Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent the past six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.
P.T. Barnum is often credited with saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” As with many other legendary-like quotes, the proper attribution gets a little fuzzy as years pass. Some attribute the saying to the Oscar Wilde story, The Picture of Dorian Gray, when the phrase, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” was invoked.
Odds are relatively good that neither Barnum nor Wilde were actually the first to say or pen the phrase. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter who gets the attribution. The problem is not in deciding who should get the credit for the first utterance, the problem is people keep repeating it. Year after year, decade after decade, virtually every time one hears of a public relations gaffe, someone immediately fires back with that age-old, “Yeah, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity!”
Every time someone lays that line out there, my immediate thought is: What a load of bulls**t.
A nonsensical idea
Perhaps back in the late 1800s and early 1900s — long before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, social media and viral videos — the “all PR is good PR” mantra made more sense. Today, when all it takes is a phone and an Instagram account to “report” the “news,” not only is believing the no bad publicity line a load of garbage, it could well be a dangerous and career-limiting move.
Your — and your brand’s — reputation in this industry is critical to long-term success. Real estate is a relationship-based business, and as such, your reputation goes a long way toward helping you secure and grow future business.
The fact that your reputation — be it good, bad or indifferent — is amplified by the always-on, 24-hours-a-day, social media-based, hashtag-driven, instant-access world we live in should not be a surprise to anyone. Everything is amplified these days. The president tweets a typo. Someone posts a pic of Ariana Grande’s new tattoo that’s supposed to say, “Seven rings” in Japanese, but turns out what it really says is, “small barbecue grill.”
Mistakes are swiftly — and brutally at times — chastised and lambasted. And the owners of those mistakes are raked over the perpetual roasting coals that fuel the fires that light the internet boilers.
Bad publicity actually is bad publicity
All PR is good PR — such nonsense.
Ask the 2010 version of Tiger Woods how all that negative PR worked out for him — $200 million dollars in endorsements vaporized almost over night. Some experts say Wood’s issues cost the sponsors he worked with over $12 billion. That’s right — $12 billion.
There’s no such thing as bad PR? Really? Let’s take a trip to a couple of large automobile manufacturers.
First, there is “Dieselgate” where Volkswagen got caught red-handed cheating on emissions testing. Fast-forward a few years and see tens of billions in fines, hundreds of thousands of cars recalled and more lawsuits than one can count.
When the CEO of an international business has to go on the record and say, “I personally am deeply sorry that we have broken the trust of our customers and the public,” that’s not a good thing. I can assure you there were no high-fives across the VW PR group that day — there were no chest-bumps delivered while grunts of, “any PR is good PR!” emanated from those chest-thumpers.
Remember Toyota? First it was their airbags taking up the nasty habit of just randomly popping off. Queue up hundreds of thousands of recalls, millions in litigation expenses and one big giant black eye on the brand. Then, just a few years after the airbag recall, several million more Toyotas have to be recalled for sticking accelerators. Both of these defects literally killed people.
Pretty sure no one at Toyota has been singing the praises of bad press lately.
How about British Petroleum? Think they are dancing in the aisles over at BP because of all that publicity they’ve gotten for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill? That PR came with a $62 billion price tag.
So seriously, stop with the justifications of bad public relations. Any PR is not necessarily good PR. In fact, quite often bad PR is just that — it’s bad. It’s expensive, it’s long-lasting, and there is nothing even remotely good about it.
Same for negative and fear-based marketing.
Don’t create negative PR for others
On a related note, isn’t it well past time that we put an end to negative, fear-based marketing tactics? Throwing shade on a competitor and generating bad PR for them is not “edgy” or “gorilla” or “thinking-outside-the-box” marketing.
It’s just old, tired and creepy marketing.
Oh, I’m sure negative marketing can be effective. There’s a reason politicians have been doing it for decades — it works. It helps name recognition stick in people’s heads. It gets people thinking names, and people who think names tend to vote for those names.
But you’re not a politician running for election. You are a business person, an entrepreneur, who is running a business. There’s a big difference. Be the smart business that directly addresses its value proposition — without throwing a competitor under the bus.
Go forth, do good things, generate good PR and value-based marketing. Leave the political fear-mongering and hacking to the pros and for the sake of everything, stop with the, “all PR is good PR” nonsense.
Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree in Seattle, as well as the mastermind behind Now Pondering. Follow him on Facebook or Instagram. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty.