Negative Articles Won’t Hurt Too Much, and They Might Help

newspapers lined up

You’ve heard it before, but here we go again: ‘without measuring, you’re just guessing.’ More proof of this maxim’s truth comes from Onclusive and its new report, which analyzed 120,000 earned media articles published on B2B and B2C sites last year.

Though the study was limited to earned media, it whacks at several sacred cows of media relations and PR. Two of the biggest surprises involve brand sentiment and media reputation and their relationship with site traffic.

The first surprise, and it’s huge, addresses the adage “all press is good press.”

Onclusive found articles that cast brands in a bad light actually drive more traffic than positive stories. Even neutral stories drove more traffic than positive ones, Onclusive’s N. America GM Sean O’Neal says.

The brand sentiment data result was our “biggest surprise,” O'Neal says, admitting he's wanted to crunch these numbers for awhile. PR attribution is a major part of Onclusive's business. As such, companies ask Onclusive questions like:

  • 'How much web traffic does a positive article in a tier-1 publication drive to my site?'
  • 'What about a negative article?'
  • 'How about an article that mentions us once or twice, along with several other companies?'
  • 'Is a feature article just about our company and executives better for traffic and actions?'
  • 'If my objective is traffic, should I pitch well-respected tier-1 publications and forget about the industry trades (tier-2)?'
  • 'Does an article in a tier-1 pub drive more actions than inclusion in a tier-2 outlet?'

Onclusive provided PRNEWS an advance copy of “How Earned Media Drives Consumer Behavior: A Quantitative Analysis.” It is available now.

Bad Press is Better Than Good Press

In addition to "bad press is good press," at least for driving web traffic, this data seem to prove several newsroom aphorisms about negative news. These include: “people love watching a train wreck” and, as Professor Frank Mulhern of Medill says, “if it’s not negative, it’s not news.”

On average, positive sentiment articles drive 50 percent less website traffic than negative sentiment articles, the survey says. Neutral sentiment articles drive 49 percent less traffic than negative articles. And positive sentiment articles drive 3 percent less traffic than neutral articles.

Meanwhile, positive sentiment articles result in 31 percent fewer website actions than negative sentiment articles.

Moreover, the data seem to illustrate the needs for companies to have their websites ship-shape during  negative moments, including PR crises. Clearly this data argue website exposure at these times is significant.

Surely, positive articles have some value besides building a thing called reputation, right?

Seriously, O’Neal admits it’s obvious you don’t want to distribute negative information about your company. And on the data side, Onclusive finds positive articles drive 41 percent more website actions than neutral articles.

Website actions are defined here as sign ups, purchases and pages viewed.

O’Neal’s takeaways here echo our above thoughts: crisis preparation remains vital. The world is watching you and your site during negative moments, he says. It’s an ideal time to show your best.

In addition, the data call into question the wisdom of "PR practitioners, who hunker down and black-out their website [during a PR crisis]. They go into hiding," he says. "When the reality is there might be an opportunity, you might be able to take advantage of" negative media with a skillful crisis response.

While you don't want negative press or a PR crisis, obviously, Onclusive's data show these moments can be "an opportunity...[So,] be ready for it, you might be able to capitalize on it. I know that sounds crazy," he admits.

Reputation Counts for Something, But What?

Analyzing website traffic and media outlet reputation, Onclusive’s analysis found “publication reputation is minimally predictive of website traffic.” It adds that “high- and medium-reputation publications” drive “roughly equal website traffic.” Low reputation sites, or tier-3 outlets, typically are niche content sites and blogs.

On the other hand, tier-1 sites, like the NYT or WSJ, lead visitors to act at significantly higher rates than either tier-2 or tier-3 sites. Visitors at tier-1 sites act 41 percent more than medium-reputation sites and 73 percent more than low-reputation sites.

The takeaways, says O’Neal, include the importance of pitching tier-1 and -2 publications for traffic reasons. In addition, recognize that visits at tier-1 sites tend to drive more actions.

The Features-Only Approach

Another counterintuitive finding holds that a brand can receive as much traffic from a mention in an article that’s “highly relevant” to its sector as from a feature story solely about it.

"This will stun a lot of PR practitioners who are obsessed with getting feature articles," O'Neal says. "'It has to be a feature, it has to be all about me and my company.' Well, guess what? It might be just as valuable for you to be mentioned once or twice if the article is highly relevant to your industry or category."

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider. Follow him: @skarenstein