THE BLOG

Google Shows That All Publicity Can Be Bad Publicity

01/02/2016 11:29 GMT | Updated 28/01/2017 10:12 GMT

It must have sounded so simple in the meeting. £130 million. Big number. It'll look great on a headline, and show our commitment to paying tax in the UK. Let's get it out there. Give the BBC an exclusive and run it in the broadsheets as well.

In trumpeting their tax agreement last weekend, Google forgot one of the iron rules of communications. If you have a high profile and negative association with a particular issue, it doesn't matter what you say about it - your reputation will suffer.

American political strategist Jim Messina often says that people devote a grand total of 4 minutes a week to thinking about politics. We can assume that the number for complex taxation issues is slightly smaller. So broad brushstrokes matter, not detail. And when you are Google, any story about tax will be seen against a dark and forbidding canvas.

Google could have given £10billion to HMRC. All most people would see would still be a headline with the words "Google", "tax" and "Treasury" in it. Regardless of the detail, this would then perpetuate the existing sentiment that the company is doing something nefarious to avoid or spin its way out of paying its 'fair share' of tax, and the bad news bandwagon rolls on.

It's not just brands that get this wrong. You see it in politics every day. The Tory brand association with the NHS is toxic, and the Conservatives know this well enough to recognise that even the most positive health policy story will be positioned as the Tories denigrating our beloved National Health Service.

Which is why they never try to win on this territory. And why it is so surprising that George Osborne compounded Google's PR error in triumphantly announcing the deal on his own Twitter feed on Saturday. Again - Tory Chancellor, big business, tax deal. The detail may or may not be fine, but the mood music emphasises all the negatives of the Chancellor's personal brand.

Osborne's intervention was so clumsy that it gave Labour its most potent and successful week in Opposition by allowing John McDonnell some easy hits at the Chancellor, which he has taken with uncharacteristic skill (even a stopped clock...).

Good communications advisers know that it can take years, even decades, of painstaking work to overturn a deeply rooted negative brand association. It took 20 years of backbreaking strategic discipline for Labour to become trusted on the economy at the end of last century. You can't fix such baked-in reputational issues with a couple of headlines. And you shouldn't try.

Both Google and the Treasury have some of the best communications people in the business. It is baffling that they got this one so wrong.