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Punching Up: How to Compete with Market-Leading Companies as a PR Underdog

Published: March 11, 2021       Updated: May 18, 2024

4 min read

Note: This is the first in a series of stories on how midsize companies can earn a share of the spotlight against larger competitors -- by "punching up" with smarts, authenticity and resourcefulness.

Since my agency mostly serves mid-market technology companies, one of the most frequent refrains I hear on discovery calls with prospects is as follows: "We have a great product, but Company XXL sucks up all the media attention in our space. We just want to get our share of coverage, but it’s always Company XXL in every story."

This is often followed by: "We need you to make us seem bigger than we are. Can you do that?" My answer to that question is always the same: "We can’t make you bigger than you are, but we can level the playing field so people don’t care that you’re smaller."


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Winning The PR Battle

Market-leading companies often have a lot of money to spend. That money results in a lot of awareness, and awareness often breeds press coverage. But that doesn’t mean the 800-pound gorilla is invincible.

Here are five things you can do internally to become more appealing to industry media:

  1. Be original. It’s vital to have something original to say. The press doesn’t want to talk to a mimic, so develop a story with a fresh point of view that aligns with your expertise and experience. Your expertise should tie to the product you manufacture and the business problems your company solves. For example, my agency had a longtime client in the outplacement space, helping companies experiencing layoffs to find jobs for their displaced employees. The client discovered that some HR departments were also wanting to offer outplacement services to the spouses of new hires who had relocated. We began promoting "spousal outplacement" as a recruiting benefit, and our client was covered widely in HR and business publications for highlighting this new trend. Keep your ear to the ground. Read and watch the news. Then connect the dots to your business.
  2. Be specific. Most journalists have to be generalists as part of their jobs. They ask around and conduct searches on Google, LinkedIn and elsewhere to find experts with the specific expertise to speak on topics they need to cover every day. So, once you've established your niche, tie those keywords to your online presence to make sure your name surfaces in the media's research. Another differentiator to consider when you’re identifying your areas of expertise is industries your clients are in. Are your clients concentrated in specific industries? If so, then you should showcase your expertise in that sector.
  3. Be authoritative. Your experience is rooted in your resume and the resumes of your subject matter experts, or SMEs. Your SMEs might include C-level executives, research specialists, industry leads or others, depending on the opportunity. Members of the media aren’t going to want to talk to someone who is unable to answer questions that aren’t part of the talking points. They want to know that they are talking to someone who can speak intelligently about a subject. So, identify your subject matter experts and the places where they have both experience and expertise. Then, use them to take down the gorilla.
  4. Be bold. Many large companies have policies that limit what information they share with the press. They have limits on the level of executive they’ll put out in the public. You might be tempted to copy those policies, but don’t. Offer up your CEO to speak to the press. Offer financials or customer stories. You might be a smaller company, but being able to offer what the larger company can’t or won’t can make you appealing. Boldness sometimes requires baby steps. If you aren’t ready to make bold claims, start small. Maybe it’s a bold blog post. Or even a bold headline on a press release. Say what the other guys are thinking but are too cautious to say. Target your competitors by name. Eventually, this level of boldness will feel blasé, and you’ll be ready to take another step. Then another and another, until you’re out front of the 800-pound gorilla, and the press is calling you.
  5. Be nimble. The news cycles move fast. If you’re ready to respond to press inquiries and ready to pivot your story if that’s what they need, then you can find some quick wins against your industry’s leader. Enough quick wins, and you start building momentum. You might find yourself on a reporter’s contact list, becoming a regular fixture in the press. Bottom line: You beat those Company XXLs by being smarter. By telling an original story. By sharing things that others won’t. And ultimately, by making sure that everything you do is pointing to the same goal: victory.

Next up: Learn how Ben & Jerry's used whimsy, authenticity and social purpose to punch up against the giants of the ice cream business.

(This post originally appeared on

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