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Ask McArdle: Should I fight bad press or just put up with it?

Attempting to threaten or sue your way out of trouble is bound to backfire. Change the conversation instead

Barbra Streisand

The Streisand Effect, named for its namesake Barbra and an ill-fated lawsuit, should serve as a cautionary tale about bad press. (Chris Polk/FilmMagic/Getty)

Is it better to fight bad press or just ignore it?

Ask McArdle badgeI’ve always said there’s no such thing as bad publicity, except for the publicity you get when trying to suppress bad publicity. Whether your personal indiscretions have been disclosed in the local gossip rag or your company’s precarious financials reported in the national paper of record, attempting to threaten or sue your way out of trouble is bound to backfire.

Consider the recent case of Toronto scion and businessman Michael Elder, who sought to keep a feature story from being published in the May issue of Toronto Life. He failed, of course, and widespread reports of his legal manoeuvring—an injunction against publication and a $100-million libel suit—ensured the story got much more attention than it might otherwise have warranted.

This kind of backfiring has a name: the Streisand Effect. And yes, it’s named for the singer-songwriter-actress-filmmaker. While celebrity-spotting tours of the Hollywood Hills have long been one of Los Angeles’s largest tourist attractions, Barbra Streisand has worked hard to keep the paparazzi and plebs from her door. In 2003, she sued the organizers of California Coastal Records Project, a group documenting coastal erosion in the state using aerial photographs, because one of their helicopter snaps included views of the singer-songwriter-actress-filmmaker’s Malibu home. Bad idea: While it was unlikely anyone would have been able to tell Streisand’s beachfront palace from the thousands like it, the suit attracted all kinds of publicity. The result? The $100-million three-building compound is now a fixture of Glamtown guidebooks.

“The pernicious payoff of hubris,” Daniel Tisch calls it. Tisch, the president and CEO of Toronto-based Argyle Communications, counsels his clients to counter with their own clear message rather than fly off into a litigious rage or simply shut down all communication. “How you react on that first day [of bad press] is the single biggest predictor of success or failure,” Tisch says. “Do you come across as evasive, or do you come across as confident? If you really have nothing to hide, don’t hide.” In other words, better to contextualize your own mistakes than let the media do it for you.

Got a management concern? Need to settle a debate? Ask CB’s resident expert in expertise, McArdle: @AskMcArdle