Categories: Trust and reputations

14 November 2008

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Learning to manage unpopularity

Over lunch at the “Weinstube zum Rothen Ochsen” (Red Bull) in Stein am Rhein I catch up on this week’s FT output. I discover the chairman of Channel 4, Luke Johnson, commenting:

“The overriding truth about bad publicity is that it is rarely as damaging as your worst fears. Even Bernard Matthews Farms is prospering again, in spite of taking a battering last year over bird flu. There is a lot of noise out there in the media jungle, and stories soon get forgotten: the bandwagon rolls on.”

He adds:

“Certain public relations agents may give the impression that they can control the coverage your business gets, but you would be a fool to believe it.”

I couldn’t agree more. In the modern world unpopularity rides side by side with fame and a good reputation. Call it the tall poppy syndrome. There is no escaping it. Just like fashion has segmented, so has public opinion. There is no level of public engagement that can build consensus between irreconcilable forces and viewpoints. The key to success is pursuing your own interests in accordance with those of the stakeholders that matter most to your cause. 

Good PR and popularity are a means to an end. They are not an end in themselves; unless you are in show business, and not always then. Success does not depend upon being universally loved or liked. It depends on fulfilling one’s mission and achieving the goals set. 

For instance, George Bush’s problem was not unpopularity as such, but a loss of support among core stakeholders. My best advice to Barack Hussein Obama is be prepared to be unpopular because it will be a sure sign things are being achieved. The same advice goes to the likes of Shell, WalMart, McDonald’s and many other institutions. As for CEOs and banks, the lesson to learn from their fall from grace is the value of being boring and predictable.

The PR industry has got to stop pretending that companies and politicians can be all things to all men. 

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