The paradox of publicity is a concept that refers to the possible negative consequences of positive public recognition. The old saying that “there is no such thing as bad publicity” aptly captures the folk wisdom that any and all forms of public recognition are beneficial to the recipient—or, at the very least, are not harmful. This adage is thought to be especially true in the case of public recognition that is positive in nature, such as winning an award or receiving a positive review of one’s work. In support of this statement, a large body of research has documented the positive consequences that follow when an actor’s status or reputation is enhanced by favorable publicity. Yet public recognition can also entail deleterious consequences.
This entry examines actor-centered and audience-centered mechanisms and their combination. Actor-centered mechanisms involve changes in the dispositions and behaviors of actors who have received positive, public recognition. For example, positive recognition may lead actors to rest on their laurels or become distracted, leading to lower subsequent performance. Audience-centered mechanisms involve changes in how actors who have received public recognition are evaluated, not of any changes in their own behavior.
Actor-centered mechanisms concern psychological dispositions that in turn influence subsequent performance in a negative way. More specifically, because status is a valued end in and of itself, the achievement of status can generate feelings of self-satisfaction, which can lead to high-status individuals perhaps not working as diligently or with as much focus as they did prior to gaining public recognition. Alternatively, status may lead to overconfidence, which results in unwise risk taking and other actions that lead to lower performance.
Numerous studies provide evidence consistent with these possible negative consequences. A study examining the effect of status on subsequent performance among professional golfers and race car drivers found that status has a curvilinear effect such that status improves performance until very high status levels, at which point it starts to decline. A study examining CEOs who were recognized in Financial World’s annual CEO of the Year competition found that their companies tended to have positive short-term abnormal returns but lower market returns in the subsequent year. The study conjectured that CEOs’ appearance in the annual competition may result in CEO hubris that leads to poor decision making. Another study found that award-winning CEOs tend to subsequently underperform relative to both their own prior performance as well as to a matched sample of nonwinning CEOs. The study suggested that award-winning CEOs may be distracted by taking on an increasing array of activities, such as writing books and sitting on the boards of other firms.
Although receiving positive publicity or gaining status may bring additional resources and opportunities that lead an actor to be able to perform at a higher level, status and publicity may also lead to changes in both.
Audience-centered mechanisms stem from changes in the audiences who evaluate the actor receiving the public recognition. Audience-centered mechanisms may relate to changes in the audience composition or their expectations. A study of reader ratings of books found that prizewinning books tend to attract a dramatically larger audience following the announcement of the award. However, the audience is composed of more individuals whose tastes do not intrinsically fit with the book (e.g., someone who normally reads science fiction may decide to read a romance novel if it wins a prize), and average ratings for prizewinning books fall as a result of this new and different audience’s tastes.
Increased expectations may also contribute to the paradox of publicity. Robert Merton noted that in the context of science, more and more is expected of scientists as they become increasingly renowned. To the extent that any evaluation occurs relative to prior expectations, it is possible that elevated expectations of those who have received much positive publicity could lead to lowered subsequent evaluations. Consistent with this possibility, one study found that a sizable number of reader reviews of award-winning books contain words indicating disappointment and unmet expectations and that such reviews are associated with lower numeric ratings.
A final mechanism through which the paradox of publicity may arise involves the possibility of scandal. Transgressive actions on the part of high-status individuals are more likely to lead to scandal than would similar actions by lower-status individuals. This is in part simply because high-status individuals attract greater attention and because their actions are viewed as symbolic; therefore their moral transgressions are viewed as potentially more threatening of public institutions. A study of British members of parliament whose annual expense claims were exposed in a scandal found evidence consistent with this argument. The study showed that higher-status members of parliament were no more likely to have abusive expenses, but they were more likely to be targeted by the press for their claims, leading to higher rates of leaving Parliament when they did have inappropriate expense claims.
Adut, A. (2008). On scandal: Moral disturbances in society, politics and art. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Bothner, M., Kim, Y.-K., & Smith, E. B. (2012). How does status affect performance? Status as an asset vs. status as a liability in the PGA and NASCAR. Organization Science, 23(2), 416–433.
Graffin, S., Bundy, J., Porac, J., Wade, J., & Quinn, D. P. (2013). Falls from grace and the hazards of high status: The 2009 British MP expense scandal and its impacts on parliamentary elites. Administrative Science Quarterly, 58(3), 313–345.
Kovács, B., & Sharkey, A. (2014). The paradox of publicity: How awards can negatively affect the evaluation of quality. Administrative Science Quarterly, 59(1), 1–33.
Merton, R. K. (1968). The Matthew effect in science. Science, 159, 56–63.
Wade, J., Porac, J., Pollack, T., & Graffin, S. (2006). The burden of celebrity: The impact of CEO certification contests on CEO pay and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 49, 643–660.