When I was running my own PR agency, one of my clients (the president of a financial publishing company) came to me with a startling request. It seemed he was bothered by the unexpected success of a smaller competitor and he wanted to start a stealthy PR campaign designed to smear the competitor. In my client’s logic, the negative press generated in this campaign would wreck that competitor’s profits and thus enrich his own bottom line.
Needless to say, I dropped that client like the proverbial hot potato. Yes, I lost some money from the abrupt cutoff in retainer fees – but I would’ve morally bankrupt if I went along with that scheme, and no amount of cash would fill that void.
I subscribe to the notion of using the power of PR for positive purposes. I could never bring myself to use any PR strategy that is intentionally designed to damage someone’s reputation, source of income or occupational standing. I have three key reasons for thinking this way.
One, any attention aimed at the competition (even the negative stuff) is still giving them more attention than they would get on their own. For example, look at the on-going (but rather weak) attempt to get Rosie O’Donnell off “The View” because of allegedly anti-patriotic comments she made about 9/11 and the War in Iraq. Rather than just brush her off as some big-mouthed comic on a silly talk show, her detractors actually provide her with more attention than she and “The View” would normally receive.
Second, smear campaigns inevitably leave behind fingerprints – and those who own the fingerprints usually get smeared up as being troublemakers. Look at Sam Fox, who financed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against John Kerry’s 2004 race for the White House. Fox was outed almost immediately when that campaign took steam, and the residue of his work was still intact earlier this year when President Bush tried to offer him as the new U.S. Ambassador to Belgium. The president had to sneak Fox in as a recess appointment in the face of a hostile Congress, who considered Fox as being less than on-the-level. That made both Fox and Bush look corrupt and sleazy – a bad PR move, to be certain.
Third, and most personal, I’ve been on the receiving end of four different smear campaigns – and I can attest from personal experience that they don’t work. I am not identifying any of them (why give attention to the haters?), but I will say that all four attempts failed miserably. In one case, it was a word-of-mouth effort that backfired when the whispering was conducted at a loyal client of mine. The other was a pathetic attempt to defile my Wikipedia profile (kudos to that site’s highly efficient anti-vandalism mechanism). And there was also a letter-writing campaign that was very easily traced to its source (that was due to an article I wrote – the source organization was a bit pissed at my grasp of history).
Needless to say, I came out of those incidents smelling like the proverbial rose. And the haters came out looking like fools.
What is the best way to smear the competition? Play up your client, company or organization with killer, high-profile, positive PR. Smear tactics are for idiots, not PR professionals.
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book "The New PR" will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)