Netflix’s Tiger King: when business rivalry becomes attempted murder 

How to beat dirty business tricks by competitors

If you’ve not yet seen Tiger King on Netflix, then drop what you’re doing and start binge-watching it, as it’s been the best car-crash series in a long while.

If you have, then you’ll know it’s a “you couldn’t make this shit up” story about how Joe Exotic, the eccentric owner of a big cat zoo in Oklahoma, ends up hiring a hitman to bump off long-time nemesis Carole Baskin, who owns a big cat sanctuary in Florida.

We learn within the first minute of the eight-part documentary that Joe is in prison, so it’s not exactly a spoiler alert about how the story ends for Exotic after his bitter feud with Baskin.

What does shock is the level of acrimony that fuels campaigns of harassment, taunting and threats as the series chronicles the depths that Exotic plumbs to discredit Baskin on podcasts, his TV series (Joe Exotic TV) and even in some frankly dreadful songs and music videos. This is a ‘no holds barred’ full-frontal attack that goes on for years.

And Baskin certainly isn’t whiter than white. Although she portrays herself as an animal rights activist, she’s ruthless and will clearly do what she has to do (including allegedly being involved in the murder of her second husband and having his body fed to her tigers – according to Exotic) to position herself at the top of the big cat zoo industry in the United States.

Not only in America: a very British tale of corporate dirty tricks

Tiger King is jaw-dropping at times, and you can’t help thinking that this could only happen in America – especially the very public and vitriolic lengths to which business rivals have gone to discredit each other. All this seems to indicate that Americans subscribe to the theory that “all publicity is good publicity”.

But, as the British airline industry has proven, us Brits aren’t above skulduggery and underhand tactics.

Step forward British Airways (BA) in its quarrels with Virgin Atlantic in what has come to be known as one of the best examples of corporate feuding.

To recap, tensions escalated between the two airlines when BA Chairman Lord King was said to have become particularly irritated by the antics of PR-savvy Richard Branson and his then fledgling company. BA took umbrage when Virgin muscled in on lucrative routes such as London to Tokyo and it was also allowed to start operating from Heathrow – but what sent BA over the edge was when, in a blaze of publicity, Branson’s airline flew hostages of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s back to the UK.

Lord King was reported to have had a meeting with the company’s chief executive and PR director and told them to “do something about Branson” – after which, BA embarked on a campaign of alleged poaching of Virgin passengers, leaking negative stories about Branson’s airline to the media and even hacking into its IT systems.

Branson complained, and BA’s weekly staff newspaper ran an article suggesting that the claims were a Virgin invention. This article was used by Branson in 1992 as the basis of a libel claim against Lord King and BA.

In the High Court, BA admitted that staff had engaged in “disreputable business practices”, including shredding documents, passenger poaching and trying to plant “hostile and discreditable” stories about Virgin in the press.

BA apologised unreservedly and settled the case by paying Branson compensation and also picking up the legal fees – reported to have been north of £3m.

What can businesses learn from these two very public examples?

The first and most obvious lesson from the examples of Tiger King and BA v Virgin is that businesses end up paying a high price for such venomous feuds, whether that’s damage to the reputations of the brands, lots of money in legal bills or even someone’s liberty.

Although not as public as BA v Virgin or Exotic v Baskin, I have direct experience of working for clients who have either passively or proactively been involved in altercations with rivals, and here are five things I’ve learned.

Before I share my tips, the thing to note is that this can happen to any business – and for any reason. For example, I worked for one client who supplied materials to the construction industry and were so convinced that their flagship product was the best in the market that they mystery-shopped all their competitors and published the results of the product testing. As you can imagine, that went down like a lead balloon in the industry, and this resulted in a few years of tit-for-tat exchanges – especially in the press.

The other was for a client in the manufacturing sector where a small group of directors and staff left and set up a rival competitor – and seemed hell-bent on doing everything they could to undercut their former company.

#1 Rise above it

If someone as esteemed as Lord King can’t do it, what hope have the rest of us got? More evidently in the case of Joe Exotic, the rivalry became personal – an obsession even.

At this point, a quote from one of my favourite films comes to mind. In the 1973 film The Day of the Jackal, Edward Fox’s character tells the group of patriots who want to hire him to assassinate Charles de Gaulle that “you simply can’t afford to be emotional. That’s why you’ve made so many mistakes.”

Many organisations get sucked into feuds because owners or senior figures within the company are so passionate about the business that they take things to heart – especially when they perceive that competitors aren’t playing by the rules, have inferior products or services, or are using “disreputable business practices” to secure contracts or orders.

Whilst rising above it is easier said than done, tips #2 and #3 will help with the foundations, and #4 and #5 will help put rivals back in their boxes.

#2 Has your closet got any skeletons in it?

I always get a quizzical look when I ask new clients “where are the bodies buried?” as part of my PR induction process. It’s a bit dramatic, but you get the point.

There’s nothing worse for us PR folk than to be working for a client and to have an issue that we were unaware of bite us on the ass. This is especially embarrassing and painful if it comes from a journalist!

If PR pros are in full possession of the facts, then we are ready and prepared to tackle the issue head on if it rears its head. We can get out in front of these things and steer the narrative to the client’s advantage.

#3 What’s your ‘category of one’?

A process that goes hand in hand with checking the closet is determining what your ‘category of one’ is. I like this term, but there are lots of others, most commonly ‘USPs’.

What are the things that genuinely set your business apart from others? When asked, most businesses usually say things like:

  • “The quality of our products.”
  • “We offer excellent customer service.”
  • “The friendliness and total commitment of our staff.”

Here’s the thing: everyone says the same.

The key to turning these generic statements into something genuinely meaningful is to be able to quantify them. And then checking that competitors cannot make the same claim.

For example:

  • “The quality of our products” becomes “Our product is the only one in the UK to have achieved full certification according to British Standards.”
  • “We offer excellent customer service” becomes “We have a 4.8-star rating on Trustpilot – the highest in our industry.”
  • “The friendliness and total commitment of our staff” becomes “Our staff answer all phone, email and online customer queries within 30 minutes.”

And if you distil all this down, you get to an overarching mantra, ethos or proposition – that becomes your evaluator pitch. It’s a short statement that describes, defines and differentiates your business.

The next two things are tips that I’ve put into action, and I know they work fantastically well.

#4 Hang with the cool kids

“A man is known by the company he keeps” – Aesop

This is exactly the same for businesses. In any industry, there are influencers and organisations that a business can start rubbing shoulders with to make connections and potential allies.

Let me give you a practical example of how this has worked beautifully.

The company that I mentioned earlier (the one that published the product testing results, which, I must add, was before my time) wanted to send another shot across the bows of competitors who weren’t compliant with new industry standards that had recently been introduced.

So, instead of picking a fight, we picked an external ally: the local MP (because MPs need to be seen to be all over a range of issues that affect the people and businesses in their constituencies).

We invited the local MP (luckily, he was a reasonably high-profile one) to visit and see for themselves the investment in new machinery that a business in his constituency had made to meet these new standards. This was a great photo opportunity, and we got lots of local and target media coverage.

However, the real value was in discussing the issue of the new standards, highlighting the perils of non-compliance and flagging up that some competitors were flouting these new standards – which were putting sections of society in harm’s way. The MP said that they would raise the issue with the relevant government minister – and bingo, the client got lots of additional media coverage for lobbying the government.

I found out a few years later that their main competitor was utterly dejected that my client had the government on its side.

I’ll be honest and say that involving MPs and getting them to champion something on your behalf is a great tactic – but beware because they’re also very fallible. I worked with another client and we did the same thing: we started a dialogue with an MP and invited them to visit my client to see the facilities and discuss an issue – only for that MP to become embroiled in a sex scandal that blew up in the national media. We quickly rescinded the invitation.

#5 Don’t just be the winner of a business feud, be the award-winner

My final tip is to enter as many business awards as possible and transform a regular company into an award-winning one.

You’d be surprised at how many business awards there are to enter – many of which are free to enter. There are awards run by:

  • Trade sector media
  • Regional media
  • Issue-specific hosts (such as awards for family businesses to enter)
  • National business organisations (such as those run by the Institute of Directors)
  • Trade bodies

And then there are other accreditations, such as the Queen’s Awards for Enterprise.

Focusing on awards became an integral part of one client’s PR activity: over a five-year period, they won more than 25 awards.

Awards are something to publicise in the media, amplify on social channels and display in the reception areas of a company’s premises. They also get into the psyche of a business’s employees, who see themselves as award-winners.

What would Joe Exotic make of these ideas?

Who knows what Joe would think – but the fact that he’s now in prison serves as an extreme example of how far business feuds can go.

There are much better ways to get one up on business rivals.

Don’t be like Joe.