Dec 18

9 Tips for Taking a Stand When a Societal Crisis Hits

Social injustice, gender issues, immigration, #MeToo, gun control, and trade wars. These are just a few of the many societal issues about which large and small businesses alike are finding themselves increasingly pressured to stand up and speak out.

We entrepreneurs may think our comparatively small size protects us from the slings and arrows of the hourly news cycle or employees picketing outside company headquarters. But it doesn’t. A Glassdoor survey of 1,000 employees from organizations of all sizes found that 62 percent expect their employers to take a stand on important societal and political issues of the day.

Do I have your attention? I should, since remaining silent or saying the wrong thing could imperil everything from employee recruiting and retention to business continuity and even your exit strategy.

Source: Getty Images

Credit: Getty Images

My firm, Peppercomm, has interviewed more than 150 chief communications officers in the past 18 months, and assembled the nine best tips for preparing, managing, and monitoring a whole host of issues that should (or soon will) be keeping you up at night.

1. Determine your team
Surround yourself with the very best thinkers in your firm. Include the CFO, CHRO, CLO, and CCO, as well as representatives from your various ESGs. It’s essential the CEO herself be part of the group. Set an initial meeting and then re-group every single succeeding month.

2. Determine your organizational purpose
Many organizations have mission statements, but those are short-term, tactical, and only address “what” a company provides (e.g. “Our goal is to provide the highest quality widget in the world”). A purpose explains why a company exists. For example, Lowe’s included representatives from every region and business unit of their organization before deciding theirs: “To help people love the homes in which they live.” A purpose is critical since it will be your North Star in determining if you will or won’t speak out on societal issues (as well as what you will say).

3. Identify every potential issue or crisis
First examine industry issues critical to your organization’s ongoing success. Then, based on your purpose, extend the list to include your values. Do you believe in inclusion & diversity, protecting the environment, stricter immigration policies, etc.? One major airline from Peppercomm’s survey, for example, identified 72 different societal and industry issues it felt would necessitate taking a stance during a crisis.

4. Examine every facet of your internal and external marketing & communications plan

Will your sponsorship of a right-wing radio pundit’s cable show alienate liberal stakeholder audiences? Would you take a position like Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastion, whose company rescinded fare discounts to NRA members following a mass school shooting? Bastion even doubled down when threatened by Georgia lawmakers to drop a jet-fuel tax break by saying, “Our values are not for sale.” Many organizations have already been caught unaware of the adverse impact a single tweet, outdoor advertisement, or stadium sponsorship might cause.

5. Know your audiences
Nike’s decision to hire former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to be the face of the campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” tagline seemed incredibly risky. But Nike knew its audiences. After experiencing a social media frenzy and an initial 3 percent drop in the stock price, the company rebounded and saw its market value increase by $8 billion.

6. Stress test your stand
Assemble the team to simulate a potential crisis such as a just-announced rollback of environmental protection laws, and gauge the reaction to your stance. In many instances, your team will overlook one key stakeholder audience or disagree which is the most important to communicate to first. We recently simulated a societal crisis for a group of 50 members of boards of directors. Two-thirds felt they should communicate first with employees. The other 33 percent chose shareholders.

7. Leverage the appropriate communications channel
One large retailer that had been attacked by President Trump chose not to respond with a tweet of its own. Instead it went to a trusted beat reporter at an industry trade publication who filed an objective, fact-filled story explaining why the company had made the decision it had. POTUS moved on and the crisis dissipated overnight. Sometimes the best response may be a tweet, a town hall meeting with employees, a full-page advertisement in a national print publication, or all three. You’ll never know if you don’t prepare.

8. When in doubt, double down on purpose

I don’t know the organization’s purpose, but I can assure you Edward W. Stack, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, overlooked his purpose and customers’ feelings when announcing the retail giant would no longer sell automatic weapons. The stance shocked and dismayed a wide swath of stakeholders. Sales and the stock price have dropped precipitously.

9. Semper paratus
Heed the motto of the U.S. Coast Guard and remain “Always Ready.” The only way to do so is to continually monitor and adjust (as needed) to every one of the above suggestions.

There are no guard rails in this new societal crisis du jour world of ours. The best protection is protection itself. Trust me, you do not want to read a front page article in The Wall Street Journal that includes an email from every employee demanding you immediately terminate your ICE contracts. By waiting until then, you’ve jeopardized the very survival of your organization.

Dec 17

What if Santa’s database were hacked

In the spirit of the season (and a sad reflection of the times), I’ve allowed myself to briefly escape to an alternate universe and imagine the ultimate Christmas crisis.

What if Santa’s database were hacked?

Let’s assume I’m the hacker and, thanks to a huge assist from a freelance elf named Yuri (a quick tip of the babushka to Yuri), I’ve gained access to the mother of all holiday databases: Santa’s list of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

I’d swiftly change a few of Santa’s decisions and create my own.

Here’s who would fill the top three slots on my naughty and nice lists, respectively (as well as the gifts an unsuspecting Santa will be putting in their stockings on Christmas Eve):

NAUGHTY:

1.) POTUS. No surprise here but, hey, the guy’s latest chief of staff has gone on record as calling him “a terrible human being.”

I wouldn’t fill the president’s stocking with coal (he’d misinterpret that as a high five from Kris Kringle for pouring fossil fuels into the atmosphere).

No sir. The Donald will receive an autographed copy of It Takes a Village.

2.) Bill Cosby. What better stocking stuffer for this serial rapist than an eight-year supply of Benadryl and a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves?

3.) BCG, McKinsey and Booz-Allen Hamilton. These three global powerhouses not only refused to withdraw from the infamous “Davos in the Desert” forum in Saudi Arabia, they actually increased their presence by sponsoring every single speaking event.

Santa will fill the stockings of the three shameless CEOs of these firms with one-way tickets to the North Pole. That’ll teach ‘em. #BundleUp

NICE

1.) Pat Ford. I realize this name may not resonate beyond the wild and wacky world of public relations, but Pat Ford is the nicest person in a field that could benefit by his example.

Santa’s stocking stuffer for Pat is a press release announcing the smile emoji has been redesigned to reflect that of Mr. Ford’s.

2.)  Derek Jeter. It pains this lifelong Mets fan and Yankees hater to write this but, even in retirement, Jeter continues to personify the very best qualities I’ve ever witnessed in a celebrity.

Regardless, Jeter’s Christmas morning stuffer will be a retro Tommie Agee jersey from the the 1969 Miracle Mets.

3.) Every single person who has set aside personal political beliefs to help improve someone else’s life.

These selfless individuals’ stocking stuffer will be a signed photo of Santa worded, “Thanks for doing your part to end this insanity.”

Peace on earth and good will to every living creature (and Repman reader).

Dec 14

The year of the tireless spammer

I don’t know about you, but for me 2018 will be remembered as “the year of the tireless spammer.”

I’ve been receiving spam e-mails ever since Al Gore invented the Information Superhighway (remember that term?).

But I have never, ever seen as many completely absurd, off-the-mark spam e-mails as I have this year.

I’ve been approached by everyone from realtors and remodelers to temporary search firms and tug boat leasing companies.

What makes this year so special, though, is the individual spammer’s persistence.

I just can’t rid myself of these pests. I unsubscribe, but they come back like some monster that refuses to die in one of those horrible slasher flicks.

Here’s a typical example:

From: Kathy
Date: December 13, 2018 
Hi Steve,
Just a gentle touch base for my email below. Please suggest if you’d like to connect over a call to discuss our services. Help me with your best 30 mins time slot.
Regards,
Kathy

 

On Tue, Dec 5, 2018 at 6:12 PM Kathy wrote:
Hi Steve,
Trust you are doing well. I was following up per my previous email.
Wondering if you had a chance to review my initial email and would like to connect to explore our services further. Please suggest me a best 30 mins Tomorrow or sometime next week that works best for you.
Thanks
Kathy

 

On Tue, Oct 30, 2018 at 5:10 PM Kathy wrote
Hi Steve, 
Hope you are doing well!
My name is Kathy, and I represent Thrymr – An Outsourced Software Product Development Company. I am writing to see if we can schedule a brief call to discuss about your Development initiatives.
Our services include
  • Web & Mobile Rapid Application Development
  • ETL & Data Analytics
  • UX/UI Designing
  • Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence
  • GIS & Map Services
  • Cloud Computing
  • Blockchain
  • Resources on T & M
How about having a quick call at your convenience? Please let me know a time to share the invites.
Thanks for your time. Look forward to speaking with you soon.
Regards,
Kathy

 

So how do YOU cope or, better yet, get rid of unwanted pests. Call the Orkin Man?

If I do that, I’m worried I will begin receiving spam e-mails from Ollie, the outbound marketing whiz from Orkin.

Dec 10

Peppercomm/Directors & Boards Survey Shows Societal Crises are Keeping Nearly ALL Board Directors Up at Night

Eight-in-10 admitted their companies aren’t prepared. 

A recent survey of 43 directors of public and private boards revealed that nearly 90 percent are extremely or somewhat concerned about a societal crisis striking the company of which they are a director. An additional 84 percent of the directors said their company wasn’t prepared for crises ranging from mass shootings and trade wars to #MeToo and Twitter attacks from President Trump.

The survey was fielded immediately following a day-long simulation of a fictitious societal crisis created by Peppercomm, in partnership with Directors & Boards Magazine.

Other key findings included:

  • 77 percent of the participating directors were worried about their personal exposure and reputation as a result of the crisis.
  • 14 percent were EXTREMELY worried about their personal exposure.

The directors’ biggest concerns about a societal crisis impacting their company included:

  • Reputational damage (86 percent)
  • Business disruption (58 percent)
  • A drop in stock price (44 percent)

NOTHING NICE ABOUT I.C.E.

The simulated societal crisis (created by Peppercomm) concerned a publicly-traded company that had historically taken strong stances on human rights, but had just been “found” by employees to be providing I.C.E. with sensitive data about undocumented immigrants entering the country. Many employees were threatening to go on strike, BUT the CEO refused to cancel the I.C.E. contract.

After presenting the simulated crisis scenario to the directors, Peppercomm executives asked the group to answer such questions as:

1.) What’s the first step you would take?

2.) Would you issue a statement? If so, what would the wording be?

3.) If you decide not to issue a statement, explain the reasons why you’d remain quiet.

4.) What questions would you ask of the CEO (and her/his C-Suite)?

5) If you do decide to issue a statement, who would make it? The CEO? A board director? The CCO? Someone else? Why?

6.) Which stakeholder audience would take priority? Shareholders? Customers? Employees? Another group entirely?

7.) Would you engage outside counsel? If so, which ones?

8.) How would you define post-crisis success?

The simulation, which was held at New York’s Harvard Club on December 5th, will further inform Peppercomm’s already considerable knowledge of societal crises.

The firm has conducted three co-branded research studies with The Institute for Public Relations and recently launched the PR industry’s first societal crisis service offering called StandSmartTM.

Every director surveyed agreed on one thing: the worst time to test a company’s societal crisis readiness is in the midst of an actual mega incident.

Nov 28

Mega problems for mega industries

I never thought I’d be writing a blog that included the NFL and Big Tobacco at the same time but, hey, social media makes for strange bedfellows.

Both obscenely rich businesses find themselves in a world of hurt due to denial, deception and delay.  

Let’s kick-off with the NFL.

Did you know there are 72,000 FEWER high school students playing the sport today than just four years ago? Would you believe that outdoor track has overtaken football as the most popular high school sport?

Somewhere Jesse Owens must be smiling.

The reason why is obvious. Parents simply won’t let their sons play the vicious sport which, despite a few superficial changes to the rules by the NCAA and NFL, remains the ultimate end zone for players suffering from CTE and other debilitating brain injuries.

By the way, here’s an interesting stat that was buried in the articles I read about the slow, but steady, death of high school football: The number of girls in 11-player high school football has nearly DOUBLED in the same time frame!

The rate at which football is losing future generations of players is so acute the game may disappear completely by the year 2050 (Note: I hope the Jets can win another Super Bowl before the Lombardi Trophy ends up being sold for scrap).

Enough with football.

Let’s turn to an even deadlier pastime: smoking.

Recently the Food and Drug Administration finally stepped in to restrict all flavored e-cigarettes (also known as vapes) and is in the process of banning menthol cigarettes.  

And high schoolers are once again at the heart (and, sadly, lungs) of the controversy.

The FDA’s move was driven by a just-released study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing a 78 percent increase in vaping by high school students, with 3.6 million high school and middle school students now using e-cigarettes.

Try inhaling this statistic: current e-cigarette use among high school students increased from 1.5 percent in 2011 to 20.8 percent this year! Holy smoke!

In addition to cracking down on vaping, the FDA plans to ban menthol in ALL combustible cigarettes and cigars which it says is a gateway sweetener used to entrap otherwise unsuspecting teens into  a lifelong nicotine addiction.

The NAACP welcomed the ban, saying: “For decades, data have shown that the tobacco industry has successfully and intentionally marketed mentholated cigarettes to African-Americans and particularly African-American women.”

Not surprisingly, Big Tobacco is in complete denial. An Altria spokesperson said, “We continue to believe that a total ban on menthol cigarettes or flavored cigars would be an extreme measure not supported by the science and evidence.” Unreal.

The NFL and Big Tobacco can continue to deny their products lead to serious illness and death but time is slowly running out on each (at least in this country).

I can’t speak for football’s prospects in other continents, but tobacco will continue to thrive in those areas where poorly educated people of all ages are oblivious to its dangers and highly susceptible to glossy advertising.

If Big Tobacco was the name of an NFL player I’d ban him for life (for the sake of millions of future lives).

Nov 27

How Does a Beloved Brand Apologize to Billions?

Today’s guest blog is authored by Melissa Vigue who suggests a few things Dolce & Gabbana might consider doing if they ever want to sell another product in China….

This weekend, we observed as one the world’s iconic luxury brands took a lashing following a huge cultural misstep in China.

ICYMI, Dolce & Gabbana released eating with chopsticks, a series of videos, in the lead up to what was billed as one on China’s biggest fashion events ever, expected to draw not only the fashion elite but China’s most revered cultural icons.

In an effort to grab attention by being humorous (?), the brand and its patriarchs have deeply offended those of Chinese descent worldwide and the rest of us who don’t think using race or cultural practices as fodder for marketing is acceptable. The situation was further exacerbated by supposedly racist Instagram posts by Gabanna. He and the company have since said his account was hacked but the excuse rings hollow to this communicator.

The issue at hand today is how damaged is D&G’s reputation and can they win back the hearts of the market that buys more than 30% of the world’s luxury goods to shore up its bottom line? In the case of D&G, this goes far beyond perception and has immediately impacted the brand’s value with retailers and e-commerce sites dumping thousands of SKUs and multiple brand spokespeople vocally jumping ship.

The outcry began immediately and was not muted by the founders’ somewhat unusual yet well-intentioned video apology. The brand was forced to postpone its major fashion show in Shanghai, dubbed the country’s “biggest fashion gathering of its kind” amid models and guests announcing a boycott of the event.

The reasons for this swift response are twofold:

  • This isn’t the first time D&G has poked the bear. Last year, the brand released DG Loves China, a campaign depicting D&G clad models alongside what the culture viewed as “low class” and “old” China. The perception was that it was intentional behavior by a western brand looking to minimize China’s reputation and growth as a global power.
  • The pride in country, as indicated by this quote, is strong in China and cannot be understated. “The motherland is above everything,” stated D&G’s China ambassador and singer Karry Wang Junkai while renouncing the campaign and her relationship with the brand. What’s most fascinating is the fact that China is known for the use of stereotypical and sometimes downright racist depictions in its own material.

With this debacle fresh in our minds, we wanted to share a couple of parting thoughts for brands when architecting campaigns outside their home country:

  • Don’t rely on the creative “genius” behind the brand for what will resonate globally and culturally. It can gravely impact your brand value.
  • Learn A LOT about the markets you are entering and always socialize input from cultural experts.

It remains to be seen if this iconic fashion house’s rep can be repaired in the eyes of the market that makes up over 30% of the world’s luxury good sales but you can be sure we’ll be watching.

Nov 16

Ho. Ho. Whoa!

Some organizations throw lavish holiday parties to celebrate the season. Others set aside a full day to help a local charity.

And then there’s a Wisconsin company that is, hold for it, giving every employee a handgun for Christmas.

I do my best to stay apolitical in blogs, but there are so many reasons why CEO Ben Wolfgram (pretty cool name, no? Fits his gift-giving idea like a gun to a holster) really shouldn’t be adding to the proliferation of firearms AND tying it to the season of peace, joy and glad tidings to all.

Wolfgram, whose business, BenShot, sells beer mugs, wine glasses and shot glasses with BULLETS planted into their sides, says he had NO concerns about providing employees with firearms.

“We wanted to give something nice and memorable to our employees,” said Wolfgram (who could be Instagram’s evil twin for all we know). “There were two aspects for us. One was for employee safety, and the other was we wanted something that’s kind of fun and exciting.”

Fun and exciting, eh? I wonder how he’ll top this year’s employee gift when Christmas 2019 rolls around? How about:

– Sidewinder missiles

– Body armor

– Nuclear warheads?

My problem with giving guns to employees includes, but is not limited to:

– The very real possibility a disgruntled employee might use the weapon after receiving an unfavorable review, pay cut or termination.

– The very real possibility an employee brings the gun home, one of the kids stumble across it and, well, you know the rest.

– The very real possibility other pro-gun entrepreneurs will think a 9mm Glock is an awesome holiday present for their employees and play copy cat.

I respect the Second Amendment and certainly understand the passion hunters have for their “sport”, but gifting employees with handguns is akin to waving a red cape in front of a bull. It only takes one of those employees to go off the rails and create a very different type of news story for BenShot. And when that story runs the “shot” will truly hit the fan.

Nov 08

All Things Must Pass

I’ve always likened agencies to baseball managers and football coaches. We are hired to be fired.

Make no mistake. The termination clock starts ticking as soon as the letter of agreement is signed. The relationship may last a month, a year, a decade or, in the case of Ogilvy, 75 years. But it will end.

In Ogilvy’s case, the “Dear Agency” letter came from Ford when the latter decided it was time to seek a divorce from WPP (Ogilvy’s owner).

The reasons for the break-up included: “….Ford’s slumping sales, weak demand in Europe and trade tariffs with China.” Mix that toxic potion with the reality that “….clients are increasingly taking work in-house and using the giant online platforms of Google and Facebook” and you have the perfect storm for any freshly-minted CMO whose most logical first move would be to blame the incumbent agency and hire fresh thinking. It happens all the time.

Simultaneously, Ford is filling 100 new in-house global marketing positions (while Ogilvy probably laid off just as many employees who had worked on the account).

Expanding in-house marketing teams is a trend and Reuters says “….has stripped the big advertising groups of some of their income in recent years.” No question about it.

That’s why I’m so happy to be positioned as a mid-sized firm led by public relations but offering an array of strategic integrated services ranging from web design and employee engagement to societal crisis management and all forms of content creation.

The most vulnerable firms right now are in the digital and advertising spaces. That’s because those service offerings can easily be duplicated by an in-house team.

PR is a relationship-based business in which long-standing personal relationships with influencers, reporters, producers and editors are owned by individuals at the agencies. Those expansive and valuable relationships are difficult to replace.

Even if PR is slightly more strategic and less tactical than its sister disciplines, I know the clock is ticking with every single Peppercomm client (and we have terrific clients at the moment). I know the clock is ticking because I’ve experienced longstanding relationships end in a heartbeat due to:

  • A new CCO or CMO deciding they wanted their own team.
  • A major retailer deciding it made more sense to allocate the PR/social spend to upgrading their IT.
  • A clueless PR manager who believed that “….every relationship has a five-year window before things get old and tired.”

Having seen and experienced it all I totally empathize with the fine people at Ogilvy. And, I also know I need to double down on feeding the new business pipeline at my shop. What’s here today may be gone tomorrow. Or 75 years from tomorrow.

Nov 05

Ready for another walkout or two?

Get ready for another global organization to experience what went down at Google last week when employees around the world staged a walkout in protest of the company’s response to a widespread #MeToo scandal.

This time, though, I predict the spotlight will be on three of the world’s best known and most highly admired strategic management consulting firms: Booz-Allen, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group.

That’s because The Sunday New York Times chose to devote front page coverage to the trio’s extensive (and incredibly lucrative) contracts with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who was recently fired for his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Not only are the firms reaping ungodly amounts of money from the repressive Saudi regime but, critically, NONE withdrew from participating in last month’s Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh (at a time when virtually every other company, journalist and executive universally bailed in protest).

Making matters worse, the Big Three doubled down on their participation at the event:

  • McKinsey led panels on money and energy (One would think the Saudis don’t need much advice on either).
  • BCG focused on “unspecified intelligence” (Boy, does that ever sound shady).
  • Booz-Allen held meetings with representatives of Saudi’s army and navy to whom they provide counsel (I never knew white shoe consulting firms did Black Ops).

When pressed for comments, firm representatives either provided a weak, evasive response or no comment whatsoever. And therein lies the problem.

As was the case with Deloitte last month (see my blog), I don’t think the rank-and-file employees of these global powerhouses will “permit” their executives to keep padding their wallets with moola paid by sleazy, if not murderous, regimes. Employee activism has become a force to reckon with (and no longer ignored).

And if I were sitting in the corner office of Booz, BCG or McKinsey, I’d also worry about losing key clients whose corporate values and ethics won’t permit them to engage consultants with highly controversial contracts.

Now is the time for the Big Three to step up and speak out. They need to either terminate their contracts with the Saudi government or provide a very transparent reason why they will continue to bill, bill, bill.

It’s tough to walk away from billions of dollars, but more and more employees expect their organizations to possess a higher purpose and do their part to make the world a better place. They want to feel comfortable that their personal values are in alignment with their employers’ words and actions.

I hope all three consulting firms are taking this reputational crisis as seriously as they should. If they aren’t, watch for Google-like walkouts and Deloitte-like picketing.

Nov 02

Your Walkout is Coming

Today’s timely guest post is from Ann Barlow, the leader of our West Cost office and the current Board Chair for Watermark. 

Too many companies are caught by surprise when fed up people take action. It’s time for them to know where they’re vulnerable, where they need to do better, and step up.

Including Google.

In a year of so many #MeToo incidents laid bare, I wondered if I was becoming as numbed by reports of sexual harassment and discrimination as I am by the other outrageous behavior reported each day. So I was surprised, but also a little pleased when the New York Times piece and yesterday’s walkout by Google employees stirred up so much anger and frustration within me. Anger that company leaders over and over and over again look the other way when a rainmaker mistreats others. Frustration that even those companies that pledge to do better have so much trouble making real change happen.

But I also feel hope, because even beyond calling their leadership to account through yesterday’s walkout, the organizers put together a thoughtful, practical and actionable list of demands for change. The degree to which Google follows them will show just how serious it is about eradicating sexual discrimination, harassment and assault.  Nothing less will do.

As for other employers, no one should be foolish enough to assume that their environment is a place where women – and all employees — feel safe and equal because they espouse values, promote employee resource groups and win workplace awards. Unless employers dig in deep to truly listen to employees and understand their daily experiences, AND have the fortitude to toss out even the most powerful, their walkout is coming.

And it may not be just employees who walk away. People on both sides of ‘take a knee,’ gun control, transgender rights – and #MeToo – have shown a willingness to vote with their voices and their wallets.

What about your brand? Is your walkout coming?