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Leveraging Horrible News To Your Advantage

Ken Gaebler

Bad News Can Be Good For PR Firms
Bad news creates good PR opportunities.

PR experts know that every cloud has many silver linings.

In other words, when there's bad news in the world, it's a great PR opportunity.

My friend Rahm Emanuel, who served on the board of one of my startup companies, said it best when he recently opined: "Never let a serious crisis go to waste."

That's great advice for PR firms and the clients that use them. This blog post offers a quick example of how bad news creates PR opportunities.

In future blog posts, I'll explain why crises should be viewed as PR  opportunities, how to make the most of bad news, and how to walk the fine line of not offending journalists and the general public by trying to turn horrible news to your advantage.

Recent Example of a Bad News PR Opportunity

I could write a book on this topic (and probably somebody already has) but there are many examples of firms that are taking advantage of bad news and/or bad situations that have resulted in great PR opportunities. You can see them in the news every single day.

Recently, for example, we have the Christmas Day Terrorist, or the Underwear Bomber as he is also known. You know the story. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an al-Qaida terrorist, hid explosives in his underwear and subsequently tried to blow up a U.S.-bound passenger plane on Christmas Day, December 25.

Quick brain exercise for you: Who do you think benefitted from that horrible news?

Another way of looking at this brain teaser – if you were in charge of selling PR services, what firms would you call up and say, "Hey, not sure if you are working with a PR firm right now, but, due to this recent terrorist incident, wouldn't you agree that you really should be making a full court press on the PR front?"

The answer, of course, is the companies that make full-body scanners.

These scanners use radio waves or weak X-rays to scan airport travelers for hidden objects beneath their clothing, finding things (e.g. liquid explosives) that metal detectors don't spot.

Sure enough, full-body airport scanners have been in the news a lot lately. A quick Google News search for a leading body scanner manufacturer, American Science and Engineering, shows 112 media placements between December 25 and January 2. Another body scan security firm, ICx Technologies, scored 185 Google News mentions. Other body scanner makers, such as OSI Systems, Millivision Technologies, and L-3 Communications, also all got significant media play post-Christmas.

For these firms, terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab gave them the best of all possible worlds. Without taking a single life, he gave these companies an amazing PR opportunity to get in front of the public and say: "See, if you just spend hundreds of millions of dollars with us, you will inoculate yourself against this horrible possibility."

Accordingly, those firms have been very aggressive on the PR front. Indeed, while listening to NPR the other day, I heard former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff advocating that the federal government buy more full-body scanners for airports.

Pressed by the reporter, he acknowledged that his firm was working for these companies, so he wasn't exactly impartial. Still, as flawed as this particular make-lemons-out-of-lemonade PR effort was, you don't have to be much of a deconstructionist to realize that Chernoff's involvement was undoubtedly the brainchild of some smart PR person.

So, there you have it, an example of how smart PR specialists jump on bad news and turn it into good news for their clients. In the end, the firms that hire the best PR agencies do better than this than their competitors. Companies that don't anticipate and prepare for bad news PR opportunities will ultimately likely lose in the marketplace, even if they have a better solution.

Regrettably, none of these body scanner firms is a Walker Sands PR client, but it's the kind of work we love. For a PR firm, getting these firms positive mentions in the media now, thanks to horrible news, is like shooting fish in a barrel.

What's your take on using bad news to get media placements? We welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.