Mar 27

To ignore or engage: That is the question when it comes to fake news

I just finished reading a fascinating analysis of the impact last year’s fake news about Pepsi’s CEO telling people not to vote for Donald Trump had on the company’s reputation, sales and stock price .

The answer is:  Not good.

In fact, even though the company responded fairly swiftly to deny the accusations, they waited just long enough for the original news to be amplified. So, instead of a small group of news junkies reading the outright lie, Pepsi’s fake news dominated the media for several cycles and did a real number on the company.

You can read the analysis, but the corporate reputation took a severe hit from which it still hasn’t recovered. Ditto with the stock price and sales. All because of fake news.

In Pepsi’s case, an instantaneous correction might have mitigated some of the damage or, at least, minimized the amplification. It’s the latter that can kill an individual’s or corporation’s image. Nowadays, once enough people have read (or spread) fake news, you’re dead.

That’s why the 22 CCOs and CMOs I just interviewed for an upcoming research report that will be published on The Institute of PR told me it’s one of the top three business issues keeping them up at night.

But, it’s not the fake news in, and of, itself that’s at issue. It’s the decision that needs to be made whether to immediately respond and correct (which will ignite additional news cycles) or to ignore the nonsensical report and hope it goes away. It’s a real roll of the dice.

We’ve counseled clients to ignore fake news if the source has a limited following and the likelihood of amplification is slim. I remember one blogger who tore the bejesus out of a client in a story chock full of falsehoods and unsubstantiated accusations. As you might expect, the client was enraged and wanted to go right after the blogger. We counseled them to wait and see if the story spread. It didn’t. But, if it had, we would have reached out across every channel to clarify and correct.

And therein lies the dilemma of fake news: Do you wait to see what the damage will be and, perhaps, suffer Pepsi’s fate or do you ignore the lies and hope they simply fade away? There’s no textbook or best practice to follow, so each CCO and CMO has to rely on her head, heart and gut to reach a decision (and hope it’s the right one).

That’s a heavy weight, especially if you’re at the communications helm of a global powerhouse such as Pepsi. The only approach on which all 22 respondents with whom I spoke agreed was constant vigilance and swift decision making.

Fake news has clearly made a marketing communications professional’s job exponentially more difficult (and tenuous). That’s why I’m hoping more and more corporations will share their strategies at sessions such as the upcoming Arthur W. Page Spring Conference.

The more we know, the better our chances of success. And, that’s the truth.

 

 

Mar 22

This is the world we live in

planeta-bizarroIt goes without saying that we are living in the bizarro version of an alternative America that one would have expected to read about in a Ray Bradbury science fiction novel. Sadly, fantasy has become reality and truth is simply no longer worth a plug nickel.

To wit, this exchange from yesterday’s Senate confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch:

– Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch criticized Tuesday President Donald Trump’s attacks on the federal judge who blocked his administration’s travel ban, saying for the first time publicly that he found them “disheartening” and “demoralizing.” Gorsuch previously made those comments in private conversations with senators, but Tuesday marked the first time he went on the record with his disapproval of the president’s rhetoric when he called US District Judge James L. Robart a “so-called judge.”

“When anyone criticizes the honesty or integrity of the motives of a federal judge, well I find thatdisheartening. I find that demoralizing, because i know the truth,” he said during his Senate confirmation hearing, in response to a question from Sen. Richard Blumenthal about Trump’s tweets.
Asked by the Connecticut Democrat if that “anyone” included the President. “Anyone is anyone,” Gorsuch said.

That statement was immediately followed by this comment:

– White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday pushed back against reports that Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch called President Trump’s attacks on judges “disheartening.” “Wrong and Misleading: he spoke broadly and never mentioned any person,” Spicer tweeted, linking to an Associated Press story that said Gorsuch “publicly calls President Trump’s attacks on judges ‘disheartening,’ ‘demoralizing.'”

Wow.
And, so, once again, the fake news, post truth world has created yet another crazy spin on who said what, who to believe and my wondering whatever happened to honesty?

These are strange days indeed for the population as a whole and the chief communications officers and chief marketing officers of America’s top companies in particular. How does one deal with a Trump attack? How does one clarify a clear falsehood? How does one limit the news to a single cycle? And should one ignore a POTUS assault altogether?

I ask these questions because we’re about to publish an original research paper in conjunction with The Institute of Public Relations
that provides best practices, tips and protocols to deal with this anything but brave, new world in which we live. The research consists of 22 one-on-one interviews yours truly conducted with some of the top CCOs and CMOs in the country.

Stay tuned to this station for more information. We hope to share the findings as early as next week.

Mar 21

Will the New Uber Management Team be a rerun of Jobs/Sculley?

generationDepending on what you read or with whom you speak, when Apple hired former Pepsi CEO John Sculley to provide the ever-petulant Steve Jobs with adult supervision, the former fired the latter, the board fired Jobs or Jobs quit.

Whatever happened remains relevant since Uber finds itself in a similar, if not far worse, predicament than Apple did when Sculley was hired.

I don’t need to repeat each, and every setback, but several DO stand out:

– Misbehaving frat boy CEO Travis Kalanick admitted he needs an experienced executive to help him better manage Uber and himself (after engaging in a heated argument with an Uber driver caught on tape).
– Company president Jeff Jones quit after a mere six months in the position.
– The company was hit with countless sexual harassment suits and creates the widespread perception of an organization that not only embraces harassment, but rewards it.
– A worldwide #DeleteUber boycott.
– The recent departures of many other top executives who headed such critical areas as: research, development of the autonomous driving car and Uber’s artificial intelligence unit.

Talk about a brain drain and a ship listing heavily as it takes on more and more ocean water. This has all of the ingredients necessary for another Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet summer blockbuster!

Whomever Uber selects as their chief operating officer, she or he is going to need the following personality traits:

– The patience of Job.
– A soothing presence second only to Mother Theresa’s.
– An avuncular Wilford Brimley-type personality that will enable him to rein in the reckless CEO. (Note to Millennials: Please Google Brimley for reference).

She or he will also need the following executive skills:

– The managerial wisdom of a Jack Welch or Jeff Immelt who can oversee the operations of a vast global organization
– The gut instincts of Chicago Cubs General Manager Theo Epstein who can turn around a flailing enterprise by attracting new and superior talent
– The rah-rah motivational charisma of a Joel Osteen who can breathe life into a workplace culture that might be likened to Dickens’ Bleak House.
– The tech savvy of a Bill Gates who can decide which new projects to green light and which offerings to sunset (God, I love ConsultantSpeak)
– The courtroom charisma of a Johnny Cochran who can fend-off, settle or even win intellectual property theft lawsuits from the likes of Google.

Last, and certainly not least, the new COO MUST undestand the nuances of rebuilding a bloodied, bruised and battered brand. And, that takes years, not months or weeks (Note to new COO: I’m available to help you with the latter for the right price or enough free rides).

Uber’s board will obviously select the person they feel is best qualified to lead the brand out of the wilderness but, if I were a betting man, I’d guess either the COO or board will quickly reach the breaking point with Kalanick and send him on his last Uber ride.

That will unshackle the company to begin anew while setting loose the savage who built ground transportation’s version of “The Wolves of Wall Street.”

Kalanick will then start a new venture that will equal Uber in both its revolutionary and revolting ways. And, a new and unnerving story will unfold. And, such is life in the fast lane.

Mar 13

The high priest of hysteria

3Some might point to Sunday morning televangelists. Others may cast their vote for screeching home-town college basketball radio announcers but, for my money, New York’s WCBS-TV “meteorologist” Lonnie Quinn OWNS hysteria.

The blond-coifed Adonis wanna-be is unique in his ability to play viewers like a fiddle, add a pinch of pathos at exactly at the right moment and break the nail-biting tension with a completely unexpected lighthearted moment just when we all think Armageddon is at hand.

Lonnie reaches these highs and lows whenever thunderstorms approach New York City, triple digit August temperatures are beating the bejesus out of Amsterdam Avenue residents or whenever that evil villain, black ice, threatens our health and well-being.

I mention Lonny in today’s blog because yet another “powerful, late Winter storm is barreling its way up the Eastern seaboard packing winds in excess of 50 miles per hour and snowfall amounts he’s already calling “staggering.”

Thanks to Lonnie, and his lesser-known competitors, more than 1,000 airline flights have already been cancelled. And the first snowflakes aren’t expected to fall until, get this, midnight at the earliest.

This sort of potential weather carnage has Lonnie already shifting into overdrive. He’s moved his 11 suits and 34 crisply-pressed white dress shirts into his dressing room. The shirts are key to the Brand of Lonnie. That’s because he always rolls his French cuff sleeves as far up his arms as can. He does so to draw extra attention to how hard he’s working.

So, beginning sometime this afternoon, Lonnie will take command of the studio helm (a la Captain Kirk on “Star Trek”). He’ll already be in overdrive, thanks to a mix of what I’m guessing is Red Bull and enough Adderal to keep Three Stooges fans awake for a 72-hour marathon.

Lonnie begins his work by educating viewers on the state-of-the-art technology he’ll be using to keep us up-to-the minute on this latest winter wallop. He’ll then check-in with his reporting team: the 24,000 StormTracker2 correspondents who are moving into position faster than US and Iraqi forces are on the few remaining ISIS strongholds.

He’ll warn Maggie in Massapequa to alert us to the Long Island Sound’s first two-foot-high wave. And Patty from Paramus will already behind the wheel of her fully-equipped WCBS WeatherVan. Her responsibility will be to drive endlessly around Routes 4, 17 and 46 in northern Jersey and report on delays, spin outs and, if we’re really lucky, a 16-car fender bender.

As events warrant, Lonnie will dash from his main command center to go behind-the-scenes (with camera crew in tow), sit alongside the NOAA and Doppler Radar experts, peer into their respective screens and ask, “What new news can you tell us?”

Later on, Lonnie will even don his WCBS-TV snow parka and walk a full block or so into midtown to battle bone-chilling temperatures and biting winds to ask residents and tourists alike how they could possibly be outside. He’ll typically elicit such tear-jerking responses as:

– “I needed to get to work,”

–  “Well, there’s a movie playing a few blocks down I’ve been meaning to see”

–  “I’m from Orlando and have never seen snow before.”

After warning all three to be very, very careful, Lonnie will dash back to the studio where he’ll pledge to stay right by his computer screens and let us know what’s yet to come.

While Lonnie does provide a service, he does so in the same way Reggie Jackson used to deliver his services to the Yankees. Reginald Martinez Jackson would be kneeling in the on-deck circle, anxiously awaiting a cameraman to point his equipment in number 44’s direction. Then, he’d spit out tobacco juice, violently swing his bat and stride purposely to the plate. After going yard, Reggie would slowly trot around the bases, glare into the camera and give you a look that said, “I’m the best. You know I’m the best. And, so do Billy and George.”

When it comes to egomaniacal histrionics, Lonnie is weather reporting’s answer to Reggie Jackson. Hey, the guy even has his own theme song called, “Lonnie’s Always Getting It Right.”

But, Lonnie’s NOT always getting it right. In fact, I’d say his batting average rivals that of journeyman Mets First Baseman, Lucas Duda: .250.

None of that wouldn’t matter if Lonnie didn’t scare the bejesus out of viewers who flock to the nearest Walmart and empty it of everything up to, and including, a $1,000 snow blower.

That’s too bad because no one gains when Lonnie loses (except local retailers). But, hey, Lonnie’s become something of a cult hero, and cult heroes are judged by a completely different set of criteria.

 

Mar 08

Caution: Contents May Prove Fatal

B79TFM Vintage arsenic poison bottle on antique shelfAs faithful Repman readers know, I occasionally like to engage in a back-and-forth discussion with individuals who send me completely ridiculous or unintentionally laugh out-loud spam e-mails.

My all-time favorite remains my coming close to leasing a tug boat from a salesman who had me convinced employees would love commuting along the East River on one of his barges.

I think this next one finishes a strong second. It arrived unannounced in my inbox the other day.

The subject line was a real grabber: “Peppercomm + Arsenic”

I immediately wondered if the salesperson was suggesting I follow Jim Jones’ lead (Note to Millennials: Google Jonestown, cult and mass suicide). Nah, I thought, why would she want a complete stranger to poison his entire workforce? What would be her ROI on something like that? And who would still be around to pay her?

It turns out that her firm, Arsenic, bills itself as a digital media super-house (talk about superlatives!) that connects brands with people. Oh. OK. Well, then the name makes perfect sense. Not!

I must admit to having an immediate and negative visceral reaction. Who would use Arsenic for any reason other than to kill a pesky rabbit, garbage-raiding raccoon or hated spouse?

Could you imagine telling a key automotive client we’ve finally cracked the code that would enable them to reach those oh-so-iconoclastic Millennials, and the answer is Arsenic. Holy genocide, Batman! I can only imagine the facial expressions.

But, The Arsenic note was simply too bizarre and too funny not to respond. I was going to ask the saleswoman if she promised a full guarantee if the product wasn’t 100 percent effective. I was also tempted to suggest some pro bono tagline advice, such as Arsenic…

– “Watch us wipe out your enemies”

– “All’s fair in love, war and marketing”

– “Toxicity is the new orange”

And, my personal favorite: “The final word in strategic marketing”

But, I refrained from proferring pro bono advice and, instead, let her know we’d already engaged with one of her direct competitors: Rat Poison.

And, that’s when the fun began.

Please read from the bottom-up and see if you don’t agree with me that this young lady needs to loosen up a bit and realize her company’s name is going to elicit all sorts of ridiculous responses. Maybe she just needs a pinch of Arsenic in her next Tequila?

Anyway, remember to read from the bottom-up. Bottoms up!

———

Steve: Again, other partners have never been uninterested in partnering with us due to something as trivial. These partners include companies and brands such as Hakasan, Love Nation (an investor in Arsenic), Snapchat (we have one of the highest engagement rates on the app and a wonderful relationship with the company), the Honest Company, Rogers + Cowan, BBH, Grey Activation and many others. It also hasn’t stopped celebrities, influencers, and music artists from working with us, such as, Diplo, The Chainsmokers, Kylie Rae, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul, and many others. 

However, I would love to thank you for illustrating the small-mindedness of Peppercomm. It clearly wouldn’t be an authentic partnership.

(Note from Repman, I thanked her for calling us small-minded since I’ve been a long-time advocate of little people). 

On Mon, Mar 6, 2017 at 9:04 AM Steve Cody <sCody@peppercomm.com> wrote:

The name is a tad off-putting, no?

Steve Cody | Co-founder and CEO

Sent: Monday, March 6, 2017 11:15 AM
To: Steve Cody <sCody@peppercomm.com>
.com>;
Subject: Re: Peppercom + Arsenic

That’s too bad that due to our name there is no interest, seeing that our viewership is over 2M+ and we are trending with millennials such as Justin Beiber and Kylie Jenner. 
On Mar 6, 2017, at 8:01 AM, Steve Cody <sCody@peppercomm.com> wrote:

Love to talk, but we already partner with Rat Poison.

Best,

Steve

Sent: Monday, March 6, 2017 10:52 AM
To: Steve Cody <sCody@peppercomm.com>
Subject: Peppercom + Arsenic

Hi Steve,

Would love to introduce you to my company, Arsenic. I think there are so many ways we could work together.

Do you have availability to chat this week or next?

Arsenic is a digital media super-house that reaches millions of millennials via its social media platforms including Snapchat and Instagram. I think that we would be perfect partners – our audience is a very elusive demographic and we love to expose them to amazing brands that fit authentically. 

Arsenic currently has over 1.1 million followers on Instagram and receives an average of 500k views on Snapchat. Arsenic has gone viral with millennials – 96% of our audience is between the ages of 18 – 35. Best,Our audience includes celebrities and influencers such as Kevin Hart, Diplo, and Justin Bieber.

###

Mar 06

Do you finally understand Storytelling? Good. Forget it. It’s now all about Storymaking

storyThe lemmings otherwise known as public relations, advertising and marketing communications executives routinely jump from one buzzword or phrase to another every 18 months or so. Someone will coin a new phrase or service such as disruptor, data analytics, Big Data, behavioral science, digital-driven programs and, of course, Storytelling. And, within a week or so, every marketer in the known universe will be including the hot new word or phrase in every other sentence.

Storytelling was critical to every marketers’ earned, owned and paid media campaign, correct? It had to be because today’s consumer (whether she is a REIT manager or full-time mom) wants to engage with products or services that do the right thing, educate and entertain her and, most importantly, fit within her lifestyle. That objective was accomplished by crisp, clear and compelling storytelling. And, we were all Storytellers.

Not anymore.

Mastercard’s just changed the game. They’ve abandoned Storytelling and now focus on Storymaking.

Allow me to allow Mastercard’s CMO Raja Rajamannar to explain: “As recently as a few years ago, people sat in front of a TV, with the whole family gathered during prime time…Today, the world is very different. People still come together in the family room, but it’s a collection of individuals who are all in their own private worlds with their own connected devices.”

So, Mastercard has morphed from Storytelling to Storymaking. They now collaborate with consumers to slice and dice their legendary “Priceless” storytelling campaign to four categories:

  • Priceless Surprises, which gives cardholders unexpected experiences, such as meeting celebrities.
  • Priceless Cities, which curates one-of-a-kind experiences and exclusive promotions only available to Mastercard cardholders.
  • Priceless Causes, which generates donations to particular charities when consumers use their Mastercard.
  • Priceless Specials, which provides various offers and benefits.

The fundamental difference between Storytelling and Storymaking, says Rajamannar is this: “Consumers don’t want to hear brand stories; they want to be part of the story. We enable, create and curate experiences for consumers.” That change may seem subtle to some but it’s actually quite profound.

You can read more about Mastercard, Rajamannar and Storymaking here, but, as Sr. Maria Eucharia used to warn my fellow eighth graders at St. Francis Grammar School, “A word to the wise is sufficient.” Get a firm grasp of Storymaking ASAP and figure out how to use it to better connect with your target stakeholders. And, for god’s sake, begin including the word in your agency/internal corporate storytelling and explaining how it’s different and more relevant than yesterday’s buzzword.

Get used to Storymaking. It’s the new orange of marketing communications. That said, be prepared for it to be replaced by the next, new orange in 18 months or sooner.

 

Mar 03

A post-trust world makes for strange bedfellows

piedChris Piedmont, one of Peppercomm’s rising superstars, and Rachael Collins, a new associate from Australia, recently attended an Arthur W. Page Center dinner in which the subjects of fake news, life in a post truth world and why the media and PR worlds should unite to advocate for authenticity, transparency and fact-based storytelling were discussed. Here is their first-hand account…..

When’s the last time you can remember the media and PR industries uniting to advocate for a common cause? Hint: pigs flew, we still sent press releases by fax and Republicans and Democrats worked together.

At the recent Arthur W. Page Center Awards, emcee Bill Nielsen made a call to action for journalists, communicators and those in-between to unite in the name of integrity in public communication. With the advertising industry’s Ad Council in mind, he called for an alliance of the two camps in the communications industry to focus on educating the public about what really is a fact. Page Honoree and former executive vice president of public relations at AT&T Dick Martin also declared, “media literacy may be the social issue of our time; addressing it is in our society’s own interest.”

Martin is right. As communicators, we are society’s information gatekeepers and have a responsibility to uphold and defend the truth. It is up to us to honor the facts and ensure the public – our most important constituent – can make a determination based on the facts. If we arm the public with correct information, only then can the wheels of our democracy turn and our society function at its highest potential.

Media and PR have more in common than we often think, and it’s time to put our unique skill sets to work. Honoree Alan Murray, chief content officer at Time, Inc. and editor-in-chief of Fortune Magazine, reminded Page Center Awards attendees that both journalists and communications pros are “trading the same currency: facts.” We might each tell a different narrative based on the facts we have, but at the end of the day, the facts are still the facts.

Page Center advisory board member and former senior communications executive at ITT and FedEx, Tom Martin noted that journalists and PR pros “each have a job to do” presenting information to our audiences in “authentic and truthful ways.” He continued, “when both sides do their jobs well, an informed public is the ultimate beneficiary.”

With information accessible in the palm of our hands, and the news cycle moving from 24 hours to 24 seconds, we cannot sacrifice facts for speed. With continuing assaults on “fake news” and an increasingly skeptical public, it’s imperative that commitment to the truth remain. As another honoree Ann Barklew, founding general manager/senior partner of FleishmanHillard, said, “don’t look around, away, or beyond the facts; recognize them, nothing more or less.”

Journalists have already started to fight back against this assault on facts. Media outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have all adjusted marketing efforts to highlight their commitment to the truth. The New York Times Oscar ad is just one such high profile example. Now, PR must join the fold. Together, we must form – and implement – a strategy that benefits the Fourth Estate, PR and society as a whole.

Count us in. This initiative is too important to let the idea fizzle out – we must make it happen: journalists and communicators together. Pick up your pen and start writing. There is work to do.

Feb 28

The New York Crimes. Enemy of the people?

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Matt Lester.

Most of us are well aware of the challenges facing print media companies in this digital age. Even the venerable New York Times has not been exempt from modern ailments, such as continued lowering of ad revenue and the dips in overall revenue. Originally the New York Daily Times, the ‘Gray Lady’ has been around since 1851 and racked up a record 119 Pulitzer Prizes. Having published daily on the web since 1996, the NYT did not develop a digital pay model until 2011.


Sunday evening the NYT aired a commercial for the first time. It was shown during the Oscars as part of their efforts to solidify and grow a subscription-first business model. So far, the model is working to the tune of 3 million paid subscribers and over a quarter of a million new digital subscribers.

Their new ad campaign is a timely, provocative dissertation on one of the most surprisingly controversial words in our language… truth. They state; “the truth has no alternative, the truth is hard, the truth is more important now than ever”. Very poignant and effective, given Trump’s distain for the efforts of the press to expose the non-stop flow of the Donald’s and this administration’s lies. Particularly so, given Trump’s targeted accusations toward the NYT as one of a group of enemies of the state.

This is certainly not the first attack on the NYT by a sitting president. President Richard Nixon took the NYT to court in 1972 following publication of the Pentagon Papers, a secretly “leaked” detailed account of the United States’ military often illegal involvement in the Vietnam War from as far back as the 40’s through the late 60’s. The state department’s Daniel Ellsberg chose the NYT’s Neil Sheehan to expose the papers to the public. Nixon blew a sweaty fuse and singled him out to his then national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, saying, “People have gotta’ be put to the torch for this sort of thing…” and “Let’s get the son-of-a-bitch in jail.” The federal court injunction was appealed by the NYT. As it was being pushed through the courts, the Washington Post was pulled into the case when it published its own versions of Ellsberg’s papers. The courts eventually deemed the case unconstitutional and we all know what next awaited Nixon’s fate.

As marketing professionals, we talk a lot about the import of brands having purpose. NYT founder, Henry Raymond had a very clear purpose with which he launched the very first issue:

“We shall be Conservative, in all cases where we think Conservatism essential to the public good — and we shall be Radical in everything which may seem to us to require radical treatment and radical reform.”

The execution is brilliant in its simplicity. The white page and changing copy, designed to mimic the esthetic of the brand while considering the moving medium is particularly engaging to the brand’s core audience-  intelligent people who hunger for well written stories that are based on the truth and an examination of the facts. Backed by a month of broadcast, print, digital and social media, I believe this will be a very effective effort.

Our longest serving New York Senator, Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

I’ve believed in Patrick’s words my entire adult life. I hope we all find strength in the NYT ad because those words are, indeed, more important now than ever. The New York Times was founded with a purpose and I’m sure their audience will be very glad to see they are sticking to it after all these years.

 

 

Feb 27

When Father Time and The Bottom Line Come Calling

fathertimebluntI recently skipped through the superbly written Northeastern Alumni Magazine when an article stopped me dead in my tracks.

Headlined, “Never Too Late,” the feature focuses on a fascinating new study conducted by NU’s Albert-Laszlo Barabisi that proved dramatic success is just as likely to come at ANY stage of one’s life (as opposed to the conventional wisdom that points to wunderkinds like Mozart, Marie Curie and Einstein who achieved their greatest successes at an early age).

The analysis, which took a deep dive into the careers of 10,000 scientists, concluded that success is far more connected to persistence, luck and, in the case of scientists, an ability to continually publish fresh research throughout their lives.

That’s incredibly relevant to those of us who ply our trade in PR, corporate communications, marketing communications or whatever it is we’re calling what we do these days.  Here’s why:

Corporate America and global PR firms have consistently and consciously derailed the careers of thousands of CCOs, CMOs and, in the case of big agencies, EVPs who “have reached a certain age.”

These are the highly capable men and women who, because they command a large salary, were born before JFK was inaugurated and aren’t particularly savvy when it comes to the post truth, digitally-driven communications world in which we now exist, are considered expendable.

I know these men and women. I’ve met and spoken with hundreds of them in the past few years. And, with a few notable exceptions, none saw the handwriting on the wall OR began preparing for Phase Two of their careers.

Our conversations are almost always the same, and go something like this:

Me: “So sorry to have heard about the downsizing.”

Victim (and most do see themselves as victims): “I’m over it and, in fact, am super enthused to start chapter two!”

Me: “Great. What do you want to do?”

Victim: “Apply all of the creative experience that helped me win three Silver Anvils, two Sabers and 11 Bulldog Awards to the right organization.”

Me: “That’s truly impressive. But, I’m curious to know what you personally have been doing in the digital, data analytics and social spaces of late?”

Victim: “Oh, my team handles that stuff.”

Me: “OK. So, what do you do?”

Victim: “I manage and motivate people, and that’s exactly what I’d bring to Peppercomm if you bring me on board.”

And, that’s when I’m forced to tell the Flying Dutchman (or woman, as the case may be) that our senior ranks are all set and the skills we need range from project manager and digital designer to social behaviorist and research scientist.

The victim sighs, nods his head and says, “Yeah. That’s what everyone says.” I assure them that, should I hear of any opportunity that might arise, I’ll let them know ASAP. They nod their head, shake my hand and slink out of the office.

These late middle-aged communications zombies are indeed victims. They’re victims of mastering the politics of a large organization. They’re victims of having hitched their wagon to a rising superstar in the organization and going along for the ride. And, many are victims of having spent their fat pay checks in the belief nothing would ever change.

And, now they wear defeat on their faces and demonstrate it in their non-verbal gestures. It’s so sad to see so often.

But, as the Northeastern research indicates, it’s never too late to innovate, reimagine and recreate one’s self.

Alas, far too many of my corporate/big agency peers lack the entrepreneurial drive that constantly bombards my brain (and lots of other, far more talented entrepreneurs’ brains) with new ideas to disrupt, disintermediate and run rings around my larger competitors.

The single best piece of advice I can proffer to PR pros who are about to become men and women of a certain age is this: Get your hands on the Northeastern study and start figuring out Phase Two before your head of Human Resources asks you to step into her office.

I can’t think of a sadder ending to an otherwise successful career than settling down in a Del Boca Vista condo and spending day after day playing golf, attending matinees and consuming early bird special after early bird special.

Here’s hoping you beat Father Time and the bottom line before it’s too late.

 

 

 

Feb 21

Dr. Richard Harte, PhD

dadDick Harte passed away this past weekend. He was Peppercomm’s first, and best, strategic consultant.

We hired Dr. Harte as soon as we began growing (note: I’d worked with Dick at a previous agency, and knew he would bring the rigor and process a small, insanely crazy start-up would need).

As it turns out, Dick began his long stint with us at exactly the same time first generation dotcoms discovered Peppercomm.

These nut jobs assumed that, because our firm’s name ended with the letters C, O and M, it meant we were technology PR experts who could generate the type of publicity that would enable these arrogant, egomaniacal 24-year-olds to go public and become overnight millionaires. (Note: We added a second M to our name when we added fully integrated marketing services).

In truth, we knew as much about technology PR as we did about the mating habits of squids, but we quickly hired people who did. And, boy did we grow!

Soon, the phones were ringing off the hook with dotcom types offering us $35,000, $50,000 or even $80,000 a month to handle their business. We had three full-time people whose sole responsibility was pre-qualifying the 50 or so new business calls we received each, and every, week.

To handle the deluge, we pretty much hired anyone who could walk and chew gum at the same time. O’Dwyer’s named us America’s fastest-growing PR firm two straight years. (Note: We grew top-line billings by 100 percent or more- each year).

But, we were also in desperate need of adult supervision, and Dr. Harte provided it in spades.

Among other things, he helped us figure out how to manage the deluge of new accounts (that included such now familiar names as United Messaging.com, Edgix.com and Hyperlinks.com.

Dr. Harte also helped us manage client expectations (each of whom demanded they be featured in the Wall Street Journal’s front-page right-hand column). And, he’s the one who first suggested we organize our agency into three divisions and install accountability.

Accountability

Accountability was Dick’s strength, and I can remember many a senior management meeting in which Dick would ask the lead executive why we were over servicing a particular client by a cool 125 percent. Dick would interrupt the individual’s stammering, half-assed response by saying, “You have 30 days to make it profitable, or else. Got it?”

Dick met weekly with Ed and me, and helped us separate the wheat from the chaff, be they client or employee.

He was also totally bizarre and unpredictable.

In our second year of business, the representative of a Fortune 500 manufacturer met with us and, in the midst of the discussion, asked Ed and me if we could place the company’s brand new product on the cover of Time magazine!

“Absolutely!” shouted Dr. Harte. That comment was immediately followed by an ungodly scream as Dick reacted to a swift kick in the shin from Ed. But, Dick turned out to be right, and we still represent that manufacturer today.

On another occasion, we invited The Good Doctor, as well as one of Ed’s Beltway insider buddies (“who knew ALL the key players on both sides of the aisle”) to a major pitch with the Society of Human Resource Management.

SHRM (or, shroom, as we preferred to call them) were prepared to pay big bucks to elevate the stature of the HR manager within the C-Suite. That journey eventually proved about as successful as King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail.

Anyway, the meeting started poorly and quickly went off the rails when Ed’s Beltway expert engaged in a screaming match with SHRM’s CEO. It was mean-spirited, angry and epithet-laced (Pre-millennials: Think, “The War of the Roses.”).

With the rest of us looking on in horrified shock, Dick stood up and shouted “Stop!” He then ordered prospect and agency personnel alike to step away from the table, take a deep breath, reach over, touch their toes and expel all of their hostile thoughts, feelings and actions. (T, F and A was another big Dick Harte expression).

It worked. An immediate calm came over the room and both sides completed the meeting in a more professional manner.

But, the damage had been done. SHRM chose the other finalist, we never again engaged the Beltway insider and HR remains the most vulnerable and least respected discipline in the C-Suite.

Tough love

Dick was all about “tough love” and “taking people out of their comfort zones.” And, boy did he ever. Our management off-sites resembled rematches of Ali-Frazier heavyweight title fights. Case in point: I’ll never forget Dick and our future agency president going toe-to-toe, screaming in each other’s face, “You’re full of shit!” To which the other would reply at the top of his lungs, “No. You’re the one who’s full of shit!” It was great entertainment.

Dick saw us through our first 10 years or so, stuck around long enough to co-author a McGraw-Hill business book, (What’s Keeping Your Customer’s Up at Night?,) I couldn’t even get my family to read and eventually retired to Boca Raton. Where else?

I’m devastated by Dick’s loss, but feel beyond blessed to have had him in my life. He was the big brother or Dutch Uncle every successful entrepreneur needs to prop him up when things look their bleakest or pats you on the back when you’re soaring, and whispers, “Don’t let the success go to your head.”

Richard Harte, Ph. D. was an American original the likes of whom I know I’ll never see again in my lifetime.

R.I.P., Dick and, if anyone ever asks you if you can guarantee the cover of Time Magazine, just say no. The shinbone you save in the afterlife may be your own.