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.

Oct 31

A Krafty Move

The lead story in today’s Wall Street Journal chronicles a neat little morality play on corporate responsibility and the power of the free market. 1

Faced with the twin specters of childhood obesity and possible government regulation of children’s advertising, Kraft Foods, Inc. announced in January that it would stop advertising certain products to children under the age of 12.

To be sure, this is not a perfect solution. The company, which makes such teeth-rotting, waistline-expanding and nutritionally-challenged fare as Oreo and Chips Ahoy! cookies, Fruity Pebbles and Honeycomb cereals, and Kool-Aid drinks made exceptions to its self-imposed ban. For example, it continues to market its sugary and caloric Capri-Sun Sport drink to children, making it sound like Gatorade for youngsters.

Still, it seems that Kraft learned a lesson from the travails of its corporate sibling, Philip Morris USA. Philip Morris, of course, denied the health effects of tobacco for years. Then it lost its landmark $200 billion lawsuit in 1998. Now it is in favor of government regulation of the industry, which is opposed by other tobacco companies.

Kraft is in a similar bind. Its competitor, General Mills, Inc., continues to market its Trix and Lucky Charms cereals to this young demographic, unburdened by any sense of shame or fear of a tarnished reputation.

Despite its imperfection, Kraft is to be applauded for its decision. What’s more, Kraft took this step without being forced into it by government regulation. Therein lies the moral: In the end, it is up to individual companies and industries to understand what’s right and what’s wrong. They may be pleasantly surprised to find out that it is good business, too.

Oct 31

Viva La Inteligencia!

By its very nature, this blog tosses brickbats and bouquets in unequal measure. In recent months, I have been storing up a warehouse full of the former for the manufacturers and marketers of "Che" Guevara T-shirts. In case you have missed it, many young people think that the face of this man gracing their fronts is somehow cool looking.Che

Nothing could be farther from the truth. In today’s post-Cold War era, the idea of violent Marxist revolution as means of freeing humanity from its shackles of oppression holds as much validity as the belief that the earth is flat. Even in his day, Ernesto Guevara could barely be complimented as a footnote to history. The Argentine medical doctor’s claim to fame is that he helped Fidel Castro in his revolution that destroyed Cuba. Along the way, they and their comrades jailed, tortured and slaughtered thousands of innocents, all in the name of the "people."

My revulsion at seeing this bloodthirsty nobody’s visage elevated to that of an icon is matched only by my anger at the manufacturer’s and marketer’s playing on the ignorance of the youth to whom they so disgustingly pander with this piece of schlock. What’s next: T-shirts sporting the faces of Hitler, Stalin or Mao?

Oct 28

Short Term Results, Long Term Failure…

Are the big oil and gas companies headed for trouble?  With several of them posting record profits this quarter, one would think not.  The industry is enjoying the rare benefit of increased demand along with surging prices.  The cash is rolling in.  Life is good.

But one wonders how sensitive these behemoths are to a potential backlash from the American public for profiting at their expense.  As we head into winter, the gap is likely to worsen. Oil and gas consumption will increase, causing a further dent in consumers’ wallets.

I’m not anti-business and I’m not advocating that these companies should not be profitable so we can drive around in our SUVs and purchase cheap gas without reservation or concern.  However, if I were the communications chief of one of the these oil companies, I wouldn’t be waiting around hoping that the American public doesn’t wake up and take action.  Instead, I would urge my management team to use a small percentage of those profits to benefit a cause that would help some of the people who are hurt by the rise in energy prices.  I would use it as an opportunity to preempt any consumer backlash and use it to strengthen the company’s reputation.  I would send a clear message to all of my key stakeholders that while critical, the bottom line shouldn’t be the only measure of success. After all, the price tag on any company’s reputation is likely to be a lot higher.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any oil company that has adopted this strategy.  Wall Street is too focused on near term results so management teams are too focused on profits.  Time will tell how this all plays out but ignoring the issue and continuing to reap the benefits at the expense of customers is akin to throwing fuel on a fire.

Oct 28

Penny Wise. Pound Foolish

Today’s New York Times Metro Section contains a front-page article about a returning Iraqi veteran, Michael Serricchio, finding that his former $200k per annum job at Wachovia Securities had been eliminated during his tour of duty.

The 33-year-old husband and father says that, after three months of pleading with his employer to get his old job back, he was instead assigned to making cold calls for a $2,000 monthly draw on commission. Mr. Serricchio says he intends to sue.

Wachovia executives won’t comment publicly on the issue, saying it’s a legal matter that needs to play itself out in court. As a result, what could have been a minor issue easily resolved has now blown up on the pages of the Times.

One wonders who is making the calls within Wachovia. Is it a human resources executive? Perhaps it’s Serricchio’s erstwhile boss? More likely, a chief legal counsel is calling the shots. I just hope corporate communications wasn’t involved in this fiasco. And if it wasn’t, why wasn’t it?

Too many times short-sighted decisions that can have a huge long-term impact on an organization’s image and reputation are made without consulting corporate communications first. If Wachovia was smart, they would have reinstated the returning soldier’s job. Instead, they’ve done an excellent job of reinforcing the pervasive attitude many Americans have towards large companies: that they’re cold, uncaring and focused solely on the bottom line.