Nov 21

Talk about fanning the flames

So, the brilliant marketing minds of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings recently decided to welcome the Kings Detroit Pistons by picking on the Motor City itself.  Apparently, just before their game a few days ago, the Kings decided to flash scoreboard pictures of Detroit that included abandoned buildings, burned out cars, piles of rubble and other negative images. Was their intent to whip up the home town fans’ hatred of the visitors? Or did they want to "get inside" the heads of the Pistons’ players and get them so enraged that they’d forget the basics of roundball?

Regardless of the rationale behind the decision, one has to wonder why the Kings’ marketing people would pick on a team that’s already notorious for its all-out brawl with the Pacers last season is a mystery.

To make up for the egregious miscalculation, the Kings have run a series of print ads apologizing to the Pistons and the city of Detroit. Kings spokesperson Sonja Brown said, "We all feel terrible that we made just a big mistake, and we want to communicate that."

I’m sure David Stern and his NBA front office cohorts appreciate Brown’s apology. They need "big mistakes" like this like they need the proverbial hole in the head.

The whole league has a huge image problem. I was just in Portland, for example, where local fans call their team the "Jailblazers."

Teams "dissing" one another’s home towns is just another incendiary step on the road towards another massive conflagration a la the Pistons-Pacers brawl. What’s next? Kidnapping opposing team’s mascots? Burning enemy players in effigy? Perhaps Congress needs to step in as they have with the baseball steroids scandal. One thing is for sure: this stuff can’t keep happening without severe repercussions.

Nov 16

You have to admire their guts, if not their logic

Ad agency Goodby Silverstein made a ballsy judgment call recently when it walked away from its $80 mm relationship with Discover Financial Services to pursue the much larger Visa USA, a direct competitor.

Sadly, Visa announced today it would select an Omnicom agency to be its new AOR, leaving Goodby with zero clients in the credit card sector.

I think most professionals would admire Goodby for its bold decision. They went for the brass ring and lost. You can’t say they don’t have guts. On the other hand, smallish clients might think twice about hiring the firm in the future, thinking they’ll be discarded like yesterday’s newspaper when a larger, more attractive competitive client attracts Goodby’s attention.

It’s all part of the client-agency mating ritual which, as Lewis Carroll might say, just gets curiouser and curiouser.

Nov 11

Marge: let’s hold off on relocating to Dover

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s election results and the decision by Dover, Pa., voters to oust all eight Board of Education members who had supported the teaching of "divine intelligence" in town classrooms, televangelist Pat Robertson issued a warning. In effect, he told Dover residents not to be surprised if their town was visited by a variety of plagues as a result of their decision to continue supporting the teaching of evolution in schools. Robertson

Now, I don’t want to go near such an inflammatory issue as "evolution vs. divine intelligence," but I do find it interesting that a leading, right-wing Christian spokesperson, whose political agenda is to win over "undecided voters" to the cause, would make such an incendiary comment. Why alienate the more moderate-thinking mainstream electorate with such a fire-and-brimstone statement? I can’t remember too many recent examples of organizations wishing to attract undecided voters or customers by using such scare tactics. But, who knows? Maybe Robertson is at the cutting-edge of a new marketing strategy.

As for residents of Dover, I’d keep an eye open for signs of any late-season locust visits.

Nov 09

What you Talkin about Willis?

Landon Thomas Jr’s. article in today’s NY Times was dead on in terms of CEOs needing to be more direct and concise in their comments.

Some of the quotes from the CEOs in the text reminded me of the old TV sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, in which child star Gary Coleman used his signature line, "What you talkin about Willis?" whenever he didn’t understand what his older brother had just said.Gary_coleman1_1

Having media trained hundreds of executives over the years, I’m struck by how many of them struggle to explain their organization, its mission and its points of differentiation in a clear, concise manner. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule, but many senior executives tend to ramble in initial media training sessions. Some use "corporate speak" that may be understood within the confines of their business but leaves us totally baffled. Others come across as hard sell sales guys trying to close a prospect. Others still don’t understand how the media work, and think that by putting on the charm they can achieve a positive story.

We make it simple for the executives we work with by instructing them to:

*Tell the reporter what’s keeping your customers or prospects up at night.

*Quantify and qualify the pain as best you can. Explain how your organization provides a unique solution to the pain. Illustrate the explanation with colorful anecdotes, etc., but don’t stray off message.

*If appropriate within SEC guidelines, paint a forward-looking picture for the reporter about your industry and your role within the industry. The goal here is to begin to establish a relationship with the reporter and position oneself as a thought leader.

By sticking to that format, most executives are able to "win" the interview and avoid the Gary Coleman response from reporters.

Nov 09

The Plane Truth

On Monday, I wrote about the sorry level of service on New Jersey Transit. But rail transit may not rank (pardon the pun) at the bottom of our nation’s modes of transportation if this year’s Zagat survey on airline travel is anything to go by. Some of the comments voiced by frustrated and angry Laguardia_line frequent fliers make my rant seem almost congenial by comparison. ("Economy class is like the Bataan Death March with carry-on luggage," and "Could use economy as torture to get prisoners to talk," and "I’ll start with the good: Web site easy to navigate. That’s the end of the good" are among my favorites.)

The people who work for these outfits could have been trained by the Abu Ghraib guards on customer service. They’re mean, surly, short tempered, and they certainly don’t seem to realize the affect their behavior is having on the reputation of the institutions they serve.

But maybe, as with the guards, we should look at the kind of training and incentives their bosses are providing on how to work with those in their care. I suspect that their own rewards for good — or even lousy — performance are a lot more motivating.

In the meantime, the rest of us poor slobs just sigh in resignation as yet another train is broken down, another flight is endlessly delayed, and another representative tells us with an appalling lack of sincerity to have a nice day.

Hat tip to Ann Barlow for her thoughts.

Nov 08

The Mayor as CEO

Entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg, he of the eponymous information services empire, seems assured of easy re-election as mayor of New York today. Yet, two years ago, this political neophyte’s approval ratings hovered around 30 percent. Bloomberg

How did he rebound?

Simply put, he made himself and his senior managers accountable. One of the cornerstones of the Bloomberg Administration is applying business management techniques to governing the city. He dispensed with the isolated offices that the mayor and commissioners occupied in City Hall, substituting a bullpen of cubes with him at the center. (Andy Grove pioneered this concept at Intel years ago). He introduced the concept of customer service by instituting the 311 service, which enables New Yorkers to access and request city services and information at all times. Perhaps most importantly, he won control of the city’s school system from the state’s unaccountable board of political hacks, staking his mayoralty on turning it around. Though much remains to be done, improvements are already apparent.

That is not to say he is the perfect manager. He ignored his "customers" by insisting on bringing the Olympics to New York and building a billion-dollar stadium on the West Side, despite widespread opposition. Early in his term, he raised taxes on already overtaxed property owners by more than 20 percent. A reformed smoker, he hurt small businesses by pushing a smoking ban through the City Council.

Still, New Yorkers know who is in charge. Though Bloomberg’s re-election bid is helped by the fact that his opponent is a bland, old-style liberal Democrat, citizens recognize that their city, when managed well, works. While this is not a political blog and I don’t endorse candidates, I can certainly endorse Michael Bloomberg’s management style as a model for public officials everywhere.

Nov 07

Just Train Bad

Aside from a doctor’s office and the Division of Motor Vehicles, name one other type of business that cares less about your time than the average commuter train? And name one that does less to explain or apologize for said delays?

I happen to commute on New Jersey Transit, which routinely runs into delays, breakdowns, "service Njtransit interruptions," etc. While some of these issues are unavoidable, what is avoidable is the way they handle the inconvenience. Rather than provide riders with regular updates on the problem du jour, NJT’s crack conductors choose, instead, a code of silence, sometimes literally leaving you in the dark.

All of this wouldn’t be so onerous if the trains didn’t routinely play pre-recorded messages thanking riders for their patronage and wishing them a happy day. Nor would it hurt so much if NJT didn’t continually hike their monthly transportation rates or run happy-looking print advertisements with happy-looking commuters.

Sadly, as is the case with doctors and DMV employees, we’re stuck with the poor performance/poor communication mantra of NJT. But, in a quest for accuracy in advertising, I would suggest they change whatever their current tagline may be to something that’s both memorable and accurate…."New Jersey Transit: just train bad.

Nov 03

I’m a Victim. You’re a Victim. Everyone’s a Victim.

I was reading yet another Church scandal story yesterday (and how sad is it that Church scandal stories are now mundane news events?) when I came across an interesting twist.

A Garden City man is suing his pastor, the Presbytery of the City of New York and one of its largest churches, claiming that his pastor seduced his wife. So, to make himself whole again, this cuckolded parishioner is suing the Church for $1 million because the pastor "didn’t perform up to the standards of his calling," $3 million because the aggrieved husband says he’s now "lost his faith and trust in the Church in particular and religion in general" and another million for emotional trauma. Gimme a break.

If this guy wins, just imagine the floodgates it might open from a precedent-setting legal standpoint. If I didn’t like my Mahi-Mahi at Bolo Restaurant, maybe I can now sue them for undermining my trust and faith in the dining-out experience. Or, if my abysmal NY Jets lose to San Diego on Sunday, maybe I’ll sue Herm Edwards for not "performing up to the standards of a coach."

I think our highly litigious, "victim-centric" society has hit a new low when individuals can capitalize on an unfortunate set of circumstances such as an alleged extramarital affair to cash in big time. When and where will it end? When will personal accountability be restored as an admirable trait in individuals? Probably not until the Jets win the Super Bowl again. Or, in other words, not for a very, very long time.

Nov 02

Putting all your Eggs in one Basket

I must admit to cringing when I read the dismaying news about ad agency Berlin Cameron losing its two anchor accounts last week and having to downsize 55 of its 90-person staff.

It was a "there but for the grace of God go I" feeling since Peppercom has twice faced similar circumstances in our 10-year history. One occurred when a division of GE and its 35 percent of our billings decided it needed a global firm to "best meet its needs." Another occurred very early on when a now defunct business insurance client was acquired by another one, and 40 percent of our billings disappeared faster than you can say or spell "actuarial."

These were painful but healthy lessons for us to learn. When a business relies too heavily on a few key clients, it creates too many vulnerabilities and, in my opinion, distorts the client-agency relationship since the client knows it wields tremendous power (and we’ve experienced a few, very abusive client managers who knew this fact and took advantage of it).

The "too many eggs in one basket" syndrome is a house of cards strategy that can immediately impact a firm’s image and reputation if the client(s) departs. Advertising Age, for example, ran this headline in covering Berlin Cameron’s double loss: "The fall of Berlin?" And they quoted an industry analyst as saying, "From a new business perspective, some clients may pause for a second and wonder what’s going on." Such comments can be the kiss of death for an agency and the beginning of a self-fulfilling prophecy that can only end in acquisition or Chapter 11.

Nov 01

Wal-Mart’s Big Chance

Weeks after heroically taking over for an impotent federal government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart finds whatever goodwill it earned to have evaporated.

Bracing itself for the release of an unflattering documentary by Robert Greenwald, the company has set up a so-called "war room" at its Bentonville headquarters. It is staffed with high profile ex-White House aides now employed by Edelman, such as Reagan image genius Michael Deaver and former Clinton advisor Leslie Dach.

This public relations operation runs counter to founder Sam Walton’s wishes, reports today’s New York Times. Walton apparently thought public relations to be a waste of time. Were he still alive today, he would have to change his mind.

Despite all the kudos accorded Wal-Mart for its bringing bargains to communities all over the country, its practices have come under increasingly harsh light, even by those who applaud the company’s entrepreneurship. Its wages are so low that some employees need government assistance to make ends meet. Its health insurance is inadequate. Cities are blocking the construction of new stores. The stock price has slid since 2000.

Wal-Mart’s critics include the usual cabal of whiners and complainers, especially labor unions, which still refuse to acknowledge their own obsolescence. The anti-Wal-Mart lobby also embraces the embittered Democratic Party left, upset that voters refused to heed its wise sage, Michael Moore, last Election Day. Their steady drumbeat of criticism is obviously taking a toll on the company’s image, however, so Wal-Mart realized that it had to do something. Enter Edelman.

For those of us in the public relations industry who hear our work derided as nothing more than mere "spin," this is a chance to prove otherwise. Let us all hope that the pros from Washington do more than put out PR brushfires. Wal-Mart has an opportunity to burnish its image by responding to reasonable criticism with constructive and concrete action. One can expect no less of America’s number one corporation.