Is All PR Good PR? #WaterGate

The age-old saying “all publicity is good publicity” is often quoted at times of controversy, and it reared it’s head again last week in the wake of #watergate - the media tidal wave that followed Belfast’s 5-star hotel The Merchant launching a water menu, the price point of which hits £26 a bottle, with two dedicated water butlers to boot.

I’ve pondered the merits of both sides of the argument as the coverage has rumbled on, and it was a difficult decision to blog about it. I know the very good PR folk behind it (although I don’t know the intricacies of the project). I don’t want to offend anyone. But it’s too good an issue not to blog about.

The questions should be asked and the debate should be had, so that companies and brands investing in PR can understand the process and better advise their consultants to ensure they get the outcome they want, be it controversy or not.

The first thing to say is that all PR is good PR IF the outcome is one you envisaged, planned for and will be ultimately beneficial to you.

I believe this is probably the case with this particular hotel, mainly because their clientele will not be put off by accusations of pompous extravagance, but rather will be intrigued and possibly even genuinely excited by this new offering.

In this instance, being talked about in the UK press and even across the Atlantic, is better than not being talked about because a 5-star hotel will have certain messages and core values to communicate, and I imagine - despite my lack of experience with luxury goods - that attention to detail, extremely high quality, service and choice are probably quite high up on that list of values.

5 star hotels don’t particularly target people like me who don’t have £26 to spend on water, nor do they seek to entice those who have it but see it as outlandish. We all know it’s an expensive venue, you’ll go if it appeals to you personally, if it meets your hierarchy of needs. And as a hotel, it is in their best interests to spread their promotion globally which is tough to do. Unless you’ve got rare water from icebergs that is…

I heard through the ripe Northern Irish grapevine that the establishment had to push the public availability forward from August 1st because demand was already high following the media launch. When selling a product that is success, no? Of course sustainable success versus initial intrigue is a different thing altogether but only time can tell us that.

Where the public is confused is when they think the PR world is just measuring all the mentions of the brand and proclaiming a job well-done without actually listening to the sentiment. That’s not true. Social Listening is a tool we use to evaluate coverage, especially social media coverage.

We know how to read sarcasm, which has been rife in this case to be fair.

From other bars newsjacking it for their own media benefit (kudos Hudson Belfast), to Aid charities releasing statements of concern and media outlets lambasting it as a facepalm moment.

The best advice I can give detractors of this particular exercise in PR is the following pointers which won’t be said publicly by either the PRs or the client, in their defence of abuse, because they won’t want to be seen to have even had the “shall we push the controversial bit?” conversation, which perhaps would make people think less of them:

  • PR planning will look at all aspects of your news story, including anything that could be construed as negative. Risk assessment and crisis planning will know in advance that some audience segments may not agree with what you’re doing or that people may find certain elements offensive
  • The key is to be secure in your brand and products in the first place. Remember that offence is subjective, as is luxury and necessity. In a case like that, confidence in yourself is what is needed, not confrontation and defensiveness
  • HOWEVER, your PR team will monitor how the tidal wave flows, whether it gains momentum, when it peaks, which directions it shifts in and if things turn negative in a way that isn’t going to lead to your ultimate goals, then they will advise you to intervene and take control of the conversation
  • Gaining media coverage is difficult at the best of times. We all know that the press will pick up on one (sometimes minuscule) element of your story and run with it. You may even feed them that particular headline-worthy nugget on a silver-plated spoon. As long as no-one knows you did, it’s all good
  • As in the music industry, one big hit isn’t enough. One hit wonders exist online and in the media too. Trust your PR people. Ensure their plans fit in to an overall, longer-term strategy linked to your corporate objectives and know that every piece of work is an important cog in that process, from the little photo piece in the local press to the viral news item in Canada. It is the sum of the Public Relations activity and its impact on consumer sentiment and action that is the ultimate gauge of success.

In the end, all PR is good PR for organisations who have utilised professional, experienced, skilled PR people who have researched all outcomes, prepared a fool-proof strategy and monitor sentiment consistently, stepping in only when the tide actually turns to a level that would be dangerous to the brand reputation.

But for every exercise like this, which benefits a client, our industry can suffer when onlookers see us appearing to be ignorant, arrogant or too stupid to realise that counting columns and tallying tweets doesn’t take account of the ridicule we may be receiving.

The fact is very much the opposite, but in a bid to not look like the spin doctors we have often been branded as in the past, we don’t want to tell people that actually, we planned it all that way. And you lapped it up. With posts and pages a-plenty.

I mean I don’t know that that’s what happened here, but I know clever PR people when I see them and I have my suspicions…


  1. Loved your point on social listening so true. Now I am off to find where I can sign my son up to be a water butler 🙂

    • Thanks Jude, yes it’s an important element in evaluation, but I do sometimes have days where I think that water butler business is a better career idea!

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