB InBev's Bud Light saga (a backlash that generated at least two deeper layers of backlash). And in the UK we've seen a few weeks of debate around the Mayor of London's 'Maaate' campaign, accused of trivializing violence among a raft of other complaints.
In these two examples, and most others, there's a kernel of a good idea that ended up turned back on itself and causing some damage in the process. So, what do cases like these tell us about the nature of a good idea, and how to nurture it without it turning sour? Is all PR still good PR? Over to our panel of PR pundits.
Gill Browne, sustainability & social impact practice director, Propeller Group: “All PR isn’t good PR, but not all bad PR is bad PR. The Bud Light saga was undeniably bad PR because it alienated both sides of the argument: not only did they offend the (admittedly easily offended) right-wingers of the US, but Bud Light didn’t stand by its actions or stick up for the unfairly hounded Dylan Mulvaney. This meant one audience that would have admired it from sticking to its guns was put off; while the initial pearl clutchers weren’t placated.
“However, the ‘Maaate’ saga is at least starting conversations on what the Mayor’s campaign should have done. The campaign hasn’t been created for us to admire the agency’s creative output or how much Sadiq Khan understands male violence; but to help address male violence before it begins. Clumsily handled? Maybe. But at least it’s got people talking about how men can do something to tackle violent outcomes of misogyny, as well as its continued persistence.”
Ryan Dean, head of PR & organic social, Jaywing: “At a time of Wes Anderson taking over TikTok, and Barbenheimer sweeping the globe, PRs and marketers have never had to fight harder for cut through. In the attention economy, it can be tempting (and often, necessary) to run with ideas that fly in the boardroom, or land in a pitch, but without proper scoping and interrogation, a PR campaign can just as easily damage the brand.
“How to know if a good idea could turn bad? Data. From harnessing tools such as YouGov to profile audience attitudes, or tapping into social listening and search behaviors to identify trending moments, or, like us, even investing in your own tooling to assess PR coverage relevancy, grounding creative ideas in a data-driven approach doesn’t only mitigate risk, but drives tangible performance.”
Joe Murgatroyd, partner and creative director, Brandnation: “We live in a climate of polarization. Naturally, when building a campaign around a hot-button topic, the stakes are raised. A lot of mainstream media deals in outrage and division, which drive traffic and sell newspapers. All it takes is for a dividing opinion or two on Twitter to create a news story and a resulting shitstorm. The bar for controversy has been set incredibly low. This isn’t to invalidate differing opinions; healthy debate should be encouraged.
“Shying away from the issues that matter isn’t the answer. We should always be guided by doing the right thing: rooting campaigns in science and data that provides a foundation to stand up to criticism. Bud Light will recover, and I believe history will look back favorably on the brand as a victim of its time. As for ‘Maaate’, I’m the target audience and understand the sentiment and behavioral insights behind it.
“These campaigns can’t be expected to solve deep-rooted social issues overnight, but acting on principle and moving the conversation on can only be a good thing.”
Damian Summers, head of Digital PR, Impression: “With all PR activity, there are going to be people that aren’t happy with the message, the format or the concept. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As brand custodians, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we’ve critiqued and understood inside-out the concepts we create and support.
“It comes down to understanding the brand, customer, the issues that resonate with them, and the impact your campaign will have. Good PR needs a reason, an understanding of the goal, and how this bridges a gap between a product/service and customers.
“Consumers will always identify inauthenticity, so we must ensure our output is well-thought-out and considered. If it is, standing by a concept and its message in the face of criticism shouldn’t be avoided. Take the recent Costa Coffee mural and Costa’s response to ‘backlash’: a good example of believing in an idea, its message and what it stands for. All PR can be good PR if your brand and marketing teams can support each element of a concept from its inception to release. Any criticism from there onwards can largely be met with an education piece backed by clear values and purpose.”
Jeff Bowerman, executive creative director, Dept UK: “I don’t want to comment on any specific campaign, but there’s a real challenge agencies and their clients face at the moment when it comes to high-profile work, especially work that touches on a sensitive topic. In a world where the fight for people’s attention gets harder every day, you need to make sure you stand out. It makes sense as agencies we are expected to be (and pride ourselves in being) ‘brave’ and taking creative risks.
“The best advertising, we tell each other, is born from a tension. Yet at the same time, we are not supposed to cause tensions.
“In my experience, making sure you’ve done your homework, that your intentions are authentic, and you’ve spoken to the audience (or, better, engaged them in the creation of the idea) ensures you can stand behind your campaign.”
Alice Lamstaes, head of digital PR, Search Laboratory: “There is such thing as bad PR, especially in today’s social media climate. People don’t take well to being misled or patronized, as seen with the ‘Maaate’ campaign.
“In general, from my experience, when generating PR ideas, PR teams don’t have any bad intent. We all want to get great results, to create a positive buzz or change. To make an impact, make the news and get people talking, we can’t always stick with the safest stories.
“However, what may have started as a great idea the whole team was confident about can get distorted due to a client’s opinion, the way the campaign is executed, or even a big news story. Therefore, it’s important to keep reviewing a story, making necessary changes to ensure it has the impact we want.”
Jessica Strachan, senior UI developer, Rawnet: “The saying that ‘all PR is good PR’ is up for debate. While certain forms of attention, even if unfavorable, can lead to increased visibility, it doesn’t always result in favorable outcomes. Optimistically, the ‘Maaate’ campaign could be a start to a slow but necessary change. The video has a believable setting and dialogue (I occasionally hear similar comments as a woman), but the realism stops with how uncomfortable the friends are.
“While this campaign serves as a demonstration of promising concepts that may have taken an unfortunate turn, it also signifies a step toward progress, requiring careful navigation. Hopefully, the campaign’s good intention is appreciated, but the unexplored potential means it failed in what it set out to achieve. It missed the mark.”
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James Croft, brand strategy director, Jellyfish: “While hindsight is a wonderful thing, it’s hard to predict real-world reception with ideas that bridge social topics. It's common to be enamored by a seemingly brilliant idea, especially when colleagues support it, reinforcing our belief in its greatness. But in this process we shouldn’t overestimate what we think we know about our audience.
“These examples highlight the challenge of going from ideas-on-paper to ideas-in-the-wild. Sanity checking ideas in this process with the desired audience might avoid a clanger - but this isn’t always practical (or reliable).
“Seeking broader perspective on ideas beyond those involved in the process can add much-needed fresh eyes (and reality check) that can be often overlooked when we're deeply invested in an idea. The backlash to these campaigns highlights that challenging and stress-testing ideas is paramount when social topics are involved.”
Robyn Gravestock, digital PR associate director, Builtvisible: “The saying ‘any PR is good PR’ is an outdated excuse for brands to be lazy. It’s a complacent mindset allowing for ideas to be short-minded, with vanity metrics as a goal rather than thinking about why you’re doing something, for what purpose, and who you’re trying to reach.
“Brands might be forgiven eventually, but what’s the point? News has never spread like it does today, and in the blink of an eye a bad PR story can turn into a genuine movement away from a brand (think the Grind and Laurence Fox feud).
“It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of an idea. But for an idea to be good in practice, it needs a level of data and due diligence to qualify it for use in the real world. The brands that invest in insights (and the ability to use them) will pull ahead.”
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