Apr 17

Neither Jail Time, Stiff Fines Nor a One-Way Ticket to Mars will Stop Silicon Valley Leakers from Leaking

Ever read something and experience an immediate flashback to another period in your life? No? Well, I just did.

And this is the article that triggered my business version of PTSD. It’s a piece from CNN.com reporting that Apple’s senior management has threatened dire consequences to ANY employee who is caught leaking internal information.

Unfortunately the threatening memo was, well, leaked to CNN.

And, here’s the personal flashback it triggered.

Along with my Peppercomm peers, I enjoyed a front-row seat as the newly-minted CEO of the now moribund Yahoo addressed a worldwide audience of employees. She was there to deliver her state-of-the-company address.

By way of quick background, Yahoo had been plagued by internal civil wars that were being played out daily in Silicon Valley rags thanks to, you guessed it, workers leaking sensitive information.

Back to the CEO and her inaugural address. After acknowledging the thunderous applause from hopeful employees who were desperately praying this latest CEO could right the good ship Yahoo and return the tech dinosaur to its glory days, she barked out the following message:

“Let me begin by addressing the leaks. The leaks will stop immediately. Do you know why? Because if I ever catch one of you leaking a confidential memo to Kara Swisher or any other reporter, I will personally drop-kick your sorry ass to Mars! Got it?”

She then proceeded to share her strategic vision for fixing the foundering has-been and then invited questions from the audience.

A meek, mild engineering type stood and asked, “Since some of us like me have cultivated relationships with reporters who cover the highly technical aspects of our products, is it still OK if I speak with those types of reporters?”

If looks could kill, that poor engineer would be pushing up daisies as we speak.

She glared at the unassuming engineer and screamed, “Are you a complete moron? Were you not listening to what I just said? Leak one word or one sentence and you will be a dead man walking. Got it?”

Based upon the deafening silence, the whole room (and worldwide viewing audience) GOT it.

Alas, the leaks continued. She was fired after less than a year and replaced by the equally inept Marissa Meyer, whose first official act was to terminate thousands of Yahoo flex-time workers while building a state-of-the-art child care center adjacent to her office at corporate headquarters. In other words, she could bring her kiddies to work (but the moms, dads, caregivers who tried doing the same from their homes and apartments were given the heave-ho). Very deft touch, no?

I am in no way equating Apple’s future with the demise of Yahoo, but I will say that when management feels the need to threaten leakers with jail time, a company’s best years may very well be in the past.

Apr 09

This red, red robin isn’t bob bobbing along

I’m not a fan of self-help gurus.

Their modus operandi mirrors the value proposition firms such as Bain, Booz-Allen have peddled for years: They study your problem, tell you what you already know and then charge you a few millions dollars to implement the changes they recommend.

Tony Robbins is the best-known self-help guru. He excels at superimposing a feel-good spin on conventional wisdom and then charging you beaucoup bucks for what you already know you need to do to improve your lot in life. Nice gig, no? Not always.

Recently, Tony blew it big time by NOT listening to a major issue keeping his female flock up at night: the #MeToo movement.

Instead of demanding immediate across-the-board changes Robbins, instead, chastised women for “victimizing” the issue in order to generate publicity and scoop up some quick dollars.

He was wrong. Dead wrong. But, Tony wouldn’t back down.

Just watch this video of a recent Robbins’ rally and watch him use anyone/anything else he could conjure up to defend his misguided thoughts.

As is his wont, Robbins dominated the exchange with the woman in the video who called him out for misunderstanding and undermining #MeToo.

Instead of empathizing with her, he instead obfuscated the discussion, used the loyal audience to support whatever he just said and absolutely REFUSED to apologize for his original comments.

Americans are trying to cope with the seismic issues facing them in a world gone wild. And, sadly, many turn to self-help gurus like Robbins for guidance and reassurance that everything will be just fine.

I’m fine with anyone who derives some sort of confidence and self-assurance from guys like Robbins. But, a guru has to admit fault when a guru is dead wrong. And, Robbins didn’t.

Afterword: I’ve been paying close attention to Robbins in particular for the past year or so because we hired a consultant who not only based his counsel on RobbinsSpeak, but would inadvertently e-mail us advice that still contained the guru’s name on the bottom of the consultant’s “work assignments.” Nothing like ripping off a rip-off artist.

Needless to say, our consultant’s advice routinely missed the mark. But, hey, he was just pulling a Robbins on Robbins (re-circulating recirculated ideas).

Legitimate self-help gurus can provide invaluable counsel. But, those who dismiss a powerful, and legitimate, trend risk alienating their fan following in the blink of an eye. And those who, like our now long-gone consultant, who rip-off content from others deserve a special place in hell.

Come to think of it, listening to self-help Tony Robbins lectures for eternity would certainly qualify as hell in my book.

Mar 28

A Night at the Museum…

Taylor Shawver and Shannon Thornton, two of Peppercomm’s sure fire leaders of tomorrow, took time out of their busy schedules to pen a guest blog about what the PR workplace experience of the past was like for three pioneering women. A big thank you to Shelley Spector and The Museum of Public Relations for hosting an event that highlighted female pioneers and enlightened the likes of Shannon, Taylor and so many other young PR practitioners…….

To help celebrate Women’s History Month, Peppercomm had the honor of being a sponsor for the second annual PR Women Who Changed History™ event hosted by The Museum of Public Relations.

The event, which occurred on March 1st featured a riveting discussion among three of history’s most important PR pioneers–Barbara Hunter, Muriel Fox, and Saralie Slonsky. The trailblazers put us in their virtual time machine and provided a fascinating glimpse into what life was like in the Mad Men days of the industry versus how life is for women in PR today.

In the 1940s, for example, Muriel Fox applied for a writing job at the legendary Carl Byoir & Associates but was told, “Women aren’t writers here, they’re secretaries.”

Her rejection only fueled her perseverance. She kept after Byoir and was finally hired. Once firmly ensconced, she rose quickly through the ranks, becoming Byoir’s first woman vice president in the early 60’s.

Fox’s story was inspirational, but also one we struggled with in fully comprehending. After all, we work in a female-dominated office, so it’s hard to believe there was ever a time a woman would be told they’re not writers.

Barbara Hunter is another pioneering woman tore down the stereotypes and became the first woman in the United States to run a public relations agency.

In addition to explaining how she established her start-up, this entrepreneur even focused on how she would dress back in the day:  “When I went to work, I would put on my hat, often with a veil, my white gloves, and my high heeled shoes and go into the subway to go to work,” she said. She also remembered how few women there were in the field during this time. Hunter recalled attending PRSA luncheons in which 95 percent or more of the tables were filled by men.

Today nearly three-quarters of all PR pros are women. At universities, the percentage of female public relations majors is even higher. The change is both exhilarating and unsettling. It’s exciting to realize how far we’ve come, but it is also incomprehensible to hear how we could have been so marginalized in the first place. Clearly, as was the case for female executives in all industries 60 years ago, women were simply not perceived as managerial worthy.

Last, and certainly not least, Saralie Slonsky shared her tales from the past. Slonsky has spent close to 30 years as a public relations/communications executive at two of the leading global agencies, Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe (which merged several week ago). As she rose through the ranks, Slonsky honed her skills and developed a specialty in women’s health practice. In fact, she helped launch the first menopause education campaign in the early 1980’s, and worked with the team that partnered with Cancer Care to establish the first National Breast Cancer Awareness Week. Talk about pioneering!

The Museum of Public Relations experience not only opened our eyes to how much has been done by so few, but energized us to pick up the torch and keep moving women’s rights forward in the workplace. As Saralie put it, “What you know and how you do it is what matters now.”

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Mar 27

Sometimes smarter is better than lighter (or stupidity)

Just when I thought yet another tone-deaf advertising agency creative or in-house marketing executive couldn’t possibly produce yet another insensitive, racially-charged TV spot, along comes Heineken to prove me wrong.

If you haven’t seen “Lighter is better” and, odds are you won’t since Heineken yanked it off the air almost immediately, take a gander: Heineken pulls ‘Sometimes lighter is better’ ad after racism claims

Now, take a guess who was morally outraged by the commercial? Bingo! People of color.

Why? Well, because the white bartender in the spot takes careful aim and hurtles a Heineken bottle of beer underneath, around and past bar patrons of color before it reaches its final destination: the hand of an attractive light skinned woman.

These are the types of unexplainable and egregious gaffes that, in 30 seconds, can undo years of community goodwill, corporate social responsibility AND the morale of an entire workforce. Then of course, there will be boycotts from patrons of liquor stores and food markets who will no longer buy Heineken beer at all.

God knows what the eventual impact from a financial and reputational standpoint will be, but I’m betting the internal marketing team was either put on 30-days notice or asked to leave the building faster than a speeding bottle of Heineken.

As far as the ad agency creatives, all I can say is, “Let’s lift a bottle of beer (other than Heineken) in their memory.” The next gig for the entire team will probably be washing dishes in the bar where the commercial was filmed.

Btw, on a related note, I will be joined by JP Laqueur of Brand Foundations on a PRSA webinar at 3pm today to discuss the new types of societal crises facing corporate America (as well as self-inflicted wounds such as Heineken’s).

Here’s the link to today’s webinar: http://apps.prsa.org/Learning/Calendar/display/9155/Reputation_Management_in_a_Polarized_Age#.WrpLY4jwaUn

Mar 22

Even in the Age of AI, Just Tell Me a Story

Ann Barlow, Peppercomm’s West Coast President, penned this guest blog.  It reinforces the need for great storytelling and explains why smart marketers at the recent SXSW are wising-up to the limitations (and excessive costs) of technology, digital and enterprise solutions while doubling down on crisp, clear and compelling content….

Elon Musk told a riveted SXSW audience last week that we should be more afraid of artificial intelligence than of nuclear weapons. I have a healthy respect for the threat that unchecked machine learning capabilities in particular could pose, but at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, mostly I just lament the loss of human interaction that technology has brought about. That’s why I was heartened by one of the other themes that surfaced from this year’s trend-forecasting extravaganza.

As TechRepublic reported in a piece called SXSW 2018: The 5 Business Takeaways that Mattered, the 5th takeaway says that the human connection and the tales we tell still matter most.

Here’s what Brian Wallace of NewSourcing, reporting for TR says:

Small and focused content is more powerful than stuff that’s over the top, and it’s thanks in part to the shift toward human connections. Human storytellers make a greater impact than celebrity spokespeople or ad campaigns, and that was completely evident during the Experiential Storytelling track. Small is the new big. In fact, this seismic shift toward the human element of storytellers and stronger personal connections highlights the fact that the technology that has long dominated the conversation is there to serve the humans, not the other way around.

Don’t you love, “Small is the new big”? We are utterly surrounded, engulfed and consumed by technology. In our marketing world, more and more emphasis is placed on the tools that tell us about our audiences and what they want to hear from us. So much so that one school of thought suggests we no longer need to create campaigns – just state the facts. These tools are incredibly helpful, but are they enough to make a real human connection?

Last month, scientists announced that a series of cave paintings in Spain may be by far the oldest ever – perhaps 65,000 years old – which means that man’s desire for creative expression and storytelling actually predates homo sapiens. I imagine our antediluvian kin sharing their days and their dreams with their brethren, capturing their lives in images to share with future generations.

All these millennia later, the set of tools we use to express ourselves has vastly grown in number and sophistication.  But the stories we weave — about ourselves, our experiences, our stuff – will always take precedence over technology. As the TechRepublic article author says, technology is still here to serve us, not the other way around. So however sophisticated our tools to reach our audiences become, to make a real human connection, just tell me a story.

Mar 21

Drink innovators: bold play or just plain gross?

Today’s guest blog was co-authored by two rising stars at Peppercomm, Courtney Moed and Heather Valle, who not only know everything about PR, but can discuss product innovation from a Millennial’s POV. What better way to ride out a Nor’Easter?

Even if you live under a rock, I’m sure you’ve heard about the Unicorn Frappuccino at Starbucks. The trendy, colorful drink took Instagram by storm with over 151,000 posts under the hashtag #unicornfrappuccino. Starbucks saw what a success the unicorn trend was becoming and jumped on the opportunity to turn the frapp into a real product offering with a registered trademark.

While other brands are following the trends, Starbucks is a leader in turning trends into profits. Coffee purveyors and other non-food brands should take note of Starbucks secret to success – well one of them. Sometimes you need to go a little off brand to capture some media buzz.

Check out these brands that are thirsty for some good ole’ creativity:

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While the turquoise and purple concoction is seemingly off brand from Starbucks’s usual crisp, sophisticated look, it’s a way to capture attention away from competing brands. Love or hate the flavor, consumers are abuzz about the chain until their next holiday cup debacle. Similar with Pickle Juice Slushes and Buffalo Lattes, there might be a select few who actually enjoy these, but they are really buzz beverages. Today’s consumer craves experiences and shareable moments. Younger demographics want boomerang spit-takes trying the latest, weirdest flavor, rather than pictures of them sipping basic black coffee.

How can your brand compete with these trendy (and potentially tasty) drinks?

  • Listen to your audience to hear what they’re saying. Find out what’s working for their appetite and what’s missing from your menu.
  • Use FOMO to your advantage. With limited-time offered drinks, customers will feel a sense of urgency to get to the store, so they don’t miss out.
  • Create a hashtag for customers to become a part of the community. Even if they can’t get to the store to purchase the drink themselves, they can social media stalk others who have.
  • Act fast! If it seems Starbucks is five steps ahead, be six steps ahead. Don’t go recreating a crystal ball frapp. Look into your crystal ball to anticipate the next trend and be first to market.
Mar 19

Yesterday’s Mistakes can be Today’s Opportunities

We’re in the final stages of completing an exhaustive, co-branded research report in tandem with The Institute for Public Relations.

The purpose is to more fully understand how CCOs across myriad industries are coping with crisis preparedness and response in this new era of Trump Tweets, Fake News and seemingly innocuous actions finding their way on the front pages of media properties near and far (Think: Snapshat’s ill-conceived pot shot at Rihanna).

I admit though that, aside from #MeToo incidents, I hadn’t given much thought to past organizational mistakes, transgressions and outrages as opportunities to not only right wrongs but double down on an organization’s Purpose and Values.

My enlightenment is due in large part to my longtime friend and associate, Chris Tennyson, who just added a rearview mirror to my fully-equipped crisis HUMVEE.

In his soon to be published book, Tennyson takes a page out of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” writing style of simultaneously placing Billy Pilgrim, the lead character, in the past, present and future.  He does so by citing three superb examples of different organizations who suddenly woke up, realized mistakes made by previous generations and earned well-deserved accolades for fixing what had been broken (and making themselves seem more empathetic and forward-looking than ever).

Here are the examples. Each contains a link that provides additional insight:
1.) Brown-Forman: The company embraced the work of an author/researcher who, on her own, dug into the company archives to discover that a former slave named Dearest Green played a lead role in developing one of B-F’s signature whisky brands.history. Check out the CEO’s comment in the article link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/dining/jack-daniels-whiskey-slave-nearest-green.html 

2.) National Geographic: The iconic travel/adventure journal asked a University of Virginia professor (an expert on Africa and photography) to assess the magazine’s historic coverage of people of color. The report was dismal, if not downright demoralizing.

Rather than bury the past, though, the magazine’s current editor-in-chief dealt with the issue in a totally authentic and transparent way.

NG’s headline read, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

3.) The New York Times included a special section in last Sunday’s edition featuring newly written obituaries of women who deserved recognition at the time of their deaths (but had been overlooked by the Times obit deskmen of the day).

Now, compare the three examples above with the recent track record of Oscar Munoz & United Airlines. By the time he steps down, Munoz will have enough egregious mistakes to write an airline industry version of War and Peace.

As for me, I plan to highlight a few other choice tidbits from the Tennyson manuscript in the days and weeks to come (because they’re that good). And, hey, if someone accuses me of plagiarism, I will simply admit fault and leverage the opportunity to re-position myself as a stand-up guy who is willing to make good on my egregious mistakes of yesteryear.

Mar 14

United Airlines Continues to Be Dogged by Self-Inflicted Image Problems. But Do We Care?

Today’s guest blog was penned by Peppercomm’s Ann Barlow who weighs in a yet another atrocious crisis courtesy of the airline with the least friendly skies imaginable….

On Tuesday, we learned about the poor dog that died onboard one United flight when it was consigned to the overhead bin, and then the next day about another that went to Japan instead of Kansas (anyone could make that mistake). Like many of you, we at Peppercomm shook our heads at the level of callousness that CEO Oscar Munoz seems content to foster, and wondered at the tatters that United’s reputation has been left in following yet another set of senseless actions.

Then my colleague Matt Purdue asked the question: Does it really matter? He pointed out that United’s stock has not suffered despite all of the well-publicized treatment the airline has visited on its paying passengers. And, maybe worse, when we spot a $30 savings on Kayak with United over another carrier, how many of us blithely put our principles aside to save a few bucks?

The notion that bad behavior comes with no consequences horrifies me. Are we really in an age where we are so weary of, so numbed by, people treating one another with such contempt or compromising any ethics in the name of financial gain, that we shake our heads and move on? My colleagues and friends talk about feeling angry but frustrated by a sense of powerless to do anything. Understandable to be sure. For me, it’s more that stories of scandals and misconduct are coming at us so rapidly that it’s hard to remember who’s done what, when.

But I have hope. At Peppercomm, we’ve actually created an updated version of our crisis program because like never before, employees are calling on their company leadership to take a stand on the day’s most important issues. No longer are they content to let their employers remain neutral on things like DACA and #MeToo and gun control and the environment. And no longer are they willing to stand by and watch their leadership consistently put profit above principles. Like never before, companies will need to operate with purpose and walk away from actions and policies that don’t fit that purpose.

Matt is probably right in the short term. But based on what we are seeing, not only at Peppercomm but on social media and on our streets, as weary and busy as people are, we are only willing to take so much.

Mr. Munoz, perhaps you’re safe for now. But sooner or later, your employees and your customers are going to say: enough.

Mar 13

Fear Sells (Or Does It?)

As someone whose firm has represented countless insurance companies over the years, I’ve noticed a cyclical nature to the marketing themes and lemmings-like mentality of the field.

In recent times, for example, it’s been hard to find a single insurer that hasn’t employed comedy, a humorous situation or an actual character a la Allstate’s Mayhem to depict how truly dangerous, and fleeting, our lives are (but, in a laugh out loud funny kind of way).

Recently, though, Principal Insurance decided to change the rules and began playing the doom-and-gloom card. This one-minute video is a typical example.

There’s no question that fear is a powerful motivator. But, there’s a fine line to tread between scaring someone half to death and providing sound financial planning advice.

I think Principal stepped over the line in this particular spot. I’d be hard pressed to suggest any additional optics, music or non-verbals to convey a more depressing family crisis.

I wonder if playing on fear in a world ruled by fear is a smart and sound strategy?

During the Depression, for example, the downtrodden poured into movie theatres to escape the grim reality of their lives. And Hollywood provided them with a respite, however brief.

I’d argue that marketers of all stripes have the same responsibility today. I’m not suggesting they market their wares by employing slapstick comedy, but I do think the entire country needs a healthy dose of fun and entertaining content. And Principal’s medicine is the wrong tonic for the wrong audience at the wrong point in time.

Mar 06

Simply the Worst

While Donald J. Trump always manages to tell those who will listen that he’ll be remembered as the greatest president ever, a recent survey reveals POTUS has a mountain the height of Mt. Everest to climb in order to deliver on his boasts.

According to the just released “Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey,” Donald J. Trump finished DEAD LAST.

The survey was taken of 320 members of the American Political Science Association (APSA), which bills itself as “….the foremost organization of social science experts in presidential politics.” And, who am I to say otherwise?

But, I digress.

The APSA  asked respondents to rate each president on a scale of 0-100 for their overall greatness, with 0=Failure, 50=Average and 100=Great.

The group then averaged the ratings for each president and ranked them from highest average to lowest.

Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln topped the list, followed by George Washington, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman (a long overdue salute to a truly great president) and Dwight Eisenhower (which I don’t get at all).

Check this out: Barack Obama finished eighth (which cannot make the likes of Steve Bannon and Sean Hannity very happy).

Obama was followed by Reagan, LBJ, Wilson and James Madison who, at 5’ 4” holds the distinction for being America’s shortest president (Note: There was no mention of the size of Madison’s hands in the survey).

Cutting to the chase, Trump is SO bad (according to the respondents) that he actually moved James Buchanan and William Henry Harrison up one notch each from the cellar.

Buchanan was an avowed Southern sympathizer, whose four years in office began with the Dred Scott Decision AND ended with the succession of every Confederate state from the Union. Talk about a legacy!

And, poor William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia only 30 days after delivering his inaugural address in a torrential downpour. Tippecanoe, we hardly knew ye.

Getting back to the current occupant of the West Wing, I did some serious due diligence to see if:

  • He’d lashed out at the APSA on Twitter (Nope).
  • Had Sarah Huckabee Sanders tell the White House press corps that until POTUS & Co. had had time to examine the report, she’d have no comment (Negative).
  • Placed KellyAnne Conway on Fox & Friends to decry the APSA results as yet another example of the left-wing Liberal elite savaging a president who accomplished more in his first 100 days in office than any of his predecessors (Nyet).

Where I asked to fill Hope Hicks’ stiletto heels and counsel the president on how he might go about moving up the ranks in the time remaining to him, I’d begin by suggesting he stop blindsiding his own government with spontaneous actions a la the recent steel and aluminum tariff threats while focusing instead on solving mega societal crises (as opposed to picking Twitter fights with Alec Baldwin or as POTUS calls him, Alex Baldwin).

Alas, as we’ve seen on countless occasions, POTUS takes advice from no one and prefers, instead, “to keep everyone guessing.” That may work in the cutthroat world of real estate but it’s a badly flawed strategy for leading the most powerful country in the world, AND only fans the flames of divisiveness that’s characterized his presidency to date.

The difference between the president who topped the list and the one who finished dead last might best be summarized by how I think POTUS would spin the most important passage of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With charity towards none and malice towards all.”

Afterword: The APSA publishes its Presidential Greatness Survey every four years. Assuming you know who is still in office in 2022, I wonder if he’ll have accomplished enough to at least challenge Franklin Pierce for the highly-coveted 41st spot in the poll? If he does, Trump will undoubtedly call it the greatest improvement in presidential rankings ever.