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.

Mar 01

Delta Does the Right Thing… for the Wrong Reason

Today’s guest blog is authored by Steve Goodwin (BrandFoundations), a longtime friend and strategic partner to Peppercomm…

No one was surprised this past weekend when air carrier Delta joined the growing list of corporations abandoning business relationships with the NRA. The move made sense in light of the white-hot debate that’s gripped the nation in the wake of the horrible and senseless massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

It seemed – at least at first blush – that Delta was taking a purpose-based stand, and that its purpose (or North Star) dictated that the company come down firmly on the opposite side of the NRA on this particular issue.

Cue the applause track for a corporation brave enough to stand on its morals, knowing full well that it’s going to take some incoming flack for doing so.

But don’t hit “play” quite yet.

You see, a closer read of the company’s statement on its decision reveals that, at the end of the day, Delta’s actions weren’t driven by something so noble as “purpose” but rather by a vanilla-esque commitment to what could best be described as “neutrality.” See what you think:

“Delta’s decision reflects the airline’s neutral status in the current national debate over gun control amid recent school shootings. Out of respect for our customers and employees on both sides, Delta has taken this action to refrain from entering this debate and focus on its business. Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment.

This is not the first time Delta has withdrawn support over a politically and emotionally charged issue. Last year, Delta withdrew its sponsorship of a theater that staged a graphic interpretation of “Julius Caesar” depicting the assassination of President Trump. Delta supports all of its customers but will not support organizations on any side of any highly charged political issue that divides our nation.”

That’s right: Delta’s version of “taking a stand” appears instead to be a thinly veiled calculation of “sitting it out.” And therein lies an ongoing threat to the company’s credibility and brand reputation.

Failing to take a stand based on an agreed-upon set of principles, tenets or desired behaviors leaves Delta walking an extremely thin line as it seeks to offend as few people as possible… which, as we all know, offends the hell out of most people. Look no further than the reaction by Georgia’s Lieutenant Governor threatening to “kill” any tax breaks for Delta in that state unless it re-ups with the NRA. He apparently missed the “on both sides” and “Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment” parts of the carefully crafted statement. (Rhetorical question: How well did that “on both sides” stance work for the President in the immediate Charlottesville aftermath?)

Delta’s lack of adherence to a defined purpose also puts the company’s leadership in the unenviable – and unsustainable –  position of having to make a series of “judgment calls” every time a new controversial issue emerges.  And in case you haven’t noticed, they’re emerging with increasing frequency and (sadly) severity.

In the J.D. Power 2017 North American Airline Satisfaction Survey, Delta ranked #2 overall. Although the company did the “right thing” in hopping off the sinking S.S. NRA, its inability to come forth with the “right reason” puts those hard-earned gains – and Delta’s brand reputation – at risk.

 

 

Feb 26

Purpose-based decisions

Whether you’re for or against Second Amendment rights and the role of the NRA, you must admit the number of organizations that have severed any, and all, ties with the powerful association is staggering.

While I’m not 100 percent positive, I’d be willing to bet the organizations in question were merely doubling down on their corporate purpose.

Corporate purpose has become increasingly important for organizations large and small since it serves as their North Star and guides any, and all, public stances on the mega issues of the day.

If you haven’t checked out the Arthur W. Page Society’s thinking on the critical role corporate purpose plays in determining messaging in a Trump Tweeting/Fake News world, you should. Just visit www.awpagesociety.com.

But, I digress.

We’re in the process of interviewing 25 CCOs of Fortune 500 companies to better understand how they are handling mega societal crises such as the horrific school shooting in Broward County, Florida.

In each instance, the CCOs pointed to corporate purpose as their North Star. They, and their C-Suite peers, evaluate the severity of the crisis du jour and then, based upon its severity and relevance to the company in question, will take a strong pro or con stance based upon the wording of their corporate purpose.

Remaining silent in the wake of mass shootings, as well as issues ranging from DACA and illegal immigration to opening national parks to private industry and enabling oil companies to begin drilling just a few miles off our coastlines, is no longer an option.

Employees want to know where their company stands. Period.

I salute the organizations who have followed their North Star in disassociating themselves from the NRA, and would send the same high five to those corporations who, based upon their values, have reinforced their commitment to unfettered access to weapons of all kinds.

I may not agree with their choice, but I salute their adherence to corporate purpose.

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.