Oct 16

No More Cattle Calls Please!



Today’s Repman guest blog is authored by Deb Brown.

It appears that our industry is rapidly becoming a microcosm of society as a whole. In particular, I’m speaking about civility, or the lack thereof. Case in point: cattle calls.

When we receive a Request for Proposal from an organization, we always vet it, part of which includes how many agencies are in the mix. If the number is more than five, we usually bow out since the chance of winning the account starts to diminish. I’m always surprised when organizations reach out to many agencies. Not only is it unfair to the agencies to have a slim chance of winning, but it has to be tedious for the prospect to read through many proposals and/or sit through many presentations.

Sometimes, we cannot find out the number of agencies in advance. This happened recently when we were invited to participate in an RFP and had to attend an in-person session to ask questions. We found ourselves being one out of 15 agencies in the room. While the opportunity was a good one for us, putting hours of our time into the proposal with a slim chance of winning didn’t make sense.

Prospects should do their due diligence and choose no more than five agencies. Or, if they want to start with a larger pool, conduct a 30-minute call with each agency and then, based on the conversations, whittle it down to no more than five. It shows respect to the agencies and it makes it more manageable for the prospect. Having a “cattle call” frustrates agencies and, ironically, the agencies that may be best suited for the account may drop out.

A cattle call happens to be just one example of lack of respect for an agency’s time and hard work. Another is never responding to the agency after the agency submits a proposal. Four years ago, we submitted a very thoughtful and strategic proposal to a company looking for a communications partner. We are still waiting to hear. And, sadly, that company is not the only one that hasn’t responded over the years. A “Dear Agency” letter is another demonstration of lack of respect for an agency’s hard work. Personalizing a letter and providing feedback on why an agency wasn’t chosen would be very much appreciated.

These issues are very easy to fix, but sadly continue. Perhaps “business civility” should be taught in schools of communications and MBA programs. If future executives don’t learn the ropes there, where (and when) will they ever grasp the adverse impact on their own image and reputation if they continue to treat agencies like cattle?

Oct 10

Have lecture, will travel

I’ve had the unique privilege to address two classes of public relations students/executives in the past week. The initial victims attend George Washington University. The second group participates in a master’s program in communications management at the University of Toronto.

In each instance, I found the students/executives hungry for information about CEO advocacy in particular, and best practices for dealing with an unexpected attack from the West Wing.

Happily, and courtesy of The Institute for Public Relations and the Arthur W. Page Society, I was well-equipped to field each, and every question, and cite both proprietary primary research as well as highly relevant secondary research to support my arguments.

I suggested that public relations in general, and the CCO in particular, has never been better positioned to provide counsel to the CEO in the new normal of fake news, hate-mongering and personal attacks. Indeed. I firmly believe the CCO should be carefully advising her CEO in terms of when to advocate and how best to communicate it.  As my colleague, Roger Bolton, president of the Page Society mentioned in our recent PRSA-sponsored webinar, an organization should follow its corporate purpose, mission and values statement in positing  a POV on everything from Charlottesville and DACA to climate change and women’s rights. And the CCO should always be serving as his organization’s ethical and moral compass.

I recently interviewed Colleen Penhall of Lowes, who  provided a best practices roadmap for the path her organization took in determining a corporate purpose that has profoundly impacted every aspect of her organization and equipped the CEO with guidelines should he choose to speak out on an issue of the day. Other CCO’s who have yet to determine their organization’s purpose would be well-advised to follow Colleen’s lead.

CEO advocacy will only become more important in the days, weeks and months to come. The wisest orgazanitons are those who have already taken time to anticipate what cannot be anticipated, and created various responses that have been approved, in advance, by the entire C-Suite.

We live in interesting times. And, neither digital gurus nor advertising copywriters have a clue as to how best to navigate TrumpWorld. These are heady times for the public relations profession, and I’m more convinced than ever that we will rise in stature as employees and stakeholder audiences look for a CEO to provide a voice of reason in a time of turbulence.

Oct 04

The Power of Vulnerability

It’s always been my opinion the strongest leaders are the ones who aren’t afraid to display their emotions, vulnerability and humanity in times of stress. Vulnerability is, in fact, one of the key lessons we instill in our troops as they undergo stand-up comedy training (a de facto part of our management development for the past decade).

There are a few terrific examples of CEOs who “get it”, but I’ve rarely seen a late night talk show host display his emotions and vulnerability to the degree Jimmy Kimmel did in the aftermath of the Las Vegas tragedy.  Regardless of your political views, watch the entire segment.

The single best advice I could provide any CEO addressing stakeholders in a time of crisis is to emulate Kimmel’s authenticity. It’s riveting (and incredibly effective).

Sep 26

A company without a purpose

Lost amidst the usual hysteria surrounding Donald Trump’s Tweets, tirades and threats this past weekend was the woeful performance of Under Armour.

In a flip-flopping move reminiscent of 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, Under Armour took two diametrically opposed POVs in the space of an hour.

The drama unfolded after the sports apparel brand decided to publicly support the NFL and NBA players who suddenly, and unexpectedly, were attacked by President Trump at the appropriately named Von Braun Center at the University of Alabama.

Under Armour stepped up and immediately expressed its commitment to diversity, inclusiveness and the right of all America citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights. Then, when conservative followers began savaging the statement on social channels everywhere, Under Armour stepped back. Holy two-step, Batman!

The brand wizards took down the original Tweet and subsequently added a line about respecting our flag in a new one.

That new Tweet incited a second wave of protesters who called Under Armour weak, wishy-washy and pandering.

And, what did the powers that be at Under Armour say as they were receiving incoming mortar from all sides? Nothing. Not a word. The silence was deafening,

Alas, this is not the first time Under Armour took a fire, aim, ready approach to their Trump-related statements.

In the afterglow of The Donald’s inauguration, the company issued a hagiographic salute to our new president without realizing their top celebrity endorsers were female, people of color or others who found Trump’s incendiary rhetoric abhorrent.

The brand once again had to back pedal and support their high profile athletes’ right to speak their minds.

Under Armour’s pathetic attempts at communications don’t merely signal a sophomoric approach to marketing communications. It tells me the company lacks a purpose.

And, if you think corporate purpose is just a warm and fuzzy HR thing, think again. A recent Harris survey shows an overwhelming number of employees surveyed not only expect their company to have a purpose; they expect their CEO to reaffirm that purpose whenever such flashpoint issues as DACA, Charlottesville, illegal immigration or a crazy attack on black athletes goes down.

Once a company’s executives and employees agree upon the purpose of the organization’s existence, it’s relatively easy to allow that purpose to serve as the North Star, guiding any and all future statements that reinforce the mission and values embedded in the corporate purpose.

The Arthur W. Page Society contains countless guidelines one can follow to create a meaningful purpose that not only helps crystallize statements in times of crisis but answers the why and how questions rumbling around in every American employee’s mind:

–  “Why do I go to work every day?”

–  “How is my company making the world a better place?”

A corporate purpose will also elicit an employee response along the lines of:

– “This is why my professional life fulfills me just as much as my personal one.”

Under Armour lacks a purpose. Or, if they do have one, it’s either beyond mundane or ignored.

I suggest Under Armour hire some real communications professionals who know how to create, embed and activate a purpose. If they don’t, they’ll continue to wreak havoc on their image, reputation and sales.

One more year of this and Under Armour will be underwater.

 

 

Sep 21

Humor flexes its muscles

I’ve just returned from The Arthur W. Page Society‘s superb annual conference in San Diego. And, while the conference theme was, “Search for community in a (dis) connected world,” there were a surprising number of speakers who addressed the power of humor in business.

Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, said his use of humor, authenticity and doubling down on the airline’s “purpose” were key to his ability to weather the widespread outrage after the “incident” on flight 3411.

Rich Jernstedt, former CEO of GolinHarris (now Golin), erstwhile chair of the Council of PR Firms and current head of his own consulting firm, shared a priceless “Page Moment” that occurred long ago and far away, AND demonstrated the legendary Al Golin’s use of humor in an intense situation.

The Golin team had just entered the massive boardroom of a large prospect they were pitching. As everyone pulled up a chair, Mr. Golin flipped backwards and, chair and all, fell on the ground. Instantly, he said, “And, now, for my next act…”

There was no response from the stone-faced prospects (probably out of politeness—not just sure how to react) but, later, after Golin had been awarded the business, the client contact said Mr. Golin’s use of humor and ability to take the incident in stride was a decisive factor in their selection. While their non-verbals may have indicated otherwise, the prospect team was in search of an agency that could not only do the job but, critically be a FUN partner.

I experienced a similar occurrence when we pitched Yahoo’s business. Right smack in the middle of the presentation, we were explaining how we would roll out a local market campaign.  To illustrate it, one of our San Francisco employees selected a last-second slide to pinpoint the various markets we’d be targeting.

The lead prospect took one look at the slide and said, “You do know you’re using Google Earth in that slide, correct?”

I immediately spoke up and said, “John, we purposely inserted that slide to make sure you were paying attention.” The entire room broke out in a hearty laugh. My comment not only saved the day, but created an instant bond with the Yahooligans by sharing an “inside joke.” We were awarded the business a few days later.

Afterword: In his remarks at the Page conference, Rich shared research conducted by The Hay Group that showed “executives who were ranked as outstanding used humor twice as often as those ranked average.” The same survey showed that humor used skillfully:

  • Reduces hostility
  • Deflects criticism
  • Relieves tension (See: Al Golin/Steve Cody examples above)
  • Improves morale
  • Helps communicate difficult messages.

Embrace humor as part of your executive persona and you’ll find yourself laughing all the way to the bank.

Sep 12

The Babe Ruth of the Back Office

Some things bear repeating. This blog ran one year ago and is more appropriate than ever…

The Babe Ruth of the Back Office

leeWhat do Weber-Shandwick, F-H, Makovsky, M. Booth and, yes, Peppercomm, have in common?

They’re hugely successful strategic communications firms whose prowess is directly connected to the strength and performance of their back office functions.

Show me a PR firm with a weak CFO, office manager or personnel director, and I’ll show you an agency that isn’t winning new clients, growing profits or attracting and retaining great people.

 

Caste System

Alas, back office workers are often treated in much the same way as the Untouchables in India’s Caste System. They’re literally invisible, are rarely mentioned in internal memos and NEVER included in those already suspect best workplace tales that PR Week likes to spin.

But, that’s not the case at my firm.

If an office manager hall of fame were to be created, I’d make sure Peppercomm’s Lee Stechmann would be among the first class to be elected (He’s the Babe Ruth of the Back Office).

Making the case for Lee

To begin with, Lee is arguably our best writer. His daily, and weekly, updates are equal parts Dostoyevsky and Louis CK.

Case in point: Every Friday, Lee reminds employees on our two floors in the New York office to remove their food from the fridge, place empty plates in the dishwasher and dispose of any refuse in the general kitchen area.

On one particular Friday, he added a note to help those who might be in need of extra grease to clean their silverware. It read, “You’ll find Dawn underneath the fifth floor kitchen sink.”

Good lord! I was aghast and immediately responded with an agency- wide memo asking why Lee had put poor Dawn under the sink, and how long he intended to keep her there.

To his credit, Stechmann issued an immediate clarification that read like  a police bulletin and assured employees that Dawn was NOT an underachieving employee being punished for her transgressions but, rather, a dish washing detergent.

That said, Dawn’s plight is still considered an unsolved mystery at Peppercomm and the fifth floor sink is still roped off with yellow crime scene tape.

Above and beyond

But, it isn’t Lee’s flair with the pen that elevates him to Greek god status on the Mount Olympus of clean-up.

Rather, it’s his random acts of love and kindness that truly set the man apart. To wit:

Our building (like every Manhattan office) plays host to occasional visits from small, furry creatures. Rather than declare war on them, though, Lee extends an olive branch. Peppercomm’s Sarah Sanzari recalls spotting Lee on a Saturday morning carefully plucking tiny mice from the glue traps in which they’d been snared, cleaning them up, rehabilitating them, and freeing them outside the building. Holy Saint Francis of Assisi, Batman!

Adam Giambattista, another Peppercommer, says Lee never bothers to ask when he spies AG lugging two heavy boxes up the staircase connecting our fifth and sixth floors. He’ll simply grab one and carry it himself.

And, Nicole Newby says she’ll often discuss her love of cats with Lee, who provides shelter in his garage during the winter for homeless felines.  Now, you tell me: How many office managers in this world will shower cats and mice alike with equal amounts of affection?

Lee’s true piece d’resistance, though,  occurred about five years ago when one of his beloved little fellow’s passed away of natural causes (a fact later confirmed by a coroner’s report).

As you’ll see in the accompanying photograph, Lee built a tiny coffin for his deceased office mate and adorned it with laurel wreaths (or, reasonable facsimiles thereof).

In honor of our fallen comrpepper-mouse.ade (and Lee’s quick/thinking craftsmanship), we observed an agency-wide moment of silence before Stechmann tossed the carcass down the garbage chute.

Great people make for great workplaces. And, those great people aren’t limited to the ones with fancy titles and high-profile digital footprints. They include top professionals such as Lee Stechmann without whom, I think it’s safe to say, Peppercomm wouldn’t be Peppercomm.

And, what higher honor can a business bestow on a single individual than to annually name him their unofficial Most Valuable Player year-in and year-out? Lee is given that honor at every year’s offsite retreat (I don’t give him anything. I just tell Lee he’s our most important employee. Maybe I should give him something, huh?).

I also have no doubt that Lee’s quiet excellence has played a key part in our having won virtually every Fortune Magazine award for great cultures.

I’m sure Burson, Mitchell, Marina Maher and other top firms have their back office heroes but, trust me, none shine brighter than our very own Lee Stechmann.

Sep 11

It’s so nice to have The New York Times verify what I’ve been saying all along

As loyal Repman readers know all too well, I despise the unnecessary theatrics weather reporters employ to heighten the drama, pathos and, of course, ratings of any natural disaster ranging from blizzards and hurricanes to earthquakes and wildfires.

In the case of Hurricane Irma, I find it despicable for thesemeteorologists to prey on people’s fears by purposely standing in waist-deep water, finding the windiest spot on a beach or allowing themselves to be nearly blown off the roof of a high-rise apartment building.

It’s unprofessional and irresponsible. But, enough from me. Read what The New York Times has to say…

As Irma’s Winds Rise, So Does a Debate Over TV Storm Reporting
Television correspondents are standing out in the storm as Hurricane Irma lashes Florida. Is that necessary? Reporters say better them than you. Read the full story.

Sep 06

Jerry Lewis and Me

I was saddened to recently read about the passing of entertainment legend, Jerry Lewis.

While I was never a fan of his, I did have the unique opportunity to spend three solid hours with him in his dressing room prior to Jerry’s performance one night at the legendary Las Vegas Hilton (Think: Elvis, Howard Hughes, etc.). I believe the year was 1983.

Regardless, I found my way into Lewis’s sanctum sanctorum courtesy of a barter deal my client, Sony Audio, had cut with him and a number of other stars of the day, including: Willie Mays, Phil Collins, Rod Stewart, Mick & The Boys and John “The SuperBrat” McEnroe.

The deal was simple and straightforward: Sony would provide the stars with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of top-of-the-line professional audio, video and car stereo equipment and, in exchange, the star(s) would grant exclusive interviews with the top audiophile trades of the day (extolling the many virtues of Sony over Panasonic, etc.).

I was there to “staff” the interview between Jerry and David Hajdu, the editor of Stereo Review, and a rising superstar in his own right.

I sat down and listened as David asked his first question. Having never seen Lewis anywhere but in movies or TV, I was positively dazzled by his calm, controlled manner, delightful personality (I’d heard rumors to the contrary) and his incredible intellect. Yes, I used the word intellect in describing Jerry Lewis.

It turned out Lewis was a consummate student of anything and everything pertaining to audio and video. He loved trying the latest, experimental equipment and knew more about Sony’s models and their features and benefits that Hajdu and me combined (not a good thing to realize by a then-aspiring young account supervisor).

Anyway, the conversation finally ended and David’s photographer asked if Jerry would mind posing for a few photographs. He was very gracious and immediately agreed (even though we were less than 15 minutes before showtime).

So, he stood alongside David and the two shook hands. Then Hajdu, to his everlasting credit said, “Hey, Jerry, mind posing with the PR flack?”

Lewis nodded, walked up alongside me and, boom, instantly reverted to his nuttiest nutty professor character. It was so cool and so unexpected that I completely lost it and burst out laughing (see the accompanying photo for evidence).

And, that was that. We shook hands, left to take our seats in the restaurant lounge to sit alongside 25 other Sony executives who had flown to Vegas just to see Jerry, and watched Lewis do his thing on stage. Sure enough, he found four or five ways to include the name Sony in his various bits.

Afterword: As you may know, Jerry Lewis is revered in France, where he had been awarded that nation’s highest honors and worshiped by critics who saw him as the “Second Chaplin.” Sadly, very few other critics around the world agreed.

I mention this because Peppercomm’s very own Chief Comedy Officer, Clayton Fletcher, is a beloved star in Stockholm and the paparazzi there (I think there are three in total) routinely describe him as, “The Jerry Lewis of Sweden.”

Now, there’s something to one day tell the grandchildren.

Sep 05

Day One

It’s nice to step off the fast track every now and then to pause and reflect, however briefly, on a seminal moment in one’s life.

Today is one of those seminal moments. It’s the date in time Ed and I took the first step on a long and winding road that would take us to the highest highs and lowest lows. It’s the day we began Peppercomm. And, today we begin our 23rd year in business.

I have to say the first year was, far and away, my favorite. We started in a ramshackle one-bedroom apartment, paid our bills with $12,500 borrowed from my family, had no preconceived notions and figured, what the heck, let’s give this six months and see what happens.

And, I can tell not much happened at all the first three months. But, then, we landed two blue chip accounts that provided us with the credibility needed to open other doors and, boom, just like that we were off to the races.

But the first year wasn’t just about the business. It was really all about the small, loyal group of employees we’d hired, the tremendous esprit d’corps that existed and the single mindedness to succeed we possessed. Oh, and it was also all about the laughs. Lots and lots of laughs.

I remember year one as a time of total exhilaration chock full of priceless moments in which we laughed out loud together, celebrated together and simply chilled together. We were like a small, but elite (at least we thought we were elite) squad of Navy Seals who were kicking ass and taking names.

There was no time for politicking, turf building or agenda-setting. Instead, it really was all-for-one and one-for-all. And, prospects sensed the energy and enthusiasm and wanted to be part of it.

We ended our first full year with just under $1 million in billings. And, thanks to naming our firm after my late black lab, Pepper, we unwittingly attracted scores and scores of newly-launched, deep-pocketed dotcoms that had just arrived on the scene as well.

Calls flooded in from prospects who mistakenly thought any PR firm named Peppercomm could get the job done. And we did, once we began hiring professionals who understood the new technology and possessed media contacts in the new publications that sprung up from nowhere to cover the phenomenon (Think Business 2.0, Red Herring, etc.).

The only downside to reflecting on what, for me, was the single best year of my life, is realizing it can’t possibly be duplicated. It was what it was and passed in the blink of an eye.

And, while I couldn’t fully appreciate it then, I do thank my lucky stars every day up that I said good-bye to big agency life and rolled the dice with a guy named Ed.

Aug 17

RepTV: Trump’s a one-term president, says Professor David Redlawsk

That’s right. You heard it here first.

Join my RepTV Co-Host, Paul Merchan, and me as we pressure Dr. David Redlawsk, (Chair, Department of Political Science & International Relations, University of Delaware,)  to predict the next three years in TrumpLand.

And listen closely as he explains why he thinks POTUS will throw in his 14 carat Trump-branded towel after only ONE term in office: