Media Relations

There Is Such a Thing as Bad Publicity

By Jacqueline Gualtieri on April 1, 2024

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Two hands are holding microphones and recorders in front of a crowd.

We’ve all heard the old adage: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. The idea behind it? Anytime you get your name out, there is a good thing.

Perhaps that was once true, but in 2024, bad publicity can be a very bad thing for a company. And sometimes, your response can be even worse.

Why is bad publicity bad for your company?

It might seem straightforward. Bad publicity is bad. It’s right there in the name. But for years, this adage told companies to feel good about bad press, to ignore it or even try to turn it into a positive. In some cases, you can turn bad press into something good as long as you have credibility and can rely upon facts to prove publicity wrong.

You can use Taco Bell’s 2011 lawsuit as a prime example. Back in 2011, a lawsuit claimed that Taco Bell’s meat was only 35 percent ground beef. It’s rather gross but, thankfully, untrue. In response, Taco Bell launched a whole marketing campaign talking about exactly what was in their food, even going so far as to reveal everything in their “Secret Recipe.”

In this case, Taco Bell could demonstratively prove that the bad publicity was wrong and turn it into good publicity. But what happens when the accusations hold water? Then, you might have a growing problem on your hands, especially if your company predominantly caters to younger audiences like Gen Z.

A study by Forrester found that more than half of Gen Zers research a company before purchasing to ensure that the brand’s corporate social responsibility aligns with their values. What are the issues that Gen Z values? EMARKETER’s research found that: 

  • 53% want to shop brands that support mental health more than any other cause
  • 47% said that environmental causes, racial equity, and gender equity were causes they wanted brands to support
  • 42% want to support brands with ethical labor practices
  • 26% shop brands that support LGBTQ+ rights
  • Gen Z wants to shop brands that they deem as “authentic” and “transparent”

It’s worth noting that Gen Alpha is demonstrating similar values, showing that Gen Z will not be the end of consumers wanting brands to align with their value set. 

Bad publicity can mean losing interest or support from Gen Z or Gen Alpha consumers, who will research your brand before making a purchase and may be turned off if the press shows that your actions are going against their values. 

What to do and what not to do when you get bad press

  1. Defend yourself if you can, but don’t get defensive.

As Taco Bell demonstrated, you can defend yourself as long as you can demonstratively prove the accusations false. Taco Bell’s ingredient list is black and white. It’s not an opinion that the meat is made of more than 35 percent ground beef—it’s a fact. 

In many cases, you may be dealing with opinions that are harder to combat. Say you had an employee who had a bad experience working for you and are now speaking out. You can’t simply say, “No, you didn’t have a bad experience.” Their experience is their own. You may have other employees who say your company is a great place to work, but you may get a reputation as a bad place to work if that one employee’s complaint spreads online.

In other cases, you might be dealing with facts—but you may not be able to defend yourself. Let’s say you say that your products were made in the United States, but it was discovered that you were actually making them overseas. You can’t deny reality. Trying to do so is going to alienate your audience even further.

Even if you can dispute something, getting defensive and targeting people who are talking about you online is not a good look. Addressing people publicly and defensively is typically not the best way to go.

  1. Don’t use the “shiny object” tactic.

When I say the shiny object tactic, you’ve likely seen this publicity tool before. It’s when someone gets bad publicity, they don’t respond to it, and they make another unrelated announcement. Maybe information spreads that you unfairly fired someone. You don’t make any public statement, but two days later, you announcement that you’re launching a new product. 

This tactic is another bad look. It tells your audience you don’t care about their concerns, and not only that, but you also seem to be undermining their intelligence. If you use this tactic, get ready for a flood of messages and comments from people who are likely now even more upset than they were before. I suppose it might be good for your engagement rates but bad for your reputation.

  1. Don’t use empty words or gestures.

One thing that really grinds the gears of Gen Zers is talking the talk but not walking the walk. Let’s say word spreads that your employees in the LGBTQ+ community don’t feel safe in the workplace. The next day, you respond by saying that you welcome all LGBTQ+ people and would never discriminate based on gender identity or sexual preference. 

That’s a lot of nice words, but how exactly do you plan on making your workplace a safe place to be? With Gen Z placing such a high value on transparency, you want to make it clear what your next steps will be to combat this discrimination. 

Bad publicity can hurt your company, but a bad response can have an equally lasting impression. Taking accountability is crucial, especially in the eyes of a Gen Z audience. Pledge to do good, plan to do good, and good publicity may be in your future again.

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