Can You Say Something Negative About Your Competition?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 14, 2013 – 6:02 AM

I recently came across an article offering “15 Tips for Media Training Success” by Arthur Solomon, a PR pro with more than three decades of experience. His list is chock full of solid advice, including:

2. Keep in mind that the great majority of reporters are cordial people who are not out to harm you. They just want to get a story that will satisfy their editors and go home to their family.

7. Just because a reporter puts away a notebook or turns off a tape recorder doesn’t mean the interview is over and you can say anything without it being used.

15. And most important, never lie to a reporter.

But I disagree with one piece of advice he dispensed, and wanted to explore that point further here.


Should you ever say something negative about your competition?


In his point number ten, Mr. Solomon wrote:

10. Never say anything negative about an individual or company.

I suspect I know what he’s saying. If you say something negative about an individual or a company, you can be almost guaranteed that the reporter will use that quote, drowning out everything else you said in your interview.

But what if you want the reporter to say something negative about a company or individual? For example, consider the story I wrote recently about a woman who wanted the company that owned a neighboring property to cut down a dangerous tree. By mentioning the company’s name, she introduced conflict into the story; since conflict is catnip for reporters, the story got coverage.

Or consider Slacker Radio, a small Internet radio company that knocks Pandora Radio, a much larger competitor, in its ads? Or the search engine Bing, which names Google in its commercials? Or Samsung’s epic ads that mock iPhone users (below)?

Or, more famously, let’s say you’re the number two soft drink brand hoping to siphon some sales from the number one soft drink brand. Pepsi has used the “Pepsi Challenge” for a brilliant series of ads since the 1970s—and it wouldn’t have worked if Pepsi didn’t show Coke’s brand in the ad. (Readers of a certain age will enjoy seeing Welcome Back, Kotter’s Gabe Kaplan in the ad below.)

I would modify Mr. Solomon’s advice slightly: Never say anything negative about an individual or company unless doing so is pre-planned, deliberate, and consistent with your communications strategy.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Comments (5)

  1. By Brett:

    Hi Brad,

    I think your advice is bang on in that any negativity should be consistent with your overall communications strategy. But I’m wondering if there isn’t a further caveat here… the main examples you cite are advertisements, rather than interviews with company officials. While I agree that naming your competitors worked extremely well in the ads you posted (and even for the resident looking to have tree cut down), I would be rather hesitant to advise the CEO (or other high ranking company official) to go negative in an interview setting. I would be concerned that such a strategy would diminish the person’s office and make them appear somewhat petty. In most cases I would leave it up to the ad department to do the dirty work and let the company spokesperson take the high road.

    Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  2. By Brad Phillips:

    Hi Brett,

    Thank you for your comment. You make a terrific observation, and you’re correct that I didn’t think to offer that additional caveat. I’m glad you distinguished between a commercial and a live interview!

    After reflecting on your comment for a bit, I think your conclusion is mostly right. I say “mostly,” because I believe that the right executive — someone, say, with a twinkle in his eye or a slightly mischievous but kind grin on her face — could get away with a few gentle knocks on a competitor. After media training a few thousand people, I can comfortably say your instinct that few people could pull that off well is correct. But I’d always leave my options open when dealing with the rare spokesperson who could pull it off well, so I’d never say “never.”

    Thanks again,

  3. By Brett:

    When I read your response, I thought of Bill Clinton right away! However, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I could not immediately think of an equivalent female example… maybe others have some ideas?

  4. By Jeff Domansky:

    Brett, Carol Bartz, former Yahoo CEO, comes to mind if you can tolerate her F-words LOL

  5. By Simon Mossman:

    There’s also the point to make that, as a general rule you should not bag your competition if you don’t want them to bag you.

    Unless – as you point out -it is planned and risk-assessed.

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