One of my favorite aspects of strategic communications is competitive PR. There is something about trying to outmaneuver another company – and another company’s PR team – that is particularly invigorating. Like a game of well-played chess.

But a lot of companies just don’t handle this well. Three of the most common mistakes I see:

1. Knee-jerk reactions – Your main competitor announces something revolutionary or lands great coverage and now every stakeholder on the planet is in your inbox asking what you plan to do about it. Everything else you are working on is put on the back burner as you are forced into reactive mode and try to come up with a way to respond in the moment to something your competitor has probably worked on for months.

2. Giving competitors more airtime than they deserve – Your product/company is vastly superior to your competitor and what better way to prove it than a direct comparison to that competitor! Your execs call them out by name, maybe do a demo using one of their products, answer questions about their capabilities. Your spokespeople spend valuable time talking… about someone else (and probably look a bit petty as they do it).

3. Not expecting competitors to fight back – Your company has been landing some great shots at the competition and it worked (at first). Maybe a clever social campaign or a surprise announcement in front of their big event. But they just landed a great countermove that you weren’t expecting. Cue reactive mode (again).

A More Effective Approach

Now, I know several practitioners who will argue these points – especially that there are valid reasons to react in the moment and also to do very public head-to-head competitive activations. It’s certainly possible to capitalize on the latter, especially if you are a small player picking a fight with your market’s 800-pound gorilla. I’ve done this – and seen it done by others – very effectively.

But in general, the above pitfalls are symptoms of an ad hoc approach to competitive PR. A more effective strategy: an aggressive and deliberate focus on proactively establishing your optimal narrative and driving the industry to that narrative. The key is to do this in advance and as a natural part of your overall communications plan.

What does that mean? Identifying up front the best way to play to your strengths – which logically speaking should be weak spots for others – and then crafting a plan for how to make those strengths the only things that matter in your industry and for customers.

There are lots of ways to do this – a deep dive on tactics is enough for another post or 10 – but the point is to make sure you are in the driver’s seat on shaping the overall industry conversation. As you do this, it’s important to think through what will resonate at that industry level, such as bigger trends or customer insights, and what tools you have to support this point of view over a sustained period of time (third-party advocates, timely research/data, etc.).

It’s also crucial that you think like your competitor: what narrative will they be trying to push and how will they be trying to land it? How will they respond to the narrative you are driving? The idea being to safeguard your approach against that… without getting too distracted along the way or giving them too much of your valuable airtime. You need to play your hand, not into theirs.

I like to do this as part of overall planning since, again, it should naturally align with the rest of a communications program vs. being a bolt-on. I also encourage practitioners to socialize in advance how they intend to approach competitive PR with key stakeholders. Educating people on why it’s important to play the long game and take a more thoughtful approach is easier when they aren’t knocking on your door angry or frustrated about a competitive win and demanding one-off action.

Something to consider if you are still putting pen to paper on your plans for 2024! I’m always here to chat— reach out here if you’d like to continue the conversation.