No such thing as bad publicity?

In the late 16th and early 17th Century there were, among many writers, two exceptionally great English poets and playwrights – Shakespeare and Jonson. But who is best remembered by the general public today?

One retired quietly to the country and didn’t do much about having his work published. The other fastidiously ushered his work into print, sometimes carefully edited it to delete controversial phrases and ideas and promoted himself relentlessly.

The relative paucity of historical information about Shakespeare compared with that about Jonson is another indication of their impacts on contemporaries.

Yet, four hundred plus years later which is undoubtedly the more famous? The question is interesting historically but also in terms of a common public relations fallacy – no publicity is bad publicity.

The thought came to mind while reading a biography of Jonson on the same day the issues management specialist, Tony Jaques, sent an extract from the ad agency newsletter, Mumbrella, on that tired old fallacy about any publicity is good publicity.

The newsletter was discussing the Djokovic Australian Open situation and quoted one media buyer as saying: “Anything that generates more attention and speculation of an event is money-can’t-buy free publicity”

Another said: “It gives Nine a massive amount of publicity, good and bad, but generally good for the telecast, because it’s highlighting an event that’s about to happen. It’s millions of dollars’ worth of publicity that concentrates people’s minds to say: ‘Hey, the Australian Open is happening on Nine and you can watch it next week’”.

A couple of other advertising people were more sensible saying it was not likely to have any material impact as the Open was pretty big anyway with a key factor in the ratings was how the Australians did. Given the expectation that Ash Barty might win that was probably a significant understatement.

Over the years political careers have been destroyed by bad publicity about everything from sex to violence and alcohol. In the US Anthony Weiner’s sex-texting; WA’s Troy Buswell sniffing a Liberal staffer’s chair; Jeremy Thorpe’s problems; and, John Profumo’s resignation are just some of the well-known ones.

On the other hand Bill Clinton survived and it didn’t seem to have done Donald Trump’s career much harm either (well at least not yet).

So why do some people still argue that any publicity is good publicity? Ignorance is one explanation; belief in short term public memory is another; and failure to recognise that reputation is hard-won but easily lost is another.

So what was the outcome of the 400 year old question about Shakespeare who retired quietly to Stratford and Johnson who walked controversial religious, political and literary tightropes and was never anything but high profile?

Jonson may have been a great writer as well as a keen self-promoter, but he was also astute, generous and far-sighted when it came to securing Shakespeare’s heritage and legacy. In 1623 he did much to ensure we have Shakespeare in all his glory and wrote the words which introduced the First Folio including the immortal line: “He was not of an age, but for all time.”

As Ian Donaldson, in his biography of Jonson wrote, “his help in preserving and presenting the plays of William Shakespeare” were part of the foundation of a new world.