The Everest horse race: All PR is good PR… or is it?

WE Buchan's Gemma Hudson considers if the old adage 'all PR is good PR' applies to the recent Everest horse race ad controversy.

Ten years ago I worked on the PR launch of a new drug. A few days ahead of the planned launch, news outlets in the US reported that the drug in question caused people using it to have suicidal thoughts. This story, of course, travelled the globe and was plastered all over our local news. In response, my team kicked into issues management mode, and we planned how we were going to handle this unexpected and difficult turn of events and put in a call to our client. His response to this worldwide negative media attention has stayed with me ever since: “All PR is good PR…”


I remember being shocked at this old school ‘PR’ mentality, and I couldn’t have disagreed with him more if I tried.

But watching the controversy that erupted over the use of the Sydney Opera House as a billboard to advertise “The Everest” horse race play out in our media over last week got me thinking: is there ever a time when those five little words are, in fact, true?

The Everest ad, which was outshone by thousands of protesters last week

Racing NSW came to the party with a clear goal: to make The Everest a NSW horse race to rival our southern state’s Melbourne Cup. So it’s understandable that they thought it fitting to choose NSW’s (and in fact our country’s) most iconic building to promote it. However, they were probably not expecting what came next.

After the Opera House’s CEO declined NSW Racing’s request to project the barrier draw for the $13 million dollar race on its sails, Alan Jones took it upon himself to champion the cause, and NSW government stepped in, overriding the decision.

Subsequently more than a 1,000 protestors gathered in front of the Opera House to protest against the projections on the world heritage-listed building and a quarter of a million people signed a petition that opposed the projection. And all of this was played out in the media. There was even coverage in the New York Times!

Of course, there’s two sides to whether or not the projections were a good idea.

On one hand, the controversy earned The Everest more media coverage than it may otherwise have gained had the advertising stunt proceeded without the furore, or if it had even proceeded at all. So in this case, was all this PR, good PR, irrelevant of the debate? Judging by the 8,000 extra race-goers attending Randwick Racecourse on Saturday compared to the previous year, some would call this promotion a success.

Yet on the other hand, what is the resulting impact on the three brands – NSW Racing, NSW Government and the Opera House – caught up in this debate?

Consumer expectations from brands continues to rise. Consumers are holding brands to account, demanding that brands act responsibly, ethically and sustainably. In light of this, you have to consider whether it’s worth taking risks that might end up getting caught up in such a heated debate and throws up implications in terms of ethics and governance.

In the case of The Everest, was the brand responsible for NSW Racing’s decision to use our nation’s iconic arts building as a screen to promote a horse race on which many people wager, in a country that has a well-known gambling problem? Was it ethical for NSW government to force the Opera House to be beholden to big business and use its sails for commercial purposes? In a consumer landscape where ethical and responsible behaviour is expected, I’m not sure this was a good move by either organisation.

While the Opera House’s brand reputation may have fared better than that of the other two by declining the promotion to stay true to its principles, there’s also a whole group of people who really can’t understand the problem. That said, will this stunt and surrounding debate dissuade people from visiting Australia’s most famous landmark, or convert staunch anti-horse racing protestors to take a 360 on their views? Probably not. But will the implications be more long lasting for NSW government? The next election will tell.

And so now back to my original question, is there a time when “all PR is good PR” is true?

While on a professional level, I wouldn’t have chosen to go ahead with the Opera House stunt, I can’t argue that the PR in this case – good or bad – did deliver against its objective. There’s probably not a single person in the country who didn’t know about the world’s richest turf race.

Gemma Hudson is managing director at WE Buchan.


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