Why good PR must never promise more than it can deliver

The dramatic rise that put so much stress on Britain’s Got Talent’s Susan Boyle is a timely reminder that not all publicity is good publicity.

The dangers of overhyping can be dramatic. Freelance PR consultant Yvonne McQueen, says this is true whether it’s in regard to a person, service or a product. Discussing Susan Boyle, she says: “much was made of her ‘hairy angel’ appearance as she came on stage, the patronising glances from the judges, then her obvious and superb talent as she opened her mouth to sing. The Simon Cowell and Amanda Holden simultaneous jaw-dropping may have been carefully choreographed, but the Susan Boyle hype had started. It continued with her audition receiving a record number of hits on YouTube, interviews in the USA, worldwide attention and constant headline media coverage. Boyle was favourite to win, but in the end came runner-up to the dance group Diversity.

What goes up …

 “The hype had built her up so much and to such an extent that she only had one way to go – and that was down, culminating in a stay at the Priory. Snide comments in the media must have added to this naïve woman’s distress, but isn’t that what we do in this country – build someone up, put them high on a pedestal, and then take great pleasure in shooting them down?”

But as Allyson Purcell, lecturer in media at St Mary’s University College, points out, the strategy of building people up too much, too soon, is not only unfair on the ‘star’ but also backfires on those that create the publicity: "Journalists and their bedfellows in PR, should be careful not to over dramatise; as they can risk looking stupid when the subject of their eulogies turns out to have feet of clay".

Too much of a good thing

Those working in PR need to appreciate that an audience may be hungry for stories about people or products, but if they hear too much, or the wrong sort of stories, they can soon become sick of what they once loved, and blame the messenger as much as the message. As McQueen points out: “As we perhaps saw with Susan Boyle, people became bored. She was constantly in the press, there was the obligatory (minor) make-over, her life was dissected and analysed, and it was generally felt that she would win Britain’s Got Talent.

The psychological let-down for her must have been enormous, but perhaps we all felt let down as the fairy-tale seemed to go sour. Over promoting anything doesn’t just cause ennui, it also raises our expectations to the extent that we can only be disappointed.”

Biting the hand that feeds it

According to McQueen, the late Jade Goody is a further example of an over-hyped “product”: “The media went ballistic when she left the Big Brother house; she was on magazine covers, launched her own perfume, opened a beauty salon and became a huge star. The ‘racist attacks’ on Shilpa Shetty in Celebrity Big Brother gave Jade Goody the sort of publicity she did not want. Her perfume was withdrawn from the shelves, and she became known as a loud-mouthed, racist bully. But, then, tragically her cancer turned her into a quasi saint. She was back in the media, giving interviews and being brave – and her star rose again as she was hailed as brave and inspirational.

“The same could be said of over-promoting products where the ads and PR set the bar so high that expectations will always be way too excessive. Here perhaps we can mention the Sinclair C5 car which always looked in danger of being crushed by a bus, but which was launched amid a great deal of hyperbole only to vanish without trace.”

Other examples of too much hype, include Terminal 5, the rise and fall of dot-com businesses, Tony Blair and Cool Britannia, Tim Henman and Henmania and Jordan and Peter whom, McQueen says, seem to be “currently invading their own privacy by appearing in every magazine going to bore us about their (not very) private lives.”

When the audience turns nasty

Jordan and Peter may court publicity, but not everyone who gets into the spotlight enjoys the attention. Martin Rowe, assistant editor of the biggest Chelsea fan website CFCnet, has experienced personally what it is like to become too well known in certain circles, as he still has to avoid certain pubs after some of his comments were not appreciated by fans. Whenever the media need to talk to Chelsea fans they often turn to CFCnet, leading to frequent mentions on Sky Sports News, Radio 5 Live, Talksport and Setanta. Rowe has learnt that putting forward just one spokesperson can cause a lot of resentment among fellow fans and a lot of venom can be directed towards the individual concerned. He says the way that the site counteracts this is to allocate media appearances across a number of people to avoid concentrating it on one individual. Rowe also says that the site always aims to get a completely balanced view. He adds: “We've learnt these lessons the hard way, after all, football can raise some strong emotions.”

The problem with getting talked about is that, unless you have carefully prepared your publicity campaign (and even sometimes when you have), you can never completely predict the way the audience is going to react. Oscar Wilde may have said, “it is better to be talked about than not be talked about at all”, but McQueen is one person who says that she is not sure she agrees.

Creative Moment Awards 2020