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Reputation Management 101: Don't Attack Competitors

  
  
  
Every now and then, one of our clients will call us, very upset by a claim that an arch rival made that isn't true.  We are asked to go on the warpath to attack the competitor via media relations - to contact the media on the company’s behalf and tell them that the competitor is making falseRepution management: don't attack competitorsclaims or has an inferior product. The client’s goal is reputation management by generating media coverage that will paint a competitor as inferior. In this situation, attacking the competition is a bad move and will come back to bite the attacker in the end.  There are several reasons why.

First, we can't do this anonomously. It's unethical. If we contact the media on behalf of Company X, we tell them immediately that we're calling on behalf of that company. Believe it or not, we have been asked to contact the media anonomously with negative things to say about a client's competitor without letting journalists know who is paying us to do it. By the same token, we can’t say wonderful things about a client without revealing that we’re being paid, either.

There has been a lot of this type of behavior in social media in recent years, since the Internet is thought to provide anonymity. Some unscrupulous agencies and their equally unscrupulous clients have been caught posting fake complimentary reviews as well as fake negative reviews of competitors, naturally not identifying themselves. This is a serious ethical violation and also illegal, and it can be discovered. New York State regulators announced last year that they had caught companies and agencies they hired posting fake reviews and were fining them tens of thousands of dollars each. Read this article in the New York Times if you want to know the sordid details. Consumers need to be skeptical when it comes to online reviews and comments. For tips about how to spot a fake review, take a look at this very good article in Mashable earlier this year. 

There are honest companies that openly criticize their competitors, not resorting to fake reviews. But just because they're doing it openly and honestly doesn't mean it works well for them. It usually sounds like sour grapes.

It’s all about building trust and credibility. The most important thing anyone can do to make a sale is to establish a trusting relationship with the client.

Compare, Don't Criticize

It’s natural for customers to compare products. They're looking for the best quality as well as the best value. There’s nothing wrong with comparing your products with your competitors’. But there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to do that. It’s acceptable to give a side by side comparison of features, for example. This is factual communication, not criticism.

The Business World Can Be a Jungle

Life isn’t fair. You may have the best product in the world, but that isn’t enough to succeed. You’ve got to get across the benefits of your product to a wide audience.

One of our clients was the first to market with a great product. The company spent money on marketing for the product’s launch, but the budget wasn’t exactly generous. While the result wasn’t overnight fame and fortune for the founders, for a small startup with a low budget, we were able to generate quite a lot of media coverage. A couple of years went by and all went well until a new company sprang up with a very similar product. The new company had a huge amount of backing, hundreds of millions of dollars, and spent much, much more than our client. There were ads everywhere and the public relations budget must have been quite rich. Our client told us that the new company’s product had some significant weaknesses, which most media either overlooked, didn’t know or didn't understand. Our client wanted to aggressively attack the new competitor to let potential customrs know about these faults. We advised the CEO and CMO to stay the course and talk about their own product’s own strengths. They did this, but they didn’t spend anywhere near the money getting their message out as the newcomer did.

Unfortunately for our client, the new company become an overnight sensation.

Our client continued to do OK, but in comparison, the newcomer was minting money. You remember the race between the hare and the tortoise? The moral of that story was, “Slow and steady wins the race.” However, in the world of business, the first to market has an opportunity to build a reputation based on the novelty and newsworthiness of the product, but it has to be done fast, before a competitor with deep pockets comes along and steals the limelight.

What if our client had aggressively attacked the new competitor?  It wouldn't have been effective in slowing the sales of the competitor. Even though the company was first to market and was making good progress, the marketing budget had been insuffient for the company’s product to become well-known. Even if criticism of the competitor did prove to deter people from buying the product, the company's messages about their own product weren't spreading as widely or as quickly as their competitor's product messages. Unless the client greatly increased the marketing budget, there wasn't much that could be done to stop the newcomer from winning the race.

The law of the business jungle: generous backing counts a lot. If you don't care about the other reasons not to attack your competitor, at least think about the above example and assess the resources you'll have to use just to be heard. You're much better off spending your efforts building your products and correcting their weaknesses rather than trying to tear down the competition.

Lucy Siegel

Bridge Global Strategies 


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