On April 10, 2016, professional golfer Jordan Spieth blew a five-stroke lead by taking a quadruple bogey on the 12th hole during the last round of the Masters Golf Tournament. Although he came back to birdie on the 13th hole and tie for second place overall, this collapse may go down as one of the most epic meltdowns in sports history. To make matters worse, the 22-year-old defending champion had to place the famed green jacket on the winner during the closing ceremonies. Spieth’s reaction to all of this was nothing short of professional. He took complete accountability for his failures and conducted every interview with graceful humility, never once making a negative comment about the eventual winner of the tournament or the golfer he tied with for second place.

Everyone knows, or should know, that trashing your competition is not an effective or sustainable business strategy. Yet, most experience trash talk and the difficult situations that come with it more frequently than they care to admit. It may come as feedback from a client, hearsay from suppliers and trade contractors, or even water cooler talk from employees. So why is this behavior so prevalent, how should it be responded to, and how do you prevent it?

In today’s instant information society made possible through social media like Twitter and Facebook, trash talk is sensationalized by the media for entertainment purposes. It provides a buildup of drama for the next big game, draws attention to celebrities promoting new movies and television series, and creates fanatical followings for musicians. Unfortunately, it is also an effective method of running for a political office, leading to ugly smear campaigns against other candidates.
In the business world, companies will trash their competition by utilizing a competitor’s products and services in comparison-style ad campaigns. Think about the television ads and internet videos showing a Ford F-150 pulling a Dodge Ram out of the mud, or the blind taste test where a competitor’s label is blurred out but the can or bottle is clearly identifiable.

 Companies do this to make a bold statement to the public. They are, in essence, saying that their product or service is superior to the competitor’s, even if they do not say anything expressly bad about the other company. They are changing the consumer’s perception by implying that, because their product or service is superior, the competitor’s is inferior. This is the essence of psychological advertising because people act on what they perceive to be true, not necessarily on what is actually true.

In an often less-than-obvious attempt, competitors will sometimes claim that you are trashing them with a fabricated scenario when you actually are not. Or, even more diabolical but less creative, they will just copy your company’s information, advertising strategies, or product and service features, and then claim them as their own. All of this is widely used, primarily based on features and benefits and, while it may be annoying, it is generally acceptable. It isn’t until false accusations and personal attacks enter the equation that things start to get ugly.

Successful companies have targets on their backs. This is because they are generally far ahead of the average competitor in many respects. Hopefully your company is in this position, because companies in this position have nothing to gain by talking smack about a competitor that is in second place or below. How your company reacts to negative public relations strategies speaks volumes about your organization. If you emphatically deny a competitor’s claims and refute accusations, whether they are true or not, you are playing right into the strategy, and you put the emphasis on what the competitor wants you to talk about.
My advice in these situations is to always take the high road. If the claims and accusations of your competitors are true, then suck it up, own it, and fix the problem. Don’t confuse this with a public admission of guilt, which sacrifices your business’ name in front of your customer. Rather, give it a positive spin which displays your integrity: “Yes ma’am, we have struggles just like most growing companies. Fortunately, we learn from our mistakes and adjust company procedures accordingly to provide you with better levels of service.”

If the claims are not true, or appear to be rumor and hearsay, express your disappointment in learning of the information you are hearing, state the facts as they relate to the negative claims, and close with reinforcement of your initial disappointment. You may also want to specifically state the implications of the competitor’s actions. It may sound something like this: “I am sorry to hear about that inaccurate information which appears to cast our company in a negative light. The fact is, we have procedures which meet, and in some cases exceed, the standard performance in the industry. I am not sure why our competitor would feel compelled to make a false accusation such as that.”

If the validity of the claim in unknown, express disappointment as stated above, acknowledge that it is unknown or new information, reassure the customer that it is not standard practice within your organization, and commit to looking into the situation. This gives the customer confidence that the accusations are as important to you as they are to them and that they require attention. From the customer’s standpoint, this will reinforce your company’s integrity and commitment to quality. Regardless of the circumstances, you should never respond by retaliating against the accuser with counter accusations.

With all things considered, is it possible to make your company immune to negative slander without threatening a cease and desist order? I am not sure any company who leads the pack can be immune to this kind of behavior. However, there are a few things which can greatly reduce the risk. The first is to dazzle your customers to the point where the positive press far outweighs the negative. Google and Angie’s List have created algorithms to account for negative online reviews. They actually give companies the ability to rebound from a negative review by receiving positive reviews which counteract the negative one. 

The next thing is to dazzle your competition to the point where they are envious of your standards and performance. There is no better countermeasure to protect your company’s reputation than to have your competition singing the praises of how you operate and proclaiming their admiration.

Successful companies recognize that competition is healthy. They understand that worthy adversaries raise the level of performance and expectations. It keeps less-desirable competitors at bay and creates barriers of entry into the market. All of this keeps value and price levels high and tolerance of the substandard low. 

You may never have to place a proverbial green jacket on your competitor’s back while on national television, and then be forced to answer questions regarding how you feel about it. However, you do have the opportunity to raise the bar of professional conduct in your local markets by engaging in behavior that forces your competition to play up instead of stooping down.