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Awkward Publicity is Good Publicity: How the PR Blunder Became An Effective Distraction Tool

Maxim Sorokopud Maxim Sorokopud
15th April 2021
Awkward Publicity is Good Publicity: How the PR Blunder Became An Effective Distraction Tool

Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.

On December 24th, 2018, the US Stock Market was on course for its “worst December in many years.” The American government was also in the early stage of a lengthy shutdown over border wall funding. On that same day, then President Donald Trump asked a seven-year-old girl if she still believed in Santa Claus, then informed her that believing in Santa was “marginal” at her age. 

People mocked Trump for putting the little girl through such an awkward moment, on Christmas Eve of all days. Whether this was intentional or not, the commotion served as a useful distraction. Instead of focusing on negative economic data and the partial pause of the government, people were instead focusing on something awkward that the president had said to a child. 

Of course, many have noted that Trump was and is a master of manipulating and deflecting the media. The idea that “awkwardness” could be a distraction technique doesn’t begin or end with him, nor is it confined to the political world. For instance, back in 2013, the restaurant chain Chipotle pretended that its Twitter account was hacked in a bid to gain more followers. It turns out, there’s a good reason for this tactic: it works. Even though Chipotle’s fake hack was exposed, the account gained over 4,000 followers that day. 

There are many instances of brands creating “awkward” publicity for themselves on social media. For some, it’s impossible to tell whether or not the brand knew what it was doing beforehand. In 2014, DiGiorno Pizza used the Twitter hashtag #WhyIStayed to promote its product. That hashtag was already being used to highlight the plight of people who were stuck in abusive relationships. DiGiorno later apologized for the tweet and stated that the person who managed the social media account was unaware of the significance of the hashtag. 

The DiGiorno Pizza incident may or may not have been like the Chipotle “hack.” It is entirely possible that a social media manager just looked at some trending hashtags and tried to join in. But it’s also plausible that the company knew exactly what was going to happen and did it anyway, reasoning that it would make the brand prominent and distract from other negative news stories, such as the animal abuse that had been captured at one of the company’s supplier farms. Could it be that someone at the company decided to mask actual animal abuse with a tasteless yet seemingly accidental tweet about abusive relationships?

It’s difficult to tell just how manipulative advertisers and politicians are, even when you’re working for them. A few years ago when I was working in PR, a video that I produced for our client Condor Ferries appeared in the online version of The Daily Mail. The headline asked, “Is this Condor Ferries video the worst safety demonstration of all time?” At the time, my boss and I thought that the Condor Ferries owners would be outraged. Instead, they were delighted: The video distracted people from the far worse news that their new ship had crashed on its second day of service. 

So was the safety demonstration video a piece of deliberate awkward marketing, based on what I know of its production? That certainly did not seem to be the case when it was being made. The video was shot on February 18th, 2015. And the crash happened on March 28th. There’s no way that Condor Ferries could have realized that their new ship would crash at the moment when they would have a distracting video. 

But then it is also possible that someone who worked within the marketing department of the company realized that the video could be used to distract from bad press associated with the crash after the production had wrapped. The timing between the video’s YouTube upload and its appearance in The Daily Mail support this theory. The video appeared on YouTube on March 20th, 2015. But it only appeared in The Daily Mail on March 30th, 2015, two days after the crash. Prior to the crash, news reports of the video had been positive. 

Imagine being a marketing manager at Condor Ferries on the day of the March 28th crash. You can either let stories of the crash spread, or attempt to cover it up with an awkward video. This didn’t necessarily happen, but it’s easy to speculate that it did.

Does this mean that every funny advertisement is a cover for a more sinister news story? Of course not. And this is where speculation could easily overboil into conspiracy theories. It’s hard to deny that Trump might have done such a thing with his Santa Claus question, considering that he had plenty of negative news to distract people from. 

Every individual tries to control their public perception to some degree. Companies and politicians, however, pay top dollar for good public relations. Do PR people know that awkward marketing can be an effective form of distraction? Every awkward story cannot be accidental. Every awkward story cannot be intentional either.  

Will we be seeing more of this distraction tool? Will we learn to see through it? Trump appears to have lived by the sword and died by the sword, if his election loss and social media deplatforming indicate anything. But the public relations industry grew significantly from 2015 to 2020. The industry is also expected to overcome the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic with ease. It could be that a significant amount of “awkward” distraction media is right around the corner. In many instances, they could successfully bury negative news, as my Condor Ferries safety video once did.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images