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Bad publicity is better than no publicity
May 20, 2010
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The title states the common wisdom, which is that being known for anything is better than being an unknown. This is a long-held aphorism, but does it really hold in this hyper-connected post-internet age, where a seemingly innocuous app on your cellphone can scour the digital airwaves for any speck of dirt on any topic, or a less innocuous app may be sprinkling those specks.

As an example, I saw a lecture in which the city Seattle, Washington was the subject of study. The lecturer presented how often Seattle appeared in the national news and when it did how the city was portrayed and even referenced. Why Seattle? This was nearly one year after the WTO riots in Seattle. (If you missed it, there is a movie, of course, called "Battle in Seattle". I watched it, it has entertainment value though I cannot vouch for the accuracy. During those days I was just miles away at the UW studying and had a number of classmates volunteering for the conference. The gig didn't pay enough for me, so I passed.) The lecturer showed how that before WTO, Seattle was very infrequently mentioned and when it was it was qualified as "Seattle, Washington". Post WTO, not only did Seattle continue to appear more frequently in the national press, but it was now elevated to similar status as Madonna and Prince as only referred to as Seattle. While I live in the area and may be biased, I don't feel that WTO has in any way cast a permanent pall on the reputation of the city.

So how about for you and me, lowly designers, coders, testers and promoters of embedded solutions? Does this hold for us? Is there really "good" bad publicity? Well unlike "the Donald" or Miley Cyrus or Kathie Lee Gifford, when you or I get bad publicity it will not be from an off-color remark or bad hair day, it will be from some mistake, budget overrun or missed schedule milestone. Can this type of bad publicity be turned good? ABSOLUTELY

Being put in the public eye is a chance to show what you are made of and what you can do, but more often then not it becomes a chance to publicly strip the skin, nails and hair off of some poor in the guise of quality improvement. The quality improvement goal is usually truly felt and desired, unfortunately a deep seated desire to make an example often fuels an often near-medieval turn of events. There are three steps you need to follow if you ever find yourself in this position and one key preparation step.

Preparation: get honest, first with yourself, but soon with the world. This means isolating the "thing" or mistake from the players and motivations. This is the time to be brutally impartial. What is the perception of what happened? What really happened (some companies have processes to get the heart of this question, the gist is to ask probing "why" questions until the true heart of the matter is revealed, the true root cause of the failure). If there are standard processes or common practices involved, were they followed? Are there true "unique" situations involved, if so, what? More than likely, a set of factors have combined to cause the event, and the key in this step is to really step up and identify them, obviously so they can be resolved and corrected, but just as importantly, so they can be prevented in the future.

Now what? Here is how to capitalize on bad publicity. First step, realize you are now under scrutiny and act as if your mom, spouse, and child are all watching everything you do - you need to spend extra effort obviously doing all the right things rather than excusing, explaining or rationalizing past behavior. NOTE: this is before admitting ANY "wrongdoing". 

Remember the "That was easy" campaign for Staples? In an interview after the success of the campaign had been proved, the VP of marketing at Staples said they worked on that campaign for a long time, not because the ads were hard, but because she insisted that Staples had actually become easy before launching the ads.  The ads became a statement of how Staples had changed and not an empty tagline only  to be replaced in a few quarters with something cuter like "We're just more fun". 

So that leads to the second step, publicize your new, better, higher quality, etc. status. Because you changed in step 1 (and knew how to change from the analysis in the preparation step) now its time to tell the world. This is showing what you learned and how much better you are now. Serial entrepreneurs do this all the time, as one startup implodes they launch the next, full of  the lessons that will lead to the next success. In fact, to a venture capitalist failure and an understanding of what happened is as valuable or more so than a success, since luck and market timing often produce success .

Remember the financial scandals that led to the famous Micheal Milken going to prison, and the publicity on lack of ethics in corporation and finance? Now Micheal Milken has his own think tank and several philanthropic ventures. Mistakes can often be very expensive, but learning why it happened AND incorporating that learning into behavior is truly valuable. And valued. Hackers become security consultants. Criminals become fraud consultants. Knowing what can go wrong and teaching how to avoid the same thing is valuable.

So now the final step, incorporate your "learning" into your day-to-day life, This may mean becoming a consultant and starting a whole new career, or it may mean updating company business processes with this learning. Whichever route you take, this is what takes you past the event with bad publicity and into a new future with a higher profile. Consider any one-hit wonder in the recording industry. Once they drop out of the spotlight, they are forgotten. You can do this too, and move on after a mistake that gets bad publicity, but it is much better to seize the spotlight, provide a new you for the spotlight to shine on, and keep the guy running the spotlight want to shine it one you. 

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