Negative PR: why not all publicity is good publicity - [with examples]

In an era in which first impressions strongly influence the potentiality of decisions, PR builds the stages on which companies and organizations perform. While positive PR can secure a head start and attract clients as well as investors, negative PR can destroy the company’s reputation and cause considerable financial damage. Negative public relations should be considered and addressed in order to be avoided. This guide provides crucial information about bad PR - supported by examples, definitions, and solutions.

published: February 14, 2023
updated: April 10, 2023

What is negative PR (or bad PR)?

As a communication process that functions as a bridge between companies and their target clients, public relations maintain the reputation of the organizations.

Negative public relations represent ineffective campaigns and strategies, which indicates a lack of competence, detailed research, and in-depth planning.

Unprofessional and casually structured PR provides negative outcomes for the company. Negative public relations result in client decrease and financial losses. Additionally, negative PR leaves harmful and sometimes permanent traces on the company’s name. Most importantly - bad PR can demolish months or, in some instances, years of PR work and successes.

PR relies on well-prepared strategies with reasoning and targeted goals for each release.

Negative PR leads in the opposite direction and eventually results in incoherence within the representation of the brand image.

Consequently, people lose trust in the company and may proceed with one of its competitors.

Low-quality press releases are an example of negative PR that people can effortlessly detect. The low-quality degree of the written piece is frequently expressed through vaguely developed topics, exaggerations, generalizations, and a lack of reliable facts. Similar PR gaps and mistakes can have financially harmful consequences difficult to overcome.

Unfortunately, there is a commonly shared understanding, mainly within start-ups and inexperienced companies, that negative public relations are more beneficial than no public relations at all. There is no such thing as positive negative PR. However, a lack of PR is significantly easier to change and fix than negative PR. 

A single unsuccessful and harmful press release can ruin a company’s reputation, causing client losses and destroying every path toward image recovery.

What is the difference between positive and negative PR?

Positive PR requires comprehensive research and knowledge of the brand identity, the products or services offered by the company, and the targeted client.

Further, an in-depth understanding of the organization’s history and progress is required, together with an awareness of the market specificities. When this competency is accomplished, a systematized press release should be considered. Good PR excludes any chaotic decisions or poor news releases. On the contrary, it secures that the right message is spread in an accessible and relatable way to the target audience. Consequentially, positive PR results in an increase in the number of clients.

Negative PR is the antonym of positive PR and includes organizational chaos, an on-surface level of research, and inconsistency in brand representation.

Bad PR can result from the incompetence of the PR company, chaotic campaign decisions, or simply a release of misleading or potentially harmful information. Negative PR can always be easily noticed by those competent in the field. Unfortunately, it can be easily detected through a decline in engagement rates, client quantity, and profits. And within weeks, days, and even hours.

The solution: a good PR agency

Positive public relations can be executed with a good PR agency with experience, in-depth knowledge, and highly developed organizational and research proficiencies.

A good PR agency researches market trends, explores potentially beneficial upcoming events, and is constantly brainstorming new opportunities.

Additionally, with a good PR agency, you should not be concerned about a potential PR crisis because the agency already has a prevention plan. A good PR agency can detect at a very early stage a potentially harmful event to the company and eliminate it. Further, a good PR agency is aware of the risks within the particular market and how to avoid them.

As outlined above, good PR agencies plan in advance, which, together with their experience, enables them to handle even unexpected situations. A good PR agency follows the progress of its clients’ development and constantly surveils for disruptions to their reputations. Through a regular inspection of online reviews on different platforms, a good PR company keeps track of even the slightest changes. When negative publicity is detected, an experienced PR agency provides an immediate response, reducing the potential damages or eliminating them entirely.

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Negative PR and crisis communication

Crisis management in PR refers to an in-advance-prepared communication plan to respond to a threat to the company's reputation.

Crisis communication is part of crisis management. However, it is focused on collecting and disseminating crisis-related information.

As outlined above, a good PR agency is constantly prepared for unexpected threats to its clients. The crisis can occur in any of the company’s branches and can expand to a direct negative influence on the whole company. Therefore, in-depth coverage of each view angle is required so that the company can respond to each potential threat.

With the ubiquity of social media platforms, a potential threat can emerge from everywhere. In a constantly changing business environment and world, absolute stability and security are difficult to be accomplished. Hence, crisis management aims to establish control when a chaotic situation emerges. By responding to the different perceptions of the issue, crisis communication minimizes reputational and financial damages.

How to handle negative PR properly?

There is no vaccine against negative PR, and every company can encounter negative publicity at a particular stage of its development. However, several things can prevent a crisis from expanding, and each company should be aware of them.

Awareness of negative PR

Firstly, the company should be familiar with the most common potential causes of negative PR.

And even though, depending on the field, the different factors that can provoke a crisis are diverse, there are cornerstone ones that can be encountered frequently. Acknowledging them can rapidly prevent escalation.

One of the most common examples of bad PR is poor-quality press coverage on different news mediums. And while this is usually a direct consequence of bad PR practices, it can emerge unexpectedly and sometimes without a direct cause. Negative reviews, unfriendly feedback, and complaints are issues that are, in particular cases, impossible to predict. However, being aware of their potential emergence and ability to expand quickly can reduce the consequential damages to a modicum. Preparation results in clear-minded decision-making and responses.

Transparency in actions and words

When dealing with negative PR, it is crucial to be truthful and transparent. This is particularly important if the issue is caused by your own mistakes.

Taking accountability and admitting your errors is essential to prevent the situation from escalating and losing the trust of your existing and potential clients, customers, and employees.

When a company mistake has been detected, a public apology would be the best course of action rather than denying or keeping a low profile. Defenses and excuses are not an escape option.

An official apology could be made through a statement, video, or social media post, which can help to improve your image. In addition to the apology, providing compensation and reviewing your policies to avoid similar incidents in the future may also be required. Transparency through not only words but also through actions can preserve the company’s reputation.

Awareness of strengths and weaknesses

Each company has its strengths and weaknesses regarding its product or service. A clear perception of both sides of the coin encourages improvement where needed and allows for predicting where potential issues may occur. Addressing the weaknesses with the team helps understand where negative PR may appear. Consequently, when awareness of it is raised, a rapid response to the threat can be realized.

Further, understanding the company’s weaknesses allows for preparing a suitable positive counter-response.

One of the most effective ways to handle negative PR is to focus on the product’s strengths and underline these, which will result in a solution to the issue.

Providing trustworthy insights and transparency on the crisis increases reliability. And reliability supported by solutions based on the company’s strengths makes negative PR resolvable.

Additionally, a PR audit can provide crucial help in similar cases leading the company toward building a suitable image. The public relations audit provides an analysis of the organization’s messaging strategy and improves this strategy by setting a focus on the brand’s strengths.

Learn more about PR audit

Choose your battles

Negative press cannot always be predicted and sometimes emerges out of the unknown. Further, if a critique or negative feedback is unsupported by facts, the situation can be handled unprofessionally by responding impulsively. In order to avoid that, all the factors around the negative PR should be considered before providing a response. The potential consequences of the answer should be taken into account, and if positive outcomes are under doubt, the risk should not be taken.

However, for the instances in which a response is required, the power and importance of publicity should be considered before releasing an answer. The message behind the reply should be clearly outlined, the potentiality of misinterpretation should be eliminated, and the response should be carefully reviewed.

5 examples of bad PR

As outlined above, negative PR can occur to every company. Throughout the years, multiple examples of bad PR campaigns have appeared, and this section aims to describe some of them. Knowledge, in many cases, prevents repeating mistakes.

1

Tesla’s live failure

Four years ago, in 2019, the artificial intelligence company Tesla introduced to the wider public its innovation – a bulletproof cybertruck. A live demonstration was performed by Tesla’s chief designer Franz von Holzhausen who threw a sledgehammer toward the windows and the car door. As it appeared from the two cracked windows of the cybertruck, the vehicle was not bulletproof at all.

Elon Musk highly advertised the new product and its demo, setting clients’ expectations high. However, the lack of a prior product test led not only to a live first demonstration but also a live surprised reaction from Musk’s side when the widows broke. Despite the euphoria around the introduction of the company’s innovation, Tesla’s stock dropped by more than 6%. Tesla’s PR failure should function as an example of why product tests should be executed prior to the introduction of the product.

Tesla’s Live Failure - an example of Bad PR
2

Adidas’ terrible word choice

In 2013 a domestic terrorist attack took place during the Boston Marathon and caused the death of three people and injuries to over 260 others. In 2017 the 121st Boston Marathon took place, a day after which Adidas congratulated the runners through an email containing the message “Congrats, you survived!”. Despite the pure intentions of the company, the choice of words was inappropriate and illustrated the brand’s lack of consideration.

Further, according to the records, at least two survivors of the 2013 terrorist attack participated in the 121st Boston Marathon. Despite the apologies from the brand’s side, the message in the emails was unchangeable and was already spread.

The terrible word choice could have been avoided with a simple prereview of the email.

Adidas’ Terrible Word Choice - an example of Bad PR
3

Volkswagen’s emissions lie

Volkswagen is no stranger to corporate scandals, and in 2015, the company’s negative PR reached a peak forcing the brand to publicly admit a lie told. In September 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency outlined that numerous Volkswagen cars in America contained software in their diesel engines that enabled cheating in emission tests. During examinations, the software switched the vehicle to a similar safety mode in which the engine functioned below normal power.

And while Volkswagen’s diesel cars were advertised as low-emission vehicles, in fact, they released nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above the allowed norm in the US. The revelations resulted in not only financial losses but also reputation harm. Misleading information can be easily detected, and the truth about it revealed. And while the lie may seem to the company unharmful and small, the consequences may reduce the trust in the brand permanently.

Volkswagen’s Emissions Lie - an example of Bad PR
4

How to not support protests – advice from Uber

In 2017, as a sign of protest against Donald Trump’s Immigration Order which restricted Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the US, New York Taxi Workers Alliance decided not to provide any transportation services around the airport for one hour. At the same time, Uber announced on Twitter that it stopped the surge pricing around the airport, which resulted in an increase in the cost of rides during busy hours.

Despite the statement made by the company that this was their method to support the protests, Uber actually continued providing services around the airport, just at higher prices. The company’s actions resulted in a creation of a campaign supported by the hashtag #deleteUber. Badly handled PR moves can rapidly influence and modify clients’ opinions of the company and turn them against the brand.

An example of Bad PR - How to not Support Protests – Advice from Uber
5

Did H&M try too hard?

In 2018, the multinational clothing company H&M made an enormous PR mistake, which raised discussions and questions for months. The brand released a photo ad in which a black child is wearing one of their new products – a sweatshirt with the imprinted words “coolest monkey in the jungle” on it. Immediate accusations of racism were raised and two globally well-known celebrities (The Weeknd and G-Eazy) cut ties with the brand.

Despite the apologies from the company and the reassurances made by the parents of the boy that the ad was not racist, the scandal did not go away. Taking a step back and considering PR campaigns from different cultural viewpoints is crucial for success.

An example of Bad PR - H&M

5 examples of negative PR turned into positive PR

In many cases, a good PR company, with years of experience and competent professionals, can transform negative public relations into positive PR. This section provides five examples of PR strategies that have fully transformed and redirected the company’s marketing path.

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1

Despite all odds

In September 2013, Marina Shifrin, a video editor at Next Animation Studio, decided to leave her position in the company by recording and releasing a YouTube video. In it, the former employee dances to Kanye West’s single “Gone” and shares her grievances with the wider public. The YouTube video gained popularity in a short period and reached 19 million views. And whilst the shadow of the negative PR was over the company, its response transformed the situation to its advantage.

Next Animation Studio copied Marina Shifrin’s approach and created a YouTube video in which employees of the company danced while highlighting the company’s culture. The video ended with an announcement that the company is hiring people interested in its vision and goals. The response video reached almost 5 million views and contributed to creating a positive perception of the company.

An example of Negative PR Turned into Positive PR
2

Reputation explosion

Samsung experienced a significant decline of 15% in sales globally, in 2016, as a result of battery defects causing its Galaxy Note 7 smartphones to ignite and explode. In October of that year, Samsung was compelled to recall over 2 million units of the Galaxy Note 7 and discontinue the product due to the malfunction. But greater than the financial losses around the scandal was the decreasing trust in the company among its customers.

Despite the terrible position in which Samsung was, the turning point that preserved the company’s reputation was its PR response. Samsung took full responsibility and announced that the phone batteries were oversized for their casing, which led to overheating. What is more - Samsung concentrated on regaining consumers' trust by highlighting the reasons why they should appreciate the brand. It overhauled its internal culture, which had been perceived as lacking warmth and humanity, and introduced the slogan "Do What You Can't". Demonstrating transparency and reliability saved Samsung’s reputation and illustrated that making mistakes is not uncommon in the business.

An example of Negative PR Turned into Positive PR
3

Effortlessly handled bad PR is good PR

In 2011, Taco Bell, a well-established fast-food name, faced a lawsuit over its “seasoned beef” with raised accusations that the beef was made with only 35% real beef meat. The raised blame concerned not only the quality of the meat but also the reliability of the company since Taco Bell was accused of misleading advertising.

The company denied the accusations. However, in addition, it launched a comprehensive campaign. Executed mainly on social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, the company’s campaign assured its clients that the seasoned beef contained 88% pure beef and 12% “Secret Recipe”. The “Secret Recipe” was elaborated within 30 seconds, in which Taco Bell addressed every ingredient in their meat.

The campaign gained immediate success resulting in favorable reactions around 90% of their YouTube and Facebook followers. The transparent approach of the brand led to an abandonment of the lawsuit and dropped charges.

An example of Negative PR Turned into Positive PR
4

Uber’s two-edged sword

In 2014, as a solution to the fast expansion of the company, Uber introduced “surge pricing”. As outlined above, the term implies extra charges during periods of high demand. Consequentially, customers of the company were not particularly content regarding the new changes which was also addressed in media releases. During this period, Uber faced a considerable PR crisis that required an immediate response.

The company’s answer was not delayed and soon after, Uber started providing a detailed explanation to its customers of how exactly surge pricing functions. The company outlined the current pricing multiplier prior to requesting a ride. Further, Uber improved its customer service by discussing clients’ concerns and potential solutions. The company wisely relied on openness and proactive communication, transforming negative PR into positive PR with attention to the customers and their concerns.

An example of Negative PR Turned into Positive PR
5

The not so perfect PR campaign

In 2014 the famous lingerie company Victoria’s Secret launched a campaign with an ad slogan, “The Perfect Body,” on the background of ten of their angels. The slogan, together with the image was interpreted by the audience that the models set the criteria for the perfect body – thin and flawless. The combination of the two was considered harmful to women’s self-confidence and as encouragement for unhealthy dieting and eating disorders.

More than 30 000 people signed a petition requiring the company to apologize for the offense. Additionally, a competitor released a campaign with the same slogan featuring diverse women of all sizes. Victoria’s Secret immediately took action and changed its slogan to "A Body for Every Body.” People reacted positively to the change, considering it a step in the right direction.

An example of Negative PR Turned into Positive PR

Conclusion

In a constantly changing living and working environment with new trends emerging on a daily basis, negative PR is a threat to companies that lack support from the PR field. In the PR world, ignorance is not bliss and many factors should be taken into consideration before taking action.

Negative PR can occur in every company. However, the extent to which it is prepared for a PR crisis directly reduces or increases the expansion of potential damage.

Bad PR can result in not only immediate financial losses but also long-term reputational harm. Therefore, partnering with a good PR agency has crucial significance to the future development of the company.

In-depth brand knowledge, flawless organization and systematization, and being familiar with the market and its trends can not only prevent negative PR, but also transform it into an opportunity for the company. Predicting a PR crisis and preparing particularly for it is not always achievable. However, working together with an already experienced PR team, familiar with the company branches and the market, guarantees a well-prepared response message that will result in positive outcomes.

February 14, 2023
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