Oscar Wilde didn’t say all publicity is good publicity. It was another Irish cause célèbre Brendan Behan who coined the phrase (though he conceded that obituaries are best avoided). If this were true there would be no need for PR. Rather, Wilde wrote that not being talked about can be relatively worse than facing a backlash. For Lord Henry, the aphorism’s mouthpiece in Dorian Gray, to tolerate a degree of gossip and rumour is the necessary cost for a reputation to grow.
In Wilde’s day being talked about meant having a foothold in a tightly policed aristocratic circle. Today, with privileged circles breached and communication being open, frenetic and fleeting, the trade-off between the negative and positive is harder to judge. Yet the role of a publicist is still about controlling the media environment in which the client inhabits- something that is as much about keeping them out of the news as courting prime coverage.
The balance varies. This week saw Clarkson return to our frontpages, apologising for his punch-up with a producer. It took a mouth full of Amazon gold to bring the former Top Gear host around to unprecedented levels of contrition. The cold supper fracas may have lost Clarkson his BBC job but it only elevated him in the eyes of his fans. There is a Trump effect to his apparent immunity to bad publicity. Like the Republican frontrunner Clarkson’s brand of boisterous irreverence thrives on getting up the noses of the media establishment.
For consumer-facing business, however, bad publicity is rarely a boost. Earlier this week Mars recalled several of their big name chocolate snacks in 55 countries after traces of plastic were found in a bar in Germany. This has turned out to be one expensive Snickers. Not only has the recall taken a huge bite out of Mars’s sales, it has led to a VW moment of consumer backlash. With trust violated there is no definite expiry date for the scare: everything and anything with a Mars logo on could be contaminated.
The democratisation of news through social media is something Wilde neither foresaw nor would altogether approve of. Twitter may lend itself to aphorism but the ephemerality of the form renders all the great lines forgotten as quickly as they are enjoyed. We are all photographers and curators, poets and reporters. The thought of actually having to pay for journalism or imagery is as baffling as buying street lighting or tap water. To be heard through the noise involves unprecedented levels of energy and ingenuity. It isn’t a question of whether publicity is good or bad but rather, does it cut through or does it die on impact.
Last week a stunt at the Berlin Film Festival, devised by Ai Weiwei to raise awareness for the plight of refugees, saw a room full of celebs don emergency blankets. There was some murmuring of bad taste at the sight of Hollywood starlets supping Dom Perignon in aid of the wretched of the earth. But in the main the event failed to register. It isn’t enough to just have celebs wearing shiny coats and expect coverage. For a catastrophe as well covered (but not necessary well understood) as the refugee crisis you need to shock people into action.
Could the solution to an age saturated in self-promotion be no publicity at all? Take Tony Blair. The former PM has recently lent his star name to a new Washington-based counter extremist think tank. The press were quick to point out at this week’s launch that it is odd that an organisation dedicated to understanding the causes of Islamism doesn’t have a Muslim on its board of advisers. Were it not for the toxic legacy that surrounds the topic of Blair and the middle east it is doubtful that the coverage would have been so sceptical. Place this in contrast with Blair’s successor as the Quartet envoy, one Kito de Boer. Despite occupying arguably the most important diplomatic job in the world’s most problematic region little is known about de Boer. From the handful of brief interviews he has given since assuming the role in July 2015 we know that he is Dutch and a former McKinsey consultant. Blair may have had electoral success and televisual charm but his divisive reputation was possibly more of a hindrance than a boon. De Boer, on the other hand, may be able to get things done. But no one will know.