Taking Public Relations to the Next Level: The Dark Arts

Maybe it’s because we come from Washington, D.C. – the home of opposition research – but our experience is that too few companies execute public relations efforts targeting their competition or other adversaries. So-called oppo campaigns aren’t just for litigation. If you know of competitors’ actual or potential vulnerabilities in which their stakeholders might be interested, you’re competing with one hand behind your back if you don’t leverage them. Here are some public relations tips on how to do just that, as well as some caveats.

You don’t need a paper trail to get the ball rolling.

Many think that you need everything nailed down cold to interest a reporter in adverse information. Not true. What you need is information that (1) indicates something newsworthy might have happened, and (2) provides a reporter leads for them to talk with or research. Reporters don’t invest their time reporting stories that won’t interest their readers, and they don’t invest their time without good indicators about where they could find sources. But, give them these two and you’re on your way.

You don’t need to be the reported source of the information.

Many companies fear being publicly tagged as the source of negative information. Of course, this is always possible, but generally, reporters honor ground rules. So, as long as you agree with the reporter that you won’t be sourced before sharing the information, the strong odds are that you won’t be named in any story.

To be sure, your competitors may well suspect (if not assume) that you are behind a story. This will particularly be the case if you then use a negative article against them with potential customers or business partners. But, that is par for the course, and if you’re not prepared to go on the offense, be prepared to play defense against competitors who do this to you and aren’t afraid for you to know it. Opposition campaigns have always been, and remain, part of the marketplace.

Don’t limit yourself to reporters.

In any public relations effort, the first thought is for reporters. However, don’t limit yourself to that segment. There are social media and other digital influencers who follow industries and issues closely and may be interested in a tip. There are non-profits, grassroots groups, and other NGOs that have resources to pursue allegations. And there is, of course, the government – regulators, congressional committees, state attorneys general, etc.

To be sure, there are risks associated with these kinds of public relations efforts, and there are prudent steps you can take to minimize them. For example, glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Unless your closet is empty or you’ve recently cleaned it out, tread carefully before pointing fingers. In addition, don’t trade in mere rumor or innuendo and do not characterize alleged behavior as criminal – communicate actual or potential facts. This will minimize any potential defamation claims.

Some may call disruptive tactics the dark arts. In truth, they are critical arrows in any public relations quiver.