The old adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has been around since the beginning of modern media, and for good reason. This is certainly true, for some people, in some industries, in some circumstances. So the quotation gets repeated and people continue to accept it as fact. But sometimes bad publicity can kill a career. When is it good to have people talking to you, and when is it best to keep things under wraps?
I became curious as to when this famous phrase began circulating in our society, and I did some Googling. Phrases.org, an online directory of the origins of phrases, notes that famous author Oscar Wilde once said “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”
That makes sense. When was the last time an actress appeared in a movie and your friends said “Who?” or “I didn’t know she was still relevant,” or even “Wow, what has she been doing the past decade?”
For an actress or other figure in the public eye, this kind of reaction can be career suicide. Once you drop out of the conversation, it can be hard to get back in. So celebrities, well-known political figures, creatives and others try to stay in the media and the public consciousness as much as possible – even if it’s in a negative way.
When Kim Kardashian spends $3,500 on a fur coat for her 2-year-old daughter, Lindsay Lohan gets yet another DUI, Charlie Sheen says something crazy or Donald Trump goes on a tirade against a race of people, they get media coverage. We talk about these celebs at dinner parties, at work functions, on dates, with our family. They’re part of a popular culture machine that only runs when there’s new gossip to spread.
But what about when bad publicity isn’t such a good idea? Even though Lindsay Lohan has been in dozens of movies and is arguably a really talented actress, word of her difficult behavior on-set has gotten around and few studios want to take the risk to hire her. Charlie Sheen’s HIV-positive status has put him back in the public eye with a little bit of sympathy and a whole lot of lawsuits and criminal allegations over an alleged failure to disclose this disease to his sexual partners.
If you’re not an A-list celebrity, there’s a good chance that bad publicity will do more harm than good for you at any point. When you’re trying to make it, be it as an actress, a producer, a businesswoman, an attorney, a publicist or anything, really, you need to prove yourself. And that means putting your best foot forward at all times. Contrary to popular belief, Los Angeles is a small town, and throwing a temper tantrum on set, failing to show up for call time, having an affair with the director and a whole lot of other things can ensure that you never work in this town again.
Even businesses are subject to intense scrutiny. I often have start-ups come to me requesting that I do their PR, saying that they did a public launch of their app before the app was truly ready, and now they have bad reviews in the iTunes App Store. Unfortunately, I have to let them know that there’s not much I can do. When a reporter searches the app name, the first thing that comes up on Google is a bunch of negative reviews, and so they’re going to pass on any story idea I send them. As a publicist, I can work a lot of positive SEO magic by getting positive media coverage with great keywords, but I’m not magic – the Google SEO game is not completely hackable.
The same goes for any bad publicity. The Internet is eternal. Do you really want that scandal, indiscretion or mistake to literally live forever online, free and accessible for anyone who searches your name to find? I don’t think so. As you build your reputation, consider how you would like people to perceive you and do your best to aim for that. And when you get to Naomi Campbell status, feel free to throw a few phones, if you want – but remember that personal reputation is just as important as your public reputation.
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