The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyMedia RelationsP.T. Barnum: “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”

P.T. Barnum: “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”

PR learnings from the “Prince of Humbug.”

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Or, how about: “No pub­li­city is bad publicity.”

As PR pro­fes­sion­als, we’ve all heard the expres­sion many times before. But where does it come from? Those infam­ous words were allegedly uttered by P.T. Barnum, a legendary show­man and cir­cus director.

Although veri­fy­ing that P.T. Barnum should be cred­ited is dif­fi­cult, it’s inter­est­ing to learn more about the con­tro­ver­sial legend and bet­ter under­stand why the say­ing per­sists today.

Here we go:

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”

Poster for PT Barnum and the Greatest Show on Earth
“The Greatest Show on Earth”
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Phineas Taylor Barnum: “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”

Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum was a 19th-cen­tury American show­man, entre­pren­eur, and politi­cian known for his lar­ger-than-life per­son­al­ity and uncanny abil­ity to cap­ture the pub­lic’s ima­gin­a­tion. Born 1810 in Bethel, Connecticut, Barnum rose to prom­in­ence in the enter­tain­ment world by found­ing the Barnum & Bailey Circus, dubbed “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Barnum pion­eered the art of the press agentry mod­el, employ­ing sen­sa­tion­al­ism and pub­li­city stunts to gen­er­ate interest and draw crowds to his shows. His innov­at­ive mar­ket­ing tech­niques and relent­less pur­suit of the extraordin­ary laid the ground­work for many mod­ern pub­lic rela­tions strategies. 

Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum (1810−1891) was a savvy pub­li­city show­man, one who impacted par­tic­u­lar aspects of pub­lic rela­tions and advert­ising, primar­ily event plan­ning, event pro­mo­tion and true publicity/​media cov­er­age. Ahead of oth­ers in his time, he actu­ally under­stood the import­ance of media cov­er­age (he star­ted New York’s first illus­trated news­pa­per in 1853) and believed ‘there is no such thing as bad pub­li­city,’ a pop­u­lar phrase many times attrib­uted to Barnum him­self.”
Source: Big Communications 1Foster, A. (2017, January 20). The End of a Publicity Era: How P.T Barnum Affected Marketing and PR. Big Communications. https://​big​com​.com/​2​0​1​7​/​0​1​/​p​t​-​b​a​r​n​u​m​-​m​a​r​k​e​t​i​n​g​-​a​n​d​-​p​u​b​l​i​c​-​r​e​l​a​t​i​o​ns/

Although some crit­ics have labelled Barnum as a pur­vey­or of hoaxes and decep­tion, his endur­ing leg­acy as a vis­ion­ary show­man and mas­ter of spec­tacle con­tin­ues to cap­tiv­ate audi­ences and inspire gen­er­a­tions of enter­tain­ers and entrepreneurs.

  • An organ­isa­tion, starved of atten­tion, trust, and loy­alty, is com­pelled to wage a per­petu­al struggle for its con­tin­ued existence.

Learn more: P.T. Barnum: “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity”

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Is Bad Publicity Actually … Good?

Not all pub­li­city is good pub­li­city — of course.

But it’s com­plic­ated, too. Someone’s bad pub­li­city is often good for someone else, and vice versa. Bad pub­li­city for your com­pet­it­or could mean less busi­ness for them and more for you.

There are also con­ver­sion the­ory effects. Suppose a con­tro­ver­sial music artist gets bad pub­li­city for pro­voc­at­ive stage beha­viours. In that case, it might res­ult in angered par­ents, res­ult­ing in teen­agers queueing for hours to see the show.

Make par­ents angry!”
— Shep Gordon, tal­ent man­ager and film agent 2Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon. (2023, December 18). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​S​u​p​e​r​m​e​n​s​c​h​:​_​T​h​e​_​L​e​g​e​n​d​_​o​f​_​S​h​e​p​_​G​o​r​don

Then, there’s the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is:

  • The harder you attack someone verbally, the more you con­vince them of their belief, not yours.

This, of course, goes for pub­li­city as well.

However, P.T. Barnum likely referred to anoth­er psy­cho­lo­gic­al aspect of bad pub­li­city (which isn’t often dis­cussed in pub­lic rela­tions or else­where). Sometimes, from a busi­ness per­spect­ive, it’s bet­ter to be infam­ous than entirely unknown.

People want to be loved; fail­ing that admired; fail­ing that feared; fail­ing that hated and des­pised. They want to evoke some sort of sen­ti­ment. The soul shud­ders before obli­vi­on and seeks con­nec­tion at any price.”
— Hjalmar Söderberg (1869−1941), Swedish author

If a cir­cus attracts bad pub­li­city, plenty of people will still be curi­ous to learn what all the fuss is about. If they’re going to dis­like some­thing, why not get some “scan­dal­ous” first-hand gos­sip them­selves first? For the cir­cus, it beats being unknown and get­ting zero tick­ets sold.

Learnings from the “Prince of Humbugs”

P.T. Barnum, often hailed as the “Prince of Humbugs,” played a crit­ic­al role in devel­op­ing the mod­ern cir­cus. However, his life and career exten­ded bey­ond the cir­cus tent and provided numer­ous les­sons per­tin­ent to the busi­ness landscape. 

The fol­low­ing are some of the most sig­ni­fic­ant learn­ings from Barnum, viewed through the lens of con­tem­por­ary man­age­ment and lead­er­ship practices:

  • Mastering pub­lic rela­tions. Barnum had a knack for cre­at­ing buzz. He reg­u­larly used innov­at­ive and cre­at­ive advert­ising tech­niques to cap­ture the public’s atten­tion. This was done by embra­cing con­tro­versy, using storytelling to his advant­age, and some­times, push­ing eth­ic­al bound­ar­ies. Today’s lead­ers can draw from Barnum’s play­book, albeit eth­ic­ally, by using power­ful nar­rat­ives and effect­ive pub­lic rela­tions strategies to garner atten­tion and influ­ence their stake­hold­ers.
  • Innovation and adapt­ab­il­ity. Throughout his career, Barnum fre­quently demon­strated the abil­ity to adapt and innov­ate. Whether trans­ition­ing from a museum pro­pri­et­or to a cir­cus man­ager or bring­ing in nov­el acts to draw crowds, Barnum con­sist­ently refined him­self and his busi­ness to suit chan­ging cir­cum­stances and audi­ence tastes. Modern busi­nesses must sim­il­arly pri­or­it­ise innov­a­tion and adapt­ab­il­ity to thrive in a rap­idly chan­ging glob­al marketplace.
  • Customer cent­ri­city. Barnum deeply under­stood his audi­ence and tailored his shows to give them an unfor­get­table exper­i­ence. He believed in the value of enter­tain­ment and deliv­er­ing bey­ond cus­tom­ers’ expect­a­tions. Today, busi­nesses increas­ingly recog­nise the import­ance of being cus­tom­er-cent­ric and ensur­ing high cus­tom­er satisfaction.
  • Partnerships and col­lab­or­a­tion. Barnum’s part­ner­ship with James Bailey was instru­ment­al in cre­at­ing one of the most suc­cess­ful cir­cuses in his­tory — the Barnum and Bailey Circus. This col­lab­or­a­tion serves as a les­son in the power of stra­tegic part­ner­ships to expand one’s reach, cap­ab­il­it­ies, and success.
  • The power of a brand. Barnum built a sol­id per­son­al brand that became syn­onym­ous with spec­tacle and excite­ment. His repu­ta­tion often pre­ceded him, draw­ing in crowds based on his name alone. In today’s digit­al age, the import­ance of per­son­al and cor­por­ate brand­ing is para­mount, and busi­nesses can learn from Barnum’s abil­ity to build and lever­age his brand.
  • Risk man­age­ment. Despite his pen­chant for spec­tacle, Barnum was a shrewd busi­ness­man who under­stood the import­ance of man­aging risk. Following a fire that des­troyed his museum, Barnum promptly rebuilt, illus­trat­ing his resi­li­ence and for­ward-think­ing nature. The mod­ern busi­ness envir­on­ment, char­ac­ter­ised by volat­il­ity and uncer­tainty, demands sim­il­ar risk man­age­ment skills from leaders.
  • Resilience and per­sever­ance. Barnum faced numer­ous per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al set­backs, includ­ing busi­ness fail­ures and pub­lic scan­dals. Despite these chal­lenges, he per­sisted and often returned stronger, embody­ing the spir­it of resi­li­ence and per­sever­ance, which remain cru­cial for any lead­er in today’s com­plex busi­ness landscape.

Though drawn from a markedly dif­fer­ent era and industry, these learn­ings from P.T. Barnum remain sur­pris­ingly applic­able to mod­ern businesses.

No such thing as bad pub­li­city? Well, it’s com­plic­ated. But as for gen­er­at­ing “bad pub­li­city” on pur­pose, I’d sug­gest leav­ing any such advanced (and highly volat­ile!) PR strategies to professionals.

  • Tounge in cheek, many PR pro­fes­sion­als will say, “Advertising is the tax you pay for not being remark­able.

Please sup­port my PR blog by shar­ing it with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

PR Resource: Notable PR Contributors

PR Resource: The Amplification Hypothesis

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The Amplification Hypothesis

It’s com­mon to find that coun­ter­ar­gu­ments strengthen exist­ing beliefs instead of weak­en­ing them. 

  • The harder you attack someone verbally, the more you con­vince them of their belief, not yours.

The phe­nomen­on is known as the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is, where dis­play­ing cer­tainty about an atti­tude when talk­ing with anoth­er per­son increases and hardens that attitude.

Across exper­i­ments, it is demon­strated that increas­ing atti­tude cer­tainty strengthens atti­tudes (e.g., increases their res­ist­ance to per­sua­sion) when atti­tudes are uni­valent but weak­ens atti­tudes (e.g., decreases their res­ist­ance to per­sua­sion) when atti­tudes are ambi­val­ent. These res­ults are con­sist­ent with the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is.“
Source: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 3Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the con­sequences of atti­tude cer­tainty: The amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, … Continue read­ing

How does the amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is work? 

In a threat­en­ing situ­ation or emer­gency, we resort to the prim­al (fast­est) part of the brain and sur­viv­al instincts (fight, flight and freeze). 4Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.

  • Dichotomous think­ing. This think­ing style is at the heart of rad­ic­al move­ments and fun­da­ment­al­ism. Even people who exer­cise abstract think­ing, logic, reas­on, and the abil­ity to recog­nize com­plex issues can resort to this think­ing style when threatened. 5Silfwer, J. (2017, June 13). Conversion Theory — Disproportionate Minority Influence. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​n​v​e​r​s​i​o​n​-​t​h​e​o​ry/
  • Egocentric think­ing. People who demon­strate non-ego­centric think­ing in many areas can also use this think­ing style under stress. When a tar­get is labelled an enemy, cog­nit­ive steps jus­ti­fy viol­ent beha­viour and pre­vent altru­ism and empathy. 6Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
  • Distorted think­ing. We tend to ignore details in our envir­on­ments that do not sup­port our think­ing and beliefs. 7Cognitive dis­son­ance. (2023, November 20). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​o​g​n​i​t​i​v​e​_​d​i​s​s​o​n​a​nce

Establishing com­mon ground and exhib­it­ing empathy demon­strates a genu­ine under­stand­ing of their per­spect­ive, fos­ter­ing trust and open­ness to your ideas. Conversely, a stra­tegic mis­match of atti­tudes can serve as a power­ful coun­ter­meas­ure if your object­ive is to deflect per­suas­ive attempts.

Persuade

To per­suade, align your atti­tude with the tar­get. Otherwise, you will only act to cre­ate resistance.

Provoke

To put off a per­suader, mis­match their atti­tudes. When they are logic­al, be emo­tion­al, and vice versa. 

Learn more: The Amplification Hypothesis: How To Counter Extreme Positions

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PR Resource: The Anatomy of Attention

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The Anatomy of Attention

Attention is an essen­tial com­pon­ent of pub­lic relations:

  • An organ­isa­tion, starved of atten­tion, trust, and loy­alty, is com­pelled to wage a per­petu­al struggle for its con­tin­ued existence.

We all seem to crave atten­tion in some form or another:

People want to be loved; fail­ing that admired; fail­ing that feared; fail­ing that hated and des­pised. They want to evoke some sort of sen­ti­ment. The soul shud­ders before obli­vi­on and seeks con­nec­tion at any price.”
— Hjalmar Söderberg (1869−1941), Swedish author

But what con­sti­tutes ‘atten­tion’?

Attention is a com­plex, real neur­al archi­tec­ture (‘RNA’) mod­el that integ­rates vari­ous cog­nit­ive mod­els and brain cen­ters to per­form tasks like visu­al search.”
Source: Trends in cog­nit­ive sci­ences 8Shipp, S. (2004). The brain cir­cuitry of atten­tion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 223 – 230. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​t​i​c​s​.​2​0​0​4​.​0​3​.​004

Each of the below terms refers to a spe­cif­ic aspect or type of atten­tion (“men­tal band­width”), a com­plex cog­nit­ive pro­cess. 9Schweizer, K., Moosbrugger, H., & Goldhammer, F. (2005). The struc­ture of the rela­tion­ship between atten­tion and intel­li­gence. Intelligence, 33(6), 589 – 611. … Continue read­ing

Let’s explore dif­fer­ent types of attention:

  • Alertness. This is the state of being watch­ful and ready to respond. It’s the most basic form of atten­tion, rep­res­ent­ing our read­i­ness to per­ceive and pro­cess inform­a­tion from the environment.
  • Sustained atten­tion. This involves focus­ing on a spe­cif­ic task or stim­u­lus over a pro­longed peri­od. It’s cru­cial for tasks that require ongo­ing con­cen­tra­tion, like read­ing or driving.
  • Focused atten­tion. This refers to the abil­ity to con­cen­trate on one par­tic­u­lar stim­u­lus or task while ignor­ing oth­ers. It’s the abil­ity to focus nar­rowly on a single thing.
  • Attentional switch­ing. Also known as task switch­ing or cog­nit­ive flex­ib­il­ity, this involves shift­ing focus from one task to anoth­er. It’s crit­ic­al for mul­ti­task­ing and adapt­ing to chan­ging demands or priorities.
  • Divided atten­tion. This is the abil­ity to pro­cess two or more responses or react to mul­tiple tasks sim­ul­tan­eously. It’s often tested by ask­ing people to per­form two tasks sim­ul­tan­eously, like listen­ing to a con­ver­sa­tion while writ­ing.
  • Attention accord­ing to the super­vis­ory atten­tion­al sys­tem. This concept, derived from cog­nit­ive psy­cho­logy, refers to a high­er-level con­trol sys­tem that reg­u­lates the alloc­a­tion of atten­tion, par­tic­u­larly in situ­ations requir­ing plan­ning or decision-making.
  • Attention as inhib­i­tion. This aspect of atten­tion involves sup­press­ing irrel­ev­ant or dis­tract­ing stim­uli. It’s a cru­cial com­pon­ent of focused atten­tion and self-regulation.
  • Spatial atten­tion. This type of atten­tion focuses on a spe­cif­ic area with­in the visu­al field. It’s like a spot­light that enhances inform­a­tion pro­cessing in a par­tic­u­lar location.
  • Attention as plan­ning. This per­spect­ive views atten­tion as a resource that needs to be alloc­ated effi­ciently, espe­cially in com­plex tasks requir­ing stra­tegic plan­ning and organization.
  • Interference. In the con­text of atten­tion, inter­fer­ence refers to the pro­cess by which irrel­ev­ant inform­a­tion or dis­trac­tions impede the effi­ciency of cog­nit­ive processing.
  • Attention as arous­al. This con­siders atten­tion in the con­text of the gen­er­al level of alert­ness or arous­al. It’s about the read­i­ness of the brain to engage with stim­uli or tasks.
  • Attention accord­ing to the assess­ment tra­di­tion. This refers to meas­ur­ing and eval­u­at­ing atten­tion­al pro­cesses, often in clin­ic­al or edu­ca­tion­al set­tings, to identi­fy atten­tion defi­cits or disorders.

Each type of atten­tion plays a cru­cial role in how we inter­act with and pro­cess inform­a­tion from our envir­on­ment, and under­stand­ing these dif­fer­ent aspects is key in fields like psy­cho­logy, neur­os­cience, and education.

There’s only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
— Oscar Wilde

Learn more: The Anatomy of Attention

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PR Resource: A Glass of Many Truths

A half full and half empty glass of water.
A glass filled with truth.
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A Glass of Many Truths

Let’s say that there’s a glass of water stand­ing on a table in front of you — and there’s water in it. The glass holds 100 ml of water but could store 200 ml if filled up.

I could say that the glass is half full. That’s true.

I could also say that the glass is half empty. Still true.

Both state­ments are equally val­id, of course, but the choice of words will influ­ence our ste­reo­typ­ic­al think­ing about the state of the glass and its con­tent

The second state­ment emphas­ises empti­ness (the glass needs a refill), and the first state­ment is full­ness (the glass needs no refill).

Now, let’s get even more creative:

The glass is full. True, yes?

Technically, this state­ment is true as well:

50% of the glass con­tains water; the oth­er 50% is split between roughly 78% nitro­gen, 21% oxy­gen, argon, car­bon diox­ide, and small amounts of oth­er gasses. 

How about this:

The glass is not half full, nor is it half empty. Also true.

An equal split between water and gasses implies an exact divi­sion of pro­tons, neut­rons, and elec­trons. But Heisenberg’s uncer­tainty prin­ciple says no.

Such accur­acy might not mat­ter to you or me, but for a phys­i­cist, these pre­cise ver­sions of the truth might make all the difference.

So, what does a glass of water have to do with PR?

  • In a demo­cracy, com­pet­ing interests will put for­ward the truths that best serve their pur­poses. If you care about your interests, you should spin for the win, too.

Learn more: Does Spin Suck?

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ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Foster, A. (2017, January 20). The End of a Publicity Era: How P.T Barnum Affected Marketing and PR. Big Communications. https://​big​com​.com/​2​0​1​7​/​0​1​/​p​t​-​b​a​r​n​u​m​-​m​a​r​k​e​t​i​n​g​-​a​n​d​-​p​u​b​l​i​c​-​r​e​l​a​t​i​o​ns/
2 Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon. (2023, December 18). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​S​u​p​e​r​m​e​n​s​c​h​:​_​T​h​e​_​L​e​g​e​n​d​_​o​f​_​S​h​e​p​_​G​o​r​don
3 Clarkson, J. J., Tormala, Z. L., & Rucker, D. D. (2008). A new look at the con­sequences of atti­tude cer­tainty: The amp­li­fic­a­tion hypo­thes­is. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(4), 810 – 825. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​3​7​/​a​0​0​1​3​192
4 Surviving the Storm: Understanding the Nature of Attacks held at Animal Care Expo, 2011 in Orlando, FL.
5 Silfwer, J. (2017, June 13). Conversion Theory — Disproportionate Minority Influence. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​o​n​v​e​r​s​i​o​n​-​t​h​e​o​ry/
6 Beck (1999): Homogenization, Dehumanization and Demonization.
7 Cognitive dis­son­ance. (2023, November 20). In Wikipedia. https://​en​.wiki​pe​dia​.org/​w​i​k​i​/​C​o​g​n​i​t​i​v​e​_​d​i​s​s​o​n​a​nce
8 Shipp, S. (2004). The brain cir­cuitry of atten­tion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 223 – 230. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​t​i​c​s​.​2​0​0​4​.​0​3​.​004
9 Schweizer, K., Moosbrugger, H., & Goldhammer, F. (2005). The struc­ture of the rela­tion­ship between atten­tion and intel­li­gence. Intelligence, 33(6), 589 – 611. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​i​n​t​e​l​l​.​2​0​0​5​.​0​7​.​001
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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