Go Negative? No.

During election years, the mudslinging is non-stop. The question is repeatedly asked, “Why are there so many negative ads?” The quick and easy answer is “because they work.”

Well, if negative messages are so successful for politicians, why don’t businesses use them in their campaigns? That answer here is not so quick and easy.

A political campaign is a fleeting thing, often followed by peacemaking among the various rivals. Those nasty spots, complete with name-calling and unflattering images, are forgotten when it’s over. A candidate either wins or loses and moves on to the next chapter.

Saying negative things about a business competitor in an ad or in a PR campaign may or may not be effective. A business that rips its competitor by name may be seen as an arrogant bully. The organization may be seen as desperate to get attention. The negative message may distract from the main message(s). It may leave a bad taste that doesn’t go away as quickly as the political spot aftertaste disappears. Going negative is bigger risk for a business than it is for a candidate.

While competition may be cutthroat in certain industries, to go “mano-a-mano” with a business rival can have bad results. In 2011, Facebook hired the Burson Marsteller PR firm to pitch media outlets, encouraging media to report on Google’s alleged privacy invasions. This was to have been a “stealth” effort. When the Facebook scheme was exposed, the depths of this bitter rivalry were exposed and Facebook looked petty.

Maybe Facebook had a valid complaint about Google’s 2011 policies, but the way they made the point was clumsy. Would Facebook have done better to hire a PR firm to get the word out about good things Facebook was doing regarding user privacy, rather than to tip reporters about bad things they claimed Google was doing?

Although brand differentiation may necessarily require mention of a competitor’s shortcomings, in most cases brands should do it respectfully. Unlike in politics, where we know the nastiness will be washed away in due time, the effects of negative advertising and PR campaigns in the real world can linger on. The damage can endure. Also, in business as in politics, today’s competitor may be tomorrow’s partner.

Trash talking may be standard operating procedure in a political campaign, on a basketball court or on a reality TV show. But in business, be careful if you choose to go negative. It can have a negative effect on you.

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