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Don’t speak ill of the competition, unless you must

25 May 2009 3 Comments

We’re judged by the company we keep and also by what we say about others, especially during an interview. The media thrives on conflict and controversy, framing the worlds of business, politics, sports and entertainment as highly personal rivalries with winners and losers. That’s why reporters and interviewers phrase questions the way they do in their quest for opposition. You just haven’t made it unless you’ve been asked to trash the other guy.

Authors (writers of fiction in particular) can be counted on to engage in personal combat for show. If there was an award for what not to say in an interview it would be named for the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. She brought her decades-in-the-making bad girl persona to a taping of The Dick Cavett Show on October 18, 1979.  The McCarthy-Hellman feud was touched off by one of Cavett’s trademark faux-innocent questions. Asked to name contemporary writers who were “overrated,” McCarthy said the only one she could think of (and one was enough in this case) was Lillian Hellman who, she offered, was “tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and a dishonest writer…. every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Hellman sued. McCarthy defended. The two scarcely knew each other except as occupants on literary lists. Still, the suit continued until it was settled posthumously.

Moving to the world of sports where one-upmanship is to be expected, the Blackberry maker Research in Motion’s co-chair, Jim Balsillie (a Canadian) is doing his best to stay neutral when responding to questions about National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman (an American). Bettman opposes his bid to buy the Phoenix Coyotes directly from the majority shareholder in order to relocate the team to Hamilton, Ontario. Balsillie’s third attempt at ownership pits the men as rarified rivals with very different visions of the future NHL. One is looking to the Sunbelt, the other is facing true north.

How do you set yourself apart without dissing the other fellow? That is the question. Now watch. Balsillie glides by questions about Bettman, even calling him “the Commissioner” to avoid saying his name. He circles his own messages, sometimes deliberately. Balsillie does have a tendency to describe himself (philanthropic, ethical, reliable) rather than define himself in his interviews. For his part, Bettman takes direct aim at Balsillie’s actions, while sidestepping questions about the man. And he arrives for his Q &A with a suitcase full of crafted messages, including this gem, “fans invest in a franchise emotionally and financially, you don’t give up on them when times are tough.”

Somebody got this power-money-rivalry thing all wrong.  For Balsillie and Bettman, it’s about the fans, the game and the NHL. Perhaps things will change, but so far neither of them has a prayer of winning any award named for that Mary McCarthy dame.

Posted by Bodine Williams, the media training and message development specialist.


  • maxisraelhopewellarizmendi said:

    Hello, i just happened to stumble upon your site and found this particular blog not only interesting but brilliant. So may individuals and companies alike make the mistake of bad mouthing the competition. If you’re going to say something that might be true but not necessarily nice you should at least know how to make your point without getting dirty. Your message is definitely on target!

  • ingrid i. said:

    Ms. Williams calls the shots as she sees them and one gets the feeling she has a keen eye for the truth. Her common sense and down-to earth humour expressed in flawless literary style makes for a great read. Keep ‘em coming.

  • Sadarias Harrell said:

    You really pinpoint why it is imperative for anyone that goes before a media outlet to be media trained in the art of positive communication first. Figures that do not learn the fundamental principles of attraction through communication risk being tuned out and clicked past by the intended audience.