Bad-boy branding, publicity and NRL’s ‘white line fever’

No such thing as bad publicity? The NRL drug scandal puts that saying to the test. Matt Pike looks at how brands must use bad publicity to promote their values.

matt pikeThe old saying goes that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, although it’s an idea that the National Rugby League has put to the test over the past fortnight.

For those who aren’t NRL fans, the first weekend of May saw an unprecedented number of negative headlines for the code, with five players and officials tied up in alleged cocaine incidents. Five men involved in the game, including the Kiwis’ captain, popped for the same illegal substance in a 72-hour window.

Making it worse was the fact that the period over which the incidents took place was the game’s Representative Round, a weekend where the focus is supposed to be very much on what’s happening on the field, rather than in pockets and nostrils.

I doubt NRL CEO Todd Greenberg is popping the champagne for all the publicity his game has been receiving.

But, as they say, every dark cloud has a silver lining.

When can a colossal blow to a brand’s public image become a positive?

 

Bad-boy branding

There are, of course, certain brands where bad publicity does wonders. Just look at the infamous Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas Nevada and you get an idea of what I’m talking about.

Another current example is Sportsbet’s ad featuring acknowledged drug cheat Ben Johnson – the ad has caused a media storm and been admonished by politicians of the highest order – all while while Sportsbet has been basking in the glow of free press. It seems like this furore is exactly what they wanted.

 

Or take someone like Kyle Sandilands. Love him or hate him – and it truly is one or the other – the man has cultivated the brand of being brash, unapologetic and controversial. It’s got him in trouble plenty of times, perhaps most notably in late July 2009, when a 14-year-old girl appeared on his radio show to be asked about her sexual history in front of her mother, while hooked up to a lie-detector.

It’s now a matter for history that the segment descended into chaos.

The stunt got Sandilands and Jackie O fired as the hosts of Channel Ten’s Australian Idol, and as advertisers pulled their sponsorship, Kyle and Jackie took a break from presenting their breakfast radio show.

The Daily Telegraph put Kyle and Jackie’s hiatus on the front page on August 3. No, I don’t have an eidetic memory for newspaper headlines – the front page in question is displayed prominently on Kyle’s ‘King Kyle’ websites home page.

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Perhaps this is his way of reminding both the general public and his employers that even the worst gaffes don’t lead the listeners to turn off – while they’re now at KIIS rather than 2Day FM, Kyle and Jackie O continue to dominate the FM breakfast ratings.

 

How to make a negative into a positive

 But bad-boy branding is not going to work in the case of the NRL’s white-powder weekend. A sporting brand can hardly stand in front of the cameras and say, “Yeah, we totally do drugs, how hardcore are we?”

Never mind that the sport relies on a family-friendly image, and one that presents a healthy lifestyle, the NRL is policed by the ASADA and WADA codes, under which cocaine is “classed as performance‑enhancing”.

So if you can’t parade your bad publicity, what can you do? Own it.

It’s easy to espouse your brand values when they’re not being tested, but it’s when things are going seriously awry that you are given the opportunity to actually walk the walk.

Perhaps the best example of how to turn the incident around was showcased by the New Zealand Rugby League in the wake of Bromwich and Proctor’s indiscretions being made public.

While their respective clubs, the Melbourne Storm and Gold Coast Titans, have stood both players down for a number of games, the NZRL came down on them like a ton of bricks, banning both players from featuring in the World Cup at year’s end.

“I can’t express my disappointment enough in their actions in the early hours of Saturday morning,” Kiwi coach David Kidwell said in a comment.

“We have values to uphold, they have broken my trust, their team mates trust and the trust of the New Zealand public. In our Te Iwi Kiwi house no one is bigger than the team.”

‘No one is bigger than the team’ – it’s a cliché all sporting organisations love to say they live by, but rarely do we see it enforced. But by taking two of his best players – and, as mentioned above, Bromwich was the team captain until catching the other kind of white-line fever – out of the most important tournament his team plays in, Kidwell showed that the NZRL are serious about their brand values.

The response to a bad-news story is the key to stopping bad publicity from becoming far, far worse.

Look at almost every media scandal – and these days it seems like there’s social blowup every other day – and often the biggest public outcry is due to the brand’s poor response to the gaffe, rather than the gaffe itself. VW’s slow response to the emissions scandal in 2015 was absolute cannon fodder for the scandal-hungry masses.

It’s crisis management 101, but a lesson that is all too often forgotten: a senior figure within the organisation needs to front up early, take ownership of the issue, offer a sincere, unreserved apology, and make a show of contrition. But the response is not only about keeping the bad publicity at bay. It is an opportunity to strengthen your brand and promote your values.

Brand values should be sacred, but everyone makes mistakes. When trust has been breached and those values appear to have been jeopardised, that is the best time to hammer home just how important they are.

It may not see your bad publicity turn into a good-news story, but it reinforces that you do in fact stand for something, and the mistakes of a few won’t destroy what the brand has worked so hard to build.

 

Matt Pike is Atomic 212° group digital director and client lead.

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