Bad Reviews, Bad Behavior: Good for Business?

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In a world where bad press can often spell disaster for individuals and businesses, Barstool Sports CEO David Portnoy stands as a unique figure. Like P.T. Barnum, the renowned showman and circus operator, Portnoy seems to thrive on controversy and believes (like Oscar Wilde) that "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

There is an intriguing paradox of Portnoy's approach to publicity and whether his "no such thing as bad press" mantra works, but more so, can it benefit those he engages with, too? Does he have a Midas touch of Teflon? It seems so—and it is bizarre.

Recently, a heated, expletive-laden altercation between Portnoy and Charlie Redd, the owner of Dragon Pizza in Somerville, Mass., took the internet by storm. Portnoy's scathing review, describing Redd's pizza as a "floppy mess," resulted in Dragon Pizza receiving the lowest rating ever in a "One Bite" review. Portnoy called it the “worst pizza place in America.”

Redd took none of this lightly. His anger was on full display. He went after Portnoy, calling out his previous bad press (which was met with a laughing dismissal) and his business record. The incident was marred by profanity and embarrassing behavior, seemingly eliminating any chance of rational observers thinking Redd was treated unfairly. Many internet “Karen videos” of similar behavior have led to bans, boycotts and even job loss.

The aftermath here, though, is different. Dragon Pizza is now selling out of its product and is struggling to keep up with overwhelming demand. Portnoy's "no bad press" mantra appears to have had an unforeseen positive impact on the pizzeria—despite the embarrassing behavior of both men involved.

The astonishing success of Dragon Pizza post-controversy begs the question: Can Portnoy's unorthodox approach to publicity benefit those with whom he clashes? While many strategic communicators (me included) might vehemently disagree with Portnoy's philosophy, it is hard to argue with the results here.

Learning from Dragon Pizza's Experience

There are some things that likely helped avoid more lasting damage. Perhaps Portnoy and Dragon Pizza both had the foresight and discipline to work on these best practices:

  • Use Peacetime to Build Reputations: Dragon Pizza's reputation was built on its pizzas, not its feud with Portnoy (from which it is now benefiting). It is crucial to invest time and effort in building a strong reputation before a crisis or bad review. Had Dragon Pizza not already established itself as a reputable pizzeria, it might have weathered a storm of bad press differently. Likewise, Portnoy readily points to his efforts to help small businesses and his own successes too. It seems that both sides have loyal supporters.
  • Only Get Angry on Purpose: Redd tried to control his anger and walked away a few times before coming back and escalating the situation more. Losing one’s temper is never a good look. Making a passionate argument and showing emotions serves a valuable purpose (but it must be kept under control.) Generating buzz and attention for your passion will benefit your brand and build a loyal following. Showing you care is critical, but ill-timed outbursts usually harm one's reputation. While Portnoy used profanity, he wisely avoided further escalation.
  • Avoid Dragging It Out: In the age of social media and constant connectivity (and cameras recording it all), controversies can quickly spiral out of control. Dragon Pizza's ability to rebound may be aided by avoiding dwelling on the negative but rather focusing on addressing the issue promptly and moving forward. A paper plate in the restaurant window the next day read, “We are not talking about it.” While it seems that they are breaking this rule a bit, the back-and-forth with Portnoy seems to be over.
  • Apologize When Necessary: While Portnoy is hardly known for issuing apologies, recognizing when an apology is warranted can be crucial in managing the aftermath of bad press. Redd would be wise to apologize, too. A sincere apology can help rebuild trust and mitigate the damage done – especially if people are turned off by the behavior they witnessed. Those flooding the pizzeria today may not be there when these 15 minutes of fame are over.

As we navigate the ever-changing media landscape, the lessons from this unusual encounter remind us that preparation, controlled emotions, swift responses and judicious apologies are essential tools in weathering the storm of negative public opinion. In an era where perception often shapes reality, how we manage and learn from tense situations can define our ultimate success – and avoid bad press or reputations.

Ultimately, the Portnoy/Dragon Pizza saga reminds us that in an era where the line between good and bad press is often blurred, and as mistakes are made, the outcome for our reputation and brand depends on how we prepare for and handle each situation (unless Portnoy is involved.)

Dan Rene is Managing Director of the strategic communications firm kglobal.