From Viagra to Microsoft, from sex scandals to home run hitters, PR played ...

You can bet that sports and entertainment will always score highly when it comes to a ranking of good publicity. And this year's survey has its share of sports and movie moments:

You can bet that sports and entertainment will always score highly when it comes to a ranking of good publicity. And this year's survey has its share of sports and movie moments: Mark McGwire and baseball; Leonardo DiCaprio, Star Wars, Saving Private Ryan - these were all winners in the PRWeek/Impulse Research Best & Worst Survey 1998.

But in an election year, it was not asking much to expect a politician to score highly in the good publicity stakes - particularly since the Democrats, who had been predicted to bomb by all the pundits, had some big wins in both the House and Senate, and Newt Gingrich felt obliged to resign. Yet when survey respondents were asked the question 'who got the best publicity in 1998?', not one politician registered in the Top 10 - at least not for their political achievements.

John Glenn, the oldest man in our survey, as well as the oldest man ever to orbit the earth, may be a Democrat senator for the state of Ohio. But there is no doubting that his achievements, for which he polled 24.7% of the vote, were in an arena far above Capitol Hill. His journey salvaged the space program for NASA, which was ranked fourth amongst organizations that overcame a 'bad situation' to enhance their situation (see tables).

Glenn's historic voyage also put senior citizens on the positive PR map. Together with Viagra, it must have had even the powerful American Association of Retired Persons believing it had discovered the fountain of youth in PR terms.

The same applies to Hillary Clinton. Unquestionably her good publicity was achieved in a political context, but she will best be remembered for her dignity, her elegance and her refusal to hide, in shame, behind the net curtains of the White House. Whether turning on the Christmas tree lights at the Rockefeller Center or appearing on the front cover of Vogue, Hillary's actions were not political in nature so much as brilliant, image-enhancing positions. The First Lady has evidently benefited from strong PR counsel. Even her speeches focused attention on her non-political causes and positioned her as a brave, resilient, and essentially humane mother-figure, slightly removed from the world of politics. Interestingly, she is the only woman who featured in the Top 10. She polled 10.8%.

If this seems like a low figure, consider this. When asked 'who did the most to enhance their reputation in a bad or difficult situation?', Hillary Clinton won by a landslide (75%), performing better than Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat and their Israeli peace agreement; to say nothing of Tony Blair and Gerry Adams and the Northern Ireland peace accords.

Clearly, then, when it came to politics, there was another agenda, a story bigger than politics, guiding this year's Best & Worst survey. And we all know what that was. Bill Clinton's sexual practices and the lurid exposure of them dominated the political and public scene in an unprecedented, but also quite extraordinary way.

As the survey shows, seven of the 10 people who were judged to have gotten the worst publicity in 1998 were connected with Bill Clinton. Yet although he got the worst publicity himself (27.6% of the vote), the extraordinary thing about this torrid affair is that he made no one associated with the GOP look good - not Ken Starr (15.7%), nor Newt Gingrich (6.6%), nor Henry Hyde (0.4%) - although, obviously Clinton and his administration had a part in making it seem that way. Ironically, then, and as the election results testify, it was his own Democratic Party which benefited most from the debacle, although no one is likely to thank him for it.

Remarkable achievements
But 1998 was about so much more than politics, and the Best & Worst Survey remembers some remarkable achievements in PR. Mark McGwire's record-breaking performances on the baseball park speak for themselves, and he was the only individual sports figure to feature in the Top 10. But his feat in breaking the record of Roger Maris was unquestionably enhanced by his race against Sammy Sosa to the top spot.

This was recognized in the survey, with the home run slug fest ranking second only to the John Glenn/NASA space trip as the best publicity stunt of the year. Some respondents to the survey argued that the McGwire/Sosa battle was not actually a publicity stunt. But that is to ignore the weekly updates which the team at Major League Baseball initiated, from early in the season, and the fact that the McGwire and Sosa pre-and post-game news conferences were made available to any station that wanted to broadcast them. Asked 'which company or product got the best publicity in 1998?' MLB ranked fourth with 12% of the vote.

But while MLB had an outstanding year, there is no doubt of the company/product business phenomenon of 1998. Viagra (with 23% of the vote) may yet prove to be the biggest pharmaceutical story of the decade. And again it is a story of outstanding public relations.

Viagra was a phenomenon that happened without paid advertising. But it couldn't have happened without great PR. True, there was a great story to tell. But there were so many issues and aspects to consider, so many stories - from health scares to age and even sex discrimination, from prescription prices to HMO availability, across almost the entire globe - that without appropriate PR support, the 'message' could have spun out of control.

Other success stories included the new Volkswagen Beetle (13%), Amazon.com (10%), the Apple iMac (8%), Saving Private Ryan (5%), Furby (4%), Star Wars (3.5%) and the New York Yankees (2.5%).

Apple was also rightly recognized in the survey for the outstanding turnaround that has followed since the launch of the iMac. Asked the question, 'which company or product did the most to enhance its reputation in a difficult/bad situation?', 29% voted for Apple. Other notable high scorers included Swissair (21%), a fantastic tribute to the crisis PR work in the wake of the airplane disaster off the coast of Nova Scotia; The Democratic Party (21%); NASA again (13%) and tobacco companies (11%). In all these cases, the impact of PR can be clearly felt.

Corporate winners and losers
When Apple made 4th quarter earnings of $10.6 million - the first profit it has seen in three years - it was a particular triumph for public relations.

For it was PR that persuaded a very cynical trade press that Apple could once again be a winner. It was PR that persuaded the public that Apple could provide proper user support when only months earlier it had been a rudderless loss-maker whose very existence was in doubt. And it was PR that set up Steve Jobs, the maverick founder of Apple, as a businessman to challenge the might of Bill Gates. Steve Jobs ranked alongside Tony Blair and Gerry Adams, with 6% of the vote, in terms of the enhancement of his personal reputation.

Just as the Best & Worst survey demonstrates how reputations can be won by the role of PR, however, so it also emphasizes how fragile publicity can be, and how illogical reactions are. This is ably demonstrated by Microsoft. Asked 'which company/group/product had the worst publicity in 1998?', 18.6% chose the software giant. That's more than the Swiss Banks (12.5%) who confiscated and held on to Jewish money for more than 50 years.

It's also clear that strikes are not considered good publicity by PR professionals. Three companies or groups registered in the Top 10 in this category because of industrial action: NBA (12.1%); General Motors (6%); and UPS (3%). Absent from the survey was Mitsubishi, despite an ongoing sex discrimination case.

When it comes to bad PR, none, it seems, can beat Bill Clinton. Yet the results in the final category may also prove 1998 to be a watershed in PR. Clinton's TV performances won the dubious distinction of 'worst publicity stunt' of the year'. If there is a message from this, it is that truth counts above all else.

PRWeek survey: best and worst publicity

Best individual publicity
1 Mark McGwire 24.7%
1 John Glenn 24.7%
3 Leonardo DiCaprio 14.3%
4 Jerry Seinfeld 13.0%
5 Hillary Clinton 10.8%
6 Steve Jobs 3.9%
7 Tom Wolfe 2.6%
8 Stephen Spielberg 2.1%
9 Matt Drudge 1.3%
10 Steve Brill 0.4%

 

Other 2.2%

Best by company/product
1 Viagra 23.0%
2 Volkswagen Beetle 13.0%
3 NASA 11.9%
4 Major League Baseball 11.2%
5 Amazon.com 10.5%
6 Apple iMac 8.0%
7 Saving Private Ryan 5.2%
8 Furby 4.2%
9 Star Wars 3.5%
10 The New York Yankees 2.4%

 

Other 7.1%

Most enhanced person in a difficult situation
1 Hillary Clinton 75.0%
2 Netanyahu and Arafat 7.0%
3 Steve Jobs 6.0%
4 Tony Blair and Gerry Adams 6.0%
5 Saddam Hussein 3.0%

 

Other 3.0%

Best stunt
1 John Glenn's space flight 52.5%
2 Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa 32.3%
3 Big Blue vs. Kasparov chess match 5.0%
4 Garth Brooks Wal-Mart concert 4.0%
5 Bellagio opening in Las Vegas 3.0%

 

Other 3.2%

Worst individual publicity
1 Bill Clinton 27.6%
2 Monica Lewinsky 16.9%
3 Ken Starr 15.7%
4 Linda Tripp 13.6%
5 Bill Gates 11.1%
6 Newt Gingrich 6.6%
7 Paula Jones 3.3%
8 Chainsaw Al (Sunbeam) 2.0%
9 Jack Kevorkian 2.0%
10 Henry Hyde 0.4%

 

Other 0.8%

Worst by company/product
1 Microsoft 18.6%
2 Swiss Banks (Nazi holdings) 12.5%
3 NBA 12.1%
4 The Republican Party 11.2%
5 Virginia Hospital (baby swapping) 6.4%
6 General Motors (strike) 6.0%
7 Nike 5.1%
8 CNN/Time (phony Iraq story) 4.7%
9 Columbia/HCA 4.7%
10 Brooklyn Police Force 3.0%

 

Other 15.7%

Most enhanced group in a difficult situation
1 Apple 29.0%
2 Swissair 21.0%
3 The Democratic Party 21.0%
4 NASA 13.0%
5 Tobacco companies 11.0%

 

Other 4.0%

Worst stunt
1 Bill Clinton's TV performances 37.0%
2 Grand Jury testimony leaks 28.0%
3 Calista Flockhart eating hot dog during World Series 14.0%
4 AMA's alliance with Sunbeam 9.0%
5 Bombing of Sudan 8.0%

 

Other 4.0%

Best & Worst Survey 1998 was based on a fax and Internet survey of 571

public relations professionals, conducted December 8-10, 1998 by Impulse

Research, Los Angeles.

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