‘There is no such thing as bad publicity’, a phrase widely attributed to 19th century showbiz pioneer Phineas T. Barnum, is one that is oft-spouted in the wake of a newspaper article or revelation that is, generally speaking, not altogether positive.
The expression underscores the idea that any story, exposé or scandal that results in a brand, name or product becoming more recognisable can only be good for business in the long term. Whether everyone who emits this idiom truly believes it to be true is impossible to ascertain, but so long has the saying been in circulation, and so often has it been uttered, that it has, over many years, become embedded in an artificial truth borne of repetition.
Just because something has found its way into common usage does not necessarily make it true. Doctors have comprehensively debunked the idea that we should starve a cold and feed a fever, while smoking cigarettes, regarded by many in the ‘20s as a healthy lifestyle choice, is now a pursuit so unwholesome that it is no longer permitted in enclosed public places.
Just because something has found its way into common usage does not necessarily make it true
Publicity is the art of capturing someone’s attention, of making them take note of a message, ideal or offering, but the word should not be linked automatically with positivity. In the right circumstances publicity can be a powerful assistant, of that there is no doubt, but in the wrong conditions, when the exposure is infused with immoral or adverse connotations, publicity can be a beast with the capacity to cripple and maim a business.
On Wednesday (27 July) afternoon Twitter feeds became clogged with the hashtag #BoycottByron, an outburst of anger directed towards the popular hamburger joint. The successful restaurant chain, with over 60 outlets in the UK alone, was castigated by thousands of social media users after allegations surfaced claiming the organisation had invited many of its migrant workers in for ‘additional training’, but instead were lured to their place of employment only to be rounded up by border patrol and subsequently deported. The Home Office has confirmed that following the operation, 35 people from Brazil, Nepal, Egypt and Albania were arrested on suspicion of breaches of immigration laws.
Whether the various accusations made on Twitter are entirely accurate is still yet to be confirmed – there is something of a murky veil hanging over said incident at present – but that lack of validation has not stopped the general public from aiming abuse, vitriol and unconcealed rage at the purported guilty party. Within hours of the hashtag’s origination it had become one of the most utilised and searched in the UK, with all but the odd few tweets referring to the company’s assumed actions as ‘shocking’, ‘despicable’, ‘disgusting’, and various other words implying anger and exasperation.
Within hours of the hashtag’s origination it had become one of the most utilised and searched in the UK
Ian Dunt, editor of Politics.co.uk, was one of many senior journalists to contact Byron to gather a statement, but says the company’s press team ‘refused to answer’ questions on whether they ‘organised a raid on their own employees’. The company has, however, admitted that several of its restaurants were visited by representatives of the Home Office, and that these visits ‘resulted in the removal of members of staff’.
Petitions have already been signed and protests organised, all within a few hours of the story breaking. So quickly did word spread on social media that newspaper outlets struggled to keep up; the Sun, Guardian and Mirror each released a story covering the affair, but all missed the boat by a good six hours.
A digital wildfire birthed from hostility and fury has, in these days of instantaneous mass communication, an energy and intensity all of its own; as such, the damage can often be done before all of the facts are in place.
The power of social media
It is important we point out that, at the time of writing, these allegations are yet to be fully understood. We at Southerly are not here to claim the story as true or untrue, positive or negative, but to assess the potential fallout of an accusation that took on a life of its own courtesy of social media’s ability to reach immense audiences quickly. The point of this article is not to condemn or criticise Byron’s ethics or policies, but to highlight a bigger point on publicity’s influence.
The point of this article is not to condemn or criticise Byron’s ethics or policies, but to highlight a bigger point on publicity’s influence
Conservative estimates suggest that approximately 310 million people use Twitter each month, a colossal audience with the power to significantly damage the reputation of a business. Don’t believe it can happen? Just take a look at these examples of companies that were made to suffer after making a social media faux pas:
- Chrysler drops the f-bomb – image
- Kenneth Cole makes light of the 2011 Cairo protests (which resulted in over 800 deaths) – image
- Bic encourages women to ‘think like a man’ on National Women’s Day – image
In these instances, the actual ‘damage’ is somewhat difficult to determine; scorn may have been poured upon the guilty party at the time, and vows may have been taken to avoid said brand in the future, but whether those outraged social media users remained steadfast in the wake of their declarations is almost impossible to establish.
However, what can be argued is that these errors in judgement left the companies involved red-faced, embarrassed and clamouring for an appropriate apology.
In many ways social media can be likened to the ocean; it is vast, untamed and must be treated with respect. As with the ocean, those who underestimate the power of social media are liable to fall foul, and could end up floundering in the midst of an unanticipated and unyielding storm.
The internet never forgets
Like people, the internet has a long memory. Typing the phrase ‘business social media faux pas’ yields over 1.7 million results, most of which highlight misjudged tweets and Facebook posts published, inadvertently or otherwise, by household name brands. The fact that these pieces of microcontent live on long after they were originally posted is testament to the internet’s inability to forget; if companies or famous names do something offensive on social media, you can be assured that it will not just disappear. The act will live on, perhaps buried deep in the internet’s infinite digital archives, ready and waiting to be unearthed when it can be used to greatest effect.
Like people, the internet has a long memory
As we write this piece, the #BoycottByron hashtag is still in its infancy, and it is yet to be seen what impact, if any, it will have on the company’s operations. However, what can be said with a reasonable degree of certainly is that should the accusations turn out to be entirely factual, it will be followed by little to no positive publicity.
The public will not be swayed by whether or not the migrants were working legally or not, for the story is bigger than that. The outrage is, and will continue to be, over the idea of human beings being used as little more than corporate bargaining chips. It is anger directed at a business that employed staff, and then sold them out to avoid facing prosecution for its use of lax, and perhaps unethical, hiring policies.
Once again, we must be clear in stating that we are by no means an authority in this particular case – we are but a bystander watching the drama unfold – but courtesy of social media’s ability to take a report and run with it, it is quite clear to see that a certain amount of damage has already been done, and Byron has been given plenty on which to ponder.