Dominic Pollard, director of content and communications at City Road Communications, asks the question of whether there really is no such thing as bad PR.

“There’s no such thing as bad PR.”

“All publicity is good publicity.”

“There’s only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about.”

We’ve all heard them – these clichés (which are unfortunately common in PR) that essentially promote the idea that brands must be in the press at all costs. In truth, it’s absolute nonsense.

That’s not to say negative media exposure cannot help a business commercially. For some brands, bad PR is a good thing. This is typically the case with companies that are knowingly controversial and, even if their product is coming under scrutiny, they are still benefitting from the column inches.

However, the notion that any company can afford to have its reputation tarnished by negative articles in the press simply does not add up; moreover, such an attitude could prove extremely damaging – fatal, in fact – to early-stage businesses that are not yet financially robust enough to withstand a serious PR crisis.

Flying into a media frenzy

The media furore surrounding Ryanair this past week serves as a timely reminder of why there really is such a thing as bad publicity… Try telling Michael O’Leary there isn’t.

Most people will have seen the video by now – on 19 October a Ryanair passenger posted footage on social media showing Delsie Gayle, a 77-year-old black woman, being racially abused by an elderly white man on-board a flight from Barcelona to London.

The situation was not of Ryanair’s making; they are not responsible for David Mesher’s abhorrent comments. However, the handling of the incident by staff and the subsequent PR response (or lack thereof) exacerbated the issue greatly, leading to a tidal wave of abuse being directed at the low-fare carrier in the press and on social media.

Following the post by David Lawrence (the man who filmed the event), the airline remained quiet, merely stating: “We are aware of this video and have reported the matter to Essex Police”. The lack of further action added fuel to the fire. Since then a police investigation has commenced, with Ryanair now saying it cannot comment further – again, that has done little to stop the public’s outrage.

Interestingly, three days after Mr Lawrence’s Facebook update, Ryanair made an unrelated announcement – the company revealed a 7% drop in profits in the six months to 30 September because of rising fuel prices and strikes hitting costs and bookings. At a time when market conditions are challenging, airlines can ill-afford such negative PR.

Lessons to be learnt

Even the most adept PR professionals would struggle to put a positive spin on such a disgusting incident. Undoubtedly, though, it could have been handled much better if Ryanair took fast, decisive action – it could have admitted its shortcomings; it could have said that the company is revising its policies or training procedures; it could have banned David Mesher for life; it could have provided free flights to Delsie Gayle. It did nothing.

The events involving Ryanair this past week are a reminder of the fallacy that there is no such thing as bad PR. And for tech startups, there are several other valuable lessons to be learnt from the Ryanair saga.

  1. As a result of the proliferation of smartphones and social media over the past 15 years, bad PR can emerge at any time and spread very quickly. This is particularly true for consumer-facing brands – their customers will waste little time in sharing news about faulty products or poor customer service
  2. When bad PR arises, even if it is just a negative review of your company’s product or service, do not sit tight and wait for the problem to blow over. Be proactive, address faults that may have arrived and communicate that to the customer; if the criticism is unfair or unfounded, make a timely and considered response to ensure you get your side of the story across
  3. Be honest – journalists will approach companies at the centre of a negative news story for comment, and businesses should (legalities permitting) be open and frank in their response. Refusing to comment, not owning up to mistakes or passing the buck will often make matters worse

Standing on thinner ice

While tech startups will seldom be at the centre of a PR crisis like the one Ryanair is currently experiencing (they are generally not well known enough for outcry to spread so far and wide), they must nevertheless remain very wary of avoiding bad publicity.

Firstly, a young tech firm typically does not have a large or loyal enough customer base to withstand a tranche of negative articles in the media. Secondly, for any startup seeking private investment, if when searching your company an individual sees results about a company misdemeanour, unfavourable actions by your CEO, or customers criticising the business, then the chances of them parting with their money will be significantly diminished.

Ultimately, a startup needs to have a set of qualities and values that it’s consistently looking to promote, whether through PR, marketing, advertising or word of mouth. It’s of utmost importance that those qualities and values are protected in the public domain – if they are proven to carry little substance then the reputation and credibility of the company will be damaged.

Large companies can usually withstand bad publicity. Ryanair will not fold because of the current controversy; Volkswagen bounced back after its emissions lies were exposed three years ago; the major supermarkets trotted on despite the 2013 horsemeat scandal; and the BP oil crisis did not spell disaster for the mining behemoth.

Make no mistake, each of these events resulted in huge fines, countless people losing their jobs, share prices plummeting and the brands being left significantly weaker. But the companies survived.

Tech startups, on the other hand, cannot afford such massive mishaps. They must be extremely diligent in the way they handle any news about their business that enters the media, whether it comes from them or from someone outside the company – and when bad PR strikes, they have to respond quickly and effectively to limit the harm it may cause.

Companies can be controversial. They can benefit from ostensibly negative news and they can put a positive spin on a bad story. But tech startups cannot allow erroneous clichés like ‘all publicity is good publicity’ to breed a foolhardy approach to the way they approach their external communications.

There is such a thing as bad PR, and it can be destructive.