Blog PostsMedia & PsychologyThe word-of-mouth tipping point

The word-of-mouth tipping point

Good PR is sometimes the enemy of great PR.

There’s a word-of-mouth tipping point.

Having good public relations is important. But, when is “good” simply not enough?

“Good” is often not enough to spark word-of-mouth. It’s often not enough to spark referrals, positive reviews, and public endorsements. Understanding these fundamental dynamics is the key to understanding public relations at its core.

What might come as a surprise, is that bad publicity isn’t always bad for your public relations. And yes, this is where the old adage, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity; all publicity is good publicity,” comes from.

So, how does this work?

Think of a relationship as a canister for positive/negative energy. As long as the canister is empty, there’s no relationship. If there’s no relationship, then your business doesn’t exist in anyone’s mind. An empty canister represents a total lack of awareness.

word-of-mouth | Media & Psychology | Doctor Spin
An empty canister means that there is no relationship at all.

However, if you (or your brand) can manage to establish a good relationship with someone, the canister get topped up with positive energy. When someone has this type of relationship with your brand, this person will also have good things to say about you. However, this doesn’t mean that this person will go out of their way to proclaim just how awesome your brand is. They will only endorse you when specifically prompted.

word-of-mouth | Media & Psychology | Doctor Spin
With a positive perception, a friend will say good things when asked.

But, if you can manage to push this relationship passed a certain level, then suddenly, this person becomes a promoter of your brand. The energy level is above the positive referral line. Having a super-positive relationship with people is, of course, immensely powerful for any brand.

word-of-mouth | Media & Psychology | Doctor Spin
When above the positive referral line, the person will actively spread the word about the brand.

Of course, relationships can be negatively charged as well. If positive energy takes a long time to top up, then negative energy can be added much more easily. Having negative relationships, especially super-negative relationships, well, that’s kryptonite to your bottom line. B

word-of-mouth | Media & Psychology | Doctor Spin
This brand is in big trouble.

The enemies of my enemies

This is where it starts to get a little bit complicated. There’s an ancient debate as to whether it’s all bad to be negatively perceived1 in the marketplace compared to not being perceived in any way at all. Maybe this line of reasoning applies to brands, too?

To get a better understanding of this, we must add another dimension to the canister metaphor. Let’s have two relationship canisters; one for friends (the type of customers the brand wants) and enemies (the type of customers the brand don’t want). In this case, the brand has positive relationships with its publics all the while its potential enemies are unaware of the brand’s existence.

word-of-mouth | Media & Psychology | Doctor Spin
Unaware enemies can be good, but it could also be a lost opportunity.

Some brands might suffer from simply having the wrong kind of audience. A brand can be celebrated by people who are not (and will never be) paying customers, while simultaneously being perceived negatively by those who actually could become customers.

word-of-mouth | Media & Psychology | Doctor Spin
Having the wrong kind of audience might be more common than most of us realise.

If enemies develop negative relationships, their negative sentiment will likely strengthen (instead of weakening) the relationships of a brand’s existing friends. This is a mixture of psychological effects, such as Amplification Theory and Conversion Theory. In certain circumstances, opposing arguments will only serve to strengthen those who are already believers. This is a common effect often seen in politics, religion, and lifestyle products. Hence — not all negative relationships are damaging to a brand by default.

word-of-mouth | Media & Psychology | Doctor Spin
Having negative enemies can often strengthen your friends — and push them pass the referral line.

There’s also a possibility for the opposite effect; if enemies develop more positive relationships with the brand, this might result in a “cool off” effect on their friends and their attitudes. Different types of brands are, of course, more or less sensitive to this effect; customers generally care less about whether or not other consumers favour a certain type of soft drink over another, whereas such choices can turn the tide for a trend-sensitive lifestyle brand.

word-of-mouth | Media & Psychology | Doctor Spin
Having positive enemies can cool off your friends.

The Hypothesis

From the model with relationships as positive/negative energy canisters, we can deduce three key insights for cracking the word-of-mouth code:

A brand must know exactly who their publics are and track what type of relationship energy-level they are currently in.

A brand must, through research as well as trial and error, identify the positive and negative referral line for their friends and enemies.

A brand must have a strategy for how to push both friends and enemies across the positive and negative referral line respectively.

Now, some PR objectives are easier than others. The shorter the distance between targeted energy levels, the greater the chance of word-of-mouth success.

By focusing your word-of-mouth strategy on short persuasion-distances, the brand will methodically strengthen its relationships with key publics. In turn, this type of sharpness in focus will help decide what type of word-of-mouth activities to plan for — and who to direct them towards:

The media landscape is, as we all know, changing rapidly. When it comes to relationships and the internet, the difference today is that people of the same persuasion will connect with each other across geographical boundaries at a speed that is unprecedented in human history. Whether people love or hate your brand, the surround effect of people doing so together is what will make or break any business.

Photo by Official on Unsplash.


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, 810-825.

Moscovici, S. (1980). Toward a theory of conversion behavior. In L. Berkowiyz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 13, 209-239. New York: Academic Press.

Chryssochoou, X. and Volpato, C. (2004). Social Influence and the Power of Minorities: An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto, Social Justice Research, 17, 4, 357-388.


  1. The saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” has stuck around for a long time and is generally attributed to the 19th-century showman and circus owner Phineas T. Barnum. Maybe the saying has stuck around because there’s a grain of truth to it — at least in certain circumstances?


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Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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