There’s nothing wrong with healthy competition. Whether it’s on the field or in the boardroom, competition makes people try harder, move faster and embrace change. Without competition, there would be less incentive to think about customers, push for innovation, or strive to hit goals.
In PR, we rarely meet a CEO, a CMO, or a marketing director that doesn’t have an eye on the competition. Yes, we occasionally get the claim that “no one does what we do” but once you dig in, you start to hear about the companies that keep them up at night. Everyone has (or should have) a list of competitors that grind their gears. Sometimes it’s because the competition has a better feature, has more customers, has more brand personality or has a better record in proof of concept meetings. They might be bigger (more cash), smaller (more nimble) or faster (more features). No matter the reason, the goal remains clear: beat the competition.
SHIFT once had a client that wanted only one way to measure the PR program: did we beat the competitors in earned media coverage each month? It didn’t matter whether the competitors’ coverage was positive or negative, whether we drove any website traffic, provided any referrals or helped close any sales deals. We just had to show that our number was bigger than theirs.
And this is when competition can become unhealthy. In PR, we always watch our clients’ competitors. We keep our eyes on their announcements, the journalists they’re talking to, the trends they are talking about and their industry share of voice. We want to know the publications that drive the most traffic back to their site, the ad words they’re buying and the influencers that follow them. All of this helps us stay fresh, remain one step ahead and increase brand awareness.
But when reacting to the competition becomes a significant PR strategy – one that takes priority over all others – we often find ourselves losing.
First, it causes us to lose focus on our own PR program and goals. At the start of every program, we create pillars and themes that our client wants to own, which map directly back to sales. But, when a competitor gets coverage on an unrelated topic, clients want to react to the conversation (piling on or disagreeing) instead of driving it. This not only makes a company look smaller to readers and journalists, it does nothing for thought leadership and brand awareness. When we go back to measure the program, we may count a number of earned media articles, but ownership around important industry trends hasn’t moved an inch. Other metrics like domain authority, website traffic and whitepaper downloads are stagnant.
Second, it increases the odds for reputation management problems. All too often well-meaning spokespeople bash competitors during an interview or over social media. While this may feel cathartic and the best way to share a different message, it only increases the visibility of the competitor, makes them look bigger, and hurts their company’s reputation. It’s hard not to focus on inaccuracies, lies or exaggerations but the best way to combat those is to drown them out with positive feature coverage about their own company, increasing brand awareness and driving leads.
Third, it makes us lose sight of reality. Sometimes, competitors will do something better. They’ll release a better feature, will share a cunning soundbite or will announce a bigger customer. And this will result in coverage. It’ll be hard to acknowledge but the inability to take a step back and admit that the competitor is onto something prevents forward motion. It prevents the PR team from pushing the client in a different direction, making improvements to their approach or reaching out to journalists on a new topic.
Finally, it prevents innovation. Every PR program should include the nuts and bolts. However, to really move the needle with brand awareness and lead generation, the PR program needs out-of-the-box thinking. When a company is entirely focused on competitors, the courage to try something different gets lost. Clients can become so paralyzed by ensuring that everything they do aligns with what competitors are doing that they miss the opportunity to be unique and stand out.
At the end of the day, the competition will more than likely get coverage. It may be business or trade press. It may be a quick mention or a feature; an accurate portrayal or a fluff piece. Every PR team should be aware and discuss internally. Frankly, a good PR person will feel competitive and will secure a strategic hit in a top-tier outlet (take that!). But, competitor coverage and business moves should inform the PR program, not drive it. The best way to manage a solid reputation and beat competitors is to give them no more than the energy they deserve.