Feb 16

Saluting ethics in an unethical world

Next Wednesday evening I’ll be attending the Arthur W. Page Center for integrity in public communications 2018 awards dinner.

In case you may be unfamiliar with the Center, it was created in 2004 and dedicated to the study and advancement of ethics and responsibility in corporate communications and other forms of communication. In the span of 14 short years the Center, which is headquartered at Penn State University, has become an international leader in research on ethics and integrity in public communication. It’s funded more than 200 scholars and awarded more than $700,000 in research.

The awards dinner was created by the Page Center Advisory Board and named in honor of Larry Foster, a renowned communicator during his time as both as journalist and PR practitioner.

This year’s honorees are:

–      Bill George, senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former CEO of Medtronic

–      John Onoda, consultant for FleishmanHillard and Gagen MacDonald

–      The late PBS Newshour host Gwen Ifil

Denise Bortree, Page Center director and associate professor of public relations/advertising at Penn State said the awards dinner is intended to showcase professionals who established their integrity through challenging times and over long careers. “We hope their good work will help us promote ethical decision-making in our field today and in the future,” she said.

Funds raised from the event support innovative research by Page Center scholars who represent universities all over the world.

If you haven’t bought a seat (or better yet, a table), I strongly suggest you do so. If there’s one thing this world could use a whole lot more of it’s ethical behavior. Hats off to the Page Center’s board for establishing the Larry Foster Awards.

 

Feb 06

Morality is a job for priests. Not PR Men.

Anyone who toils in public relations or one day aspires to join our field MUST make it their business to read about the rise and fall of Bell Pottinger. This superb New York Times front page article will dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s” for you.

Long story made short, Bell Pottinger, a 30-year-old, high profile player in the U.K. PR world shuttered its doors after a series of reprehensible programs it had concocted to stir racial strife in South Africa went very, very wrong and nearly tore the country apart.

The firm, founded by Tim Bell who helped Margaret Thatcher win three go-rounds as PM, had had a long, and checkered, career of representing very evil people and institutions. To wit:

  • Former Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet.
  • Our very own Pentagon, for whom BP produced pro-US commercials that aired on Iraq TV soap operas during that never-ending war.
  • The three Gupta brothers.

The latter, who are rich beyond one’s wildest dreams, told Bell Pottinger executives they wanted the firm to enact a campaign in support of poor blacks in South Africa. Sounds innocent enough, right?

Bell Pottinger moved forward and created a “non-party political narrative around the issue of economic apartheid.” Needless to say, the word apartheid remains incendiary in a country that embraced it for centuries.

This time around, though, the victims of the economic apartheid campaign were South Africa’s white one-percenters. Thanks to BP, these totally legitimate business executives found themselves being singled out and crucified as the worst examples of what BP copywriters termed, “white monopoly capital.”

Things got so bad so quickly that the government was concerned the BP campaign could ignite a civil war.

But, Bell kept the campaign going even though, as Mr. Bell is quoted as saying, “It was altogether smelly.” Why? Because it was also immensely profitable: the Gupta boys were paying BP a cool monthly retainer of £100,000 a month.

And, at least in the beginning of the race-baiting campaign, BP had only experienced one client resignation.

Things quickly turned south when more and more radical black groups began springing up across the countryside intent on inflicting physical harm to any well-heeled white executive. Government investigations began and BP’s onerous role was made public.

Almost immediately, clients and employees began dropping like flies. The firm was barred from the U.K.’s Public Relations and Communications Association (which is the kiss of death for any firm). And, as the late political talk show host, John Mclaughlin, was fond of saying, “Buh-bye.” BP went belly-up.

Bell Pottinger’s sordid tale of self-destruction should serve as a wake-up call to any agency that agrees to represent sketchy clients and governments. The short-term windfall will never offset the long-term image and reputational damage.

Post Script: In describing Bell Pottinger’s role in the South African race-baiting campaign, Francis Ingham, Director General of the aforementioned Public Relations and Communications Association, said: “The work was on a completely new scale of awfulness. Bell Pottinger may have set back race relations in South Africa by as much as 10 years.”

How’d you like that as your legacy?

Tim Bell’s response? “Morality is a job for priests. Not PR men.”

It’s too bad PR doesn’t have a commissioner who can impose lifetime bans on people like Bell. Their very presence sullies an industry whose image is always in a quasi-shaky condition.

Feb 01

Why do smart people make dumb decisions?

I don’t know if you caught the rather tepid furor over Amazon’s decision to sell a line of products with the slogan, “Slavery Gets S**t Done.” That’s right, Amazon was selling baseball caps, T-shirts and a whole host of other products with that obscene slogan.

What puzzles me the most is this: How could a product line with such an obviously racist and offensive tagline possibly make its way up the corporate food chain at Amazon and EVER see the light of day?

I’m guessing the idea came from someone in either the in-house creative, merchandising or licensing groups. Then it would have had to make its way through the approval process that must have included a senior business unit executive and, I would hope, a trained legal counsel.

So, how could do many people be so deaf, dumb and blind? It truly defies logic.

Amazon yanked the offensive merchandise, but never apologized. Instead, they issued a terse statement that read, “The products in question are no longer available.” That’s like saying the gun that fired the bullets is no longer loaded.

With black history month kicking off Thursday, one would think a smart marketer would be extra sensitive to such a gaffe, but apparently not at Amazon.

Imagine if these other hateful, insensitive taglines were in the hopper at Amazon…would they, too, get through?

– “Bullying toughens you up. So suck it up.”

– “What’s a little nuclear war between friends?”

– “Africa is full of sh*thole countries”

Shame on Amazon and shame on the media for not giving this horrific incident more coverage. Neither got their s**t done.

 

Jan 23

Nice to see NBC Won’t be Taking a Knee

One story that was completely overlooked during the recently completed round of NFL playoff games was NBC’s staunch decision to spotlight kneeling by Super Bowl players of color during the playing of the national anthem.

That’s a pretty gutsy move considering any number of conservative, America First, deep-pocketed advertisers are probably deciding right now whether to yank their advertising or let it ride (or, if they don’t pull their spend, Tweet an immediate corporate response distancing themselves from NBC and the kneeling players).

Many organizations would see the kneeling question as a real conundrum:

1.) If we don’t cover kneeling players, we won’t lose millions of sponsor dollars. But will we be doing the right thing?

2.) If we do cover the kneeling, we’ll undoubtedly lose millions of dollars. But, we’ll be staying true to our values.

NBC didn’t flinch. Their Super Bowl Executive Producer, Fred Gaudelli, said, “The Super Bowl is a live event….and when you’re covering a live event, you’re covering what’s happening. So, if there are players that choose to kneel, they will be shown live.”

Holy Trump Tweet in the making, Batman!

NBC’s decision tells me two things:

1.) The organization will not be cowed by politically conservative sponsors (and, god knows what the ripple effect might be. There’s a very real possibility that some neo-conservative advertisers will threaten to yank ALL of their NBC sponsor dollars).

2.) The Matt Lauer disaster notwithstanding, it’s obvious that Gaudelli’s decision was supported by the C-Suite and driven by the organization’s corporate purpose.

In my mind, corporate purpose has evolved from a warm-and-fuzzy “nice to have” statement to becoming an organization’s North Star guiding top executives to make the right decision, double down on their core beliefs and convey clear, consistent messaging.

Afterword: Considering the fact the Super Bowl will be played in February (which also happens to be black history month), I have to believe we’ll see quite a few Super Bowl players take a knee. It’ll be interesting to see how many corporate advertisers stand tall or take a different type of knee and yank their ads.

Jan 18

It’s a Brave New World at the Intersection of Purpose and Profit

Peppercomm has long had the pleasure of partnering with a superb firm known as BrandFoundations. In recent years, they’ve expanded their solution set to include assisting organizations create a purpose. The following blog is guest authored by one of BF’s principals Steve Goodwin (AKA “The Other Steve”). Enjoy….

I’m hopeful that at least some Repman readers will admit to being old enough to remember the classic E.F. Hutton TV ads from the 1970s and ‘80s that always closed with the investment giant reminding us: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Flash forward to this week, and you can bet people are listening after a current investment heavyweight had something to say.

In an open letter to the CEOs of the world’s largest public companies, BlackRock founder and chief executive Laurence Fink threw down the gauntlet, informing these leaders that profits alone will no longer be enough to merit the investment firm’s support. Going forward, a company must “show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

This is, in and of itself, an absolutely head-spinning moment on Wall Street and beyond: the world’s largest institutional investor going all-in on giving back and putting purpose on a par with profits. Heavy stuff indeed.

But the bigger picture here is that BlackRock’s edict comes (not coincidentally) as executives worldwide are beginning to grapple with another alarming challenge: how to react and respond when your company finds itself swept up very publicly in any of the myriad issues swirling in the toxic brew that is today’s politically charged and divided environment. (Can you say Papa John’s?)

It’s becoming increasingly clear that this is the new normal. Companies need to thread the needle between doing well financially and doing good globally, all while worrying that a Sunday morning tweet from Mar-a-Lago could ignite a social media firestorm and bring 1,000 reporters to corporate HQ. In this era, companies need to be able to stay above the fray. They need not only to state a clear purpose, but also demonstrate that they’ve instituted the internal cultural programs to reinforce that purpose and drive it into corporate communications at all levels.

Preparation is Key When Prevention Isn’t an Option

You know how follow the leader works. Expect more investment firms to fall in line behind BlackRock. And expect more companies of every size and shape to start taking an unflinching look inward to evaluate everything from their mission, vision and value statements to their philanthropic and cultural initiatives.

Forget wondering whether or not your company will have a reputational issue. When your organization is caught in the crosshairs of a public relations spat, you need to have already evaluated and identified the best way to positively impact society. Your “North Star” of purpose – why your organization exists (beyond profits) and the big honking problem it was founded to solve – is the one place that everyone in the organization can look to for on-brand, on-message guidance and navigation.

To zero in on their purpose, most companies will be wise to avail themselves of the skills of a solid outside partner because proximity can often be distorting for internal teams who are fighting the daily battle…the forest-for-the-trees thing. And given the speed with which your organization and its leaders can find themselves called on the carpet or forced to take a stand on a thorny issue, failing to plan truly is planning to fail.

Steve Goodwin is a founding partner at BrandFoundations. steve@brandfoundations.us

Jan 10

Now, this is what I call a corporate wellness program

Do you workout at gyms? I do. I’m obsessed with exercise (it’s my drug of choice). And, I make a point of exercising six days-a-week. Not bragging, just setting up the rest of the blog.

One of  the things that’s always bothered me, though, are the gyms that ALWAYS have their monitors tuned to Fox or CNN (have yet to train in a Rachel Maddow-friendly facility).
The above ticks me off for two reasons:

  • My gym is a refuge where I go to not only push myself to the max and, temporarily, escape the latest crisis du jour, it’s also “me” time that is fundamental to my emotional and spiritual health.
  • Despite my focus on successfully bench pressing a little more weight each week, hopping in and and out of those agility drill ladders and using a 20-pound medicine ball to play catch with my personal trainer, I inevitably am distracted by the scrolls running constantly across the bottom of each screen. It’s not a big deal but, god forbid I’m in the midst of quickly scanning the latest Trump outrage when, boom, I’m hit smack in the face by the medicine ball, turn an ankle while hopping laterally across the agility drills or lose my grip and suffer the consequences of a 180-pound barbell that comes smashing down and crushes my chest.

Well, one fitness club has finally listened to its customer base and has banned all cable TV networks from the screens in their 125-string chain of gyms.

In doing so, Life Time Fitness is accomplishing three critical image and reputation objectives:

  • Surprising and delighting clients by recognizing our need for down time from the non-stop media hysteria.
  • Ensuring clients can focus exclusively on their physical goals and lose themselves completely in their fitness session.
  • Differentiating themselves from every one of their competitors (a critical move by any business in any industry).

By going dark on cable, Time Fitness has demonstrated an enlightened approach to enhancing the customer experience. Marketers everywhere should not only be emulating TF’s segment-busting strategy, they should take a much deeper dive into the smartest ways to understand their audiences’ wants and needs.

I could continue, but I know Matt’s got an especially vicious session planned for me at noon. Today, though, I will be extra cautious not to let a cable TV scroll announcing Little Rocket Man’s latest threat distract me from enjoying a total fitness experience.

 

Jan 08

The Rosa Parks of Sports

I know I’m a little ahead of myself in terms of the MLK, Jr. national holiday and Black History Month, but I feel compelled to educate a new generation about one of the genuine black pioneers of the past two centuries; a man who, at best, remains a footnote.

I’m speaking of Jack Johnson, boxing’s first black heavyweight champion of the world.

I recently rediscovered Johnson through an amazing, three-part podcast series called “History on Fire.” Anyone, and I mean anyone, who cares about what once was, and how it shaped what is today, should listen to Doneli Bonelli’s podcasts (This is a link to the third, and most inspiring, of the three Johnson podcasts since it describes in detail the outrage of, and backlash by, white society at the time).

But, I digress.

Jack Johnson was the Rosa Parks of sports.

Long before Jackie Robinson, Tommy Smith, Jim Brown, Kareem Jabbar, Ali and Colin Kaepernick, there was Jack Johnson.

Johnson redefined racial stereotyping in a Jim Crow era when people of color were still routinely being lynched, denied their basic civil rights and, frankly, tolerated as a necessary evil by the white establishment (as long as they readily accepted their second-class status and dutifully respected whites as their racial superiors).
Johnson not only challenged conventional wisdom, he blew it to hell.  He was far and away the best heavyweight boxer of his time. And Johnson was also a party animal to the max.

As might be expected, the white aristocracy refused to acknowledge his nonpareil prowess. Johnson fanned the flames by flouting every existing “rule” for black behavior in a white supremecist society. He dated countless white women, owned his own wildly successful “sporting” club in Chicago, drove the hottest, fastest cars and, to put it mildly, lived life entirely on his terms.

Johnson’s amazing string of knockouts over one contender after another not only frightened white society but raised a universal cry for Jim Jeffries, the last undefeated white heavyweight champion, to come out of retirement. Jeffries was coerced to prove that, once and for all, the best black fighter couldn’t possibly beat a now-aging, badly out-of-shape but nonetheless, undefeated white heavyweight champion.

On a brutally hot July 4th day in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, Johnson not only destroyed Jeffries but, he also taunted him (and the overwhelmingly white audience as well).

Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion of the world. And, that’s when the shit really hit the fan.

The existing powers-that-be made it their business to find reasons to sue Johnson, arrested him for violations of the Mann Act (which prohibited white slavery). Johnson was arrested for driving his girlfriend of the time from Illinois to Indiana. He was sentenced to a full year in federal prison and a fine of $1,000. All because he happened to cross over from one state to another to take his girlfriend to dinner. Amazing, no?

Johnson was forced to flee to another country and prevented from defending his title. These obvious attempts to rid the nation of an individual who defied and upended every norm ate away at Johnson.

It fueled his own self-destructive lifestyle to the point where the once great boxer  became a shell of his former self.

A beaten-down, 37-year-old facsimile of what once was Jack Johnson eventually lost the heavyweight championship in 1915 to a mediocre boxer named Jess Willard.

Johnson exited the boxing scene, but never stopped defying the White establishment.

My favorite Jack Johnson story occurred when he was at his absolute peak.

He, and a friend, were barreling down a Mississippi highway at god knows what speed (and, naturally, driving a state-of-the-art auto) when a local cop pulled him over and fined him $50 on the spot.

Jackson pulled out a wad of $100 bills and handed one to the cop. The latter said, “I don’t carry that much money on me. I can’t possibly give you the change.” To which Johnson replied, “Keep it. I intend to return on this road driving at the very same speed, so consider it payment in advance.”

As we remember and salute everyone from Sojourner Truth to Rosa Parks, let us not forget Jack Johnson. I’ve always adored Ali but, frankly, he was testing the barriers and stereotypes that Jack Johnson had already attacked. R.I.P. Jack Johnson.

Jan 03

Dumb and dumber

You would think by now that most business executives would understand the impact, both positive and negative, that their words have on the public consciousness.

During the holidays, though, we saw two food purveyors fall victim to their own words.

One was a local Arizona restaurant called Cup it up. The other was Papa John’s a nationally-known pizza delivery chain.

In the former’s case, the restaurant’s ultra conservative owners decided, for reasons known best to them, to publish their unwavering support of President Trump and a whole litany of conservative causes.

That didn’t sit well with the chef or wait staff. They quit and Tweeted their distaste with the owners’ POV. They also made it clear they’d never work for such an establishments.

Customers were also revolted and not only sent back their orders but absolutely crucified the restaurant on Yelp. Oh, and they also stopped patronizing the eaterie. Bottom-line: Cup it up can cup it out. They’ve shuttered their doors.

At about the same time, John Schnatter, CEO of Papa John’s, resigned in disgust saying he blamed the NFL players taking-a-knee controversy for causing lackluster sales.

Once again, an executive’s comments caused an uproar and, based upon the avalanche of negative press, Schnatter meekly apologized and returned to his post, chastened and shriveled up almost as badly as a three-day-old slice of pizza.

Both organizations could have avoided these disasters IF they had taken the time to create a corporate purpose that explained why they existed, what their higher purpose was and, critically, was in alignment with the majority of the views and beliefs of their employees, customers, vendors and entire supply chain.

A corporate purpose should serve as an organization’s ethical and moral compass that, in times of crisis, can determine the content and tone of any public message. In fact, a carefully thought out “next generation” crisis plan will properly equip any organization of any size to prepare for, and determine the correct response (or non-response) almost immediately.

Please don’t confuse the above-mentioned crisis plan with the one sitting in your bookshelf and created by an agency three or four years back. It’s as out-of-date (and useless) as a Jeb Bush for president bumper sticker.

Organizations, and their agencies, need to act NOW to ready themselves for the new normal, create a corporate purpose (surveys prove corporations with a purpose outperform their rivals and Millennials increasingly won’t work for any company lacking a higher purpose).

With the corporate purpose in place, the communications and strategic planning teams can then meet and assess any, and all, potential vulnerabilities (e.g. Are they ready for a POTUS attack tweet, fake news damaging their brand, industry or societal issues that require to CEO to speak up, looming sexual harassment allegations, etc).

I suspect we’ll see many more examples of Cup it up and Papa John-type incidents this year. Sadly, too many executives still maintain a “can’t happen to me attitude.” Others think corporate purpose doesn’t matter. The worst time to prove that perception wrong is after a political magnus opus is published on a web site or a CEO blames a highly controversial issue for hurting his sales.

It’s time to shake off the post-holiday hangover and get to work preparing for what can’t be anticipated.

Dec 19

First we take Manhattan, then we take Dublin

We recently had the opportunity to play host to a colleague from the Emerald Island: Alan Keane. Alan toils away for Plunkett PR, a superb Dublin-based PR firm. 

Since it was his first opportunity to observe American in the midst of becoming great again, I asked Alan to share his observations. Here goes (and Erin Go Brah to you as well)…..

So, Steve has asked to write a guest post on what I learned from my week in New York.

Happy to oblige Steve, and thanks for the opportunity.

The best pizza in the city can be got at Artichoke Basille’s in the East Village, the best dive bar is Desmond’s at 433 Park Avenue, Chelsea Market offers great lunch options, Shake Shack has the best burg…

(Steve: “Uh… Alan… I meant what you learnt about the differences and similarities between PR in New York and Ireland…”

My bad Steve. The above still stands though. Come at me @AlanKeane23 if you disagree.

Ok, let’s get serious.

I came to New York to meet a selection of the best and brightest in New York PR and gain some valuable insights into how the creative industry works in the Big Apple. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.

Ireland has a lot going for it creatively. It’s the land of saints and scholars after all, and, to propagate another stereotype, we have the gift of the gab. Irish people could sell sand in the desert, and this is reflected in the talents of our brightest creative minds.

New York however, operates on another level. Outside of the professional realm, Manhattan is so full to the brim of people from every walk of life that to stand out you need to do something very special. Otherwise you just blend into the crowd. Hence the style smorgasbord that is any given street. You could spend the whole day people watching in New York (not in a creepy, Robin Williams in One Hour Photo kind of way either.)

That translates into the creative arena, as New Yorkers are bombarded from every angle with advertisements, content and products. To stand out you have to do something truly special. It’s a potent environment in which to push the boundaries of creativity and from the brief time I spent with the team at Peppercomm it’s an exciting place to be.

Every day is a different challenge in the realms of the creative and communication industries, and it was interesting to note the similarities between Ireland and New York in that regard. Pushing commercial clients to a sceptical and understaffed media, the time and resource black hole that is responding RFPs, and constantly changing parameters of what is demanded from public relations service providers are just some of the issues facing PR practitioners both sides of the Atlantic.

Stateside media relations was something I was really interested in learning more about during my visit. Ireland is such a parochial place, that you tend to be able to keep track of and develop excellent professional relationships with the media if you’re on your game at all. With such a large spread of media in New York and beyond for communications professionals to wrest with, I was curious as to how media relations could be fostered.

It was something I asked of everyone I met in the industry, and the results are in. The answer is (drum roll please), hard work and a human touch. Something as simple as knowing a particular journalist’s likes and dislikes when it comes to communications (phone or email, for example) can make all the difference. Simple, yes, but when you have countless journalists to keep track of, that’s where the hard work comes in.

Finally, on a personal note, I’d just like to say that although Ireland is known as the land of a thousand welcomes, (Cead Mile Failte is a greeting in Irish that literally translates to “a thousand welcomes”) New Yorkers give us a run for our money. The misconception that New York is an unfriendly and cold city seems unfair to me, as everyone I met during my time there went out of their way to be of assistance and make me feel welcome. Thank you to everyone in Peppercomm, particularly Steve, Deb and all the team who made time to talk to me and discuss the industry. Thanks also to the impressive Rob Longert of Day One and Bill Daddi of Daddi Brand Communications whose insights gave me plenty of food for thought returning home.

Happy Holidays folks.