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Cyrus. Ford. Trudeau. Good PR, or bad PR?

"There's no such thing as bad PR."

Whether you work in the public relations industry or not, there's a good chance you've heard this saying. It's not true.

There is such a thing as bad PR when conversations are hurting your brand. It would be more accurate to say strategically created conversations always increase brand awareness, which is good. The key here, though, is having a strategy.

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With the exponential growth of online conversations, anyone in the public eye has to strategically plan what is said and done to protect and promote brand identity. Social media creates an infinite amount of space for dialogue that influences public opinion. These platforms enable immediate responses to be shared with a mass audience that has the power to destroy even the most established reputation.

Here are a few public figures that have been top-of-mind lately, dominating our conversations and headlining the news – whether it was strategically planned or not:

Making it twerk

Miley Cyrus shocked audiences around the world at the 2013 Video Music Awards (VMAs) and became the most-tweeted moment of the night with 306,100 tweets a minute. Her raunchy performance made a statement to the world and marked the debut of her new image. It was a deliberate strategy to disassociate Cyrus from her good-girl, Hannah Montana persona – and it worked.

Her music has gone on to dominate the charts and she recently performed to a packed house at one of Canada's largest concert venues.

Making this shift requires a fine balance: too little and it weakens the brand, but going overboard – especially without a strategic plan – can be counterproductive and risks doing more harm than good. Cyrus walked the line and ultimately came out on top.

Some people didn't understand it, but they were not her intended audience. The many who were thrilled by her sexy new appearance, language and mannerisms dropped neatly alongside the new Miley, just as she intended. Her unwavering commitment to the rebranding, despite her critics, solidified her position in popular culture and appealed to her new, slightly older target audience.

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Sinking your own ship

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has become an unfortunate example for 'what not to do' when protecting your brand from critics. His public denial of drug and alcohol abuse, followed by videos documenting just that, and his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live tainted his reputation. While the strategy to appear on a late-night TV show might have benefited his international celebrity status, it did little to build credibility among voters back home.

With a misguided strategy, Ford has sacrificed control over his own brand at media's hands. Instead of his mayoral achievements, conversations are dominated by Ford's personal flaws, imperfections and bad decisions. With every new embarrassing headline the public becomes increasingly desensitized to his antics. The loss of public trust and respect proves Ford has taken the concept of "all PR is good PR" too literally.

Do people really give a sh--?

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau represents a brand in its development stage looking for an audience connection point. After he made a faux pas in a reference to the Russian hockey team during the Winter Olympics and admitted to smoking marijuana, the media questioned this strategy. Is swearing in public an automatic overstep, or an appeal to younger voters? Regardless, it got people talking about whether this 'slip or a strategy' move would help or hurt his public image.

Like Miley Cyrus, Trudeau's unexpected behaviour has been working to his advantage, making him top-of-mind in the election race. But he has to be careful not to overstep this fine line and isolate himself from the older generation that still makes up the majority of voters in Canada.

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The constant call for transparency means an audience can be your biggest advocate or your worst enemy. Honesty, originality and consistency are the hallmarks of a conversation that resonates with the public and promotes positive brand identification. Social media drives it all, positive or negative.

The more these strategic conversations take place, the more brand awareness is established. Cyrus nailed it. Ford flopped. As for Trudeau? Stay tuned.

Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic. She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.

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