Feb 08

When Trump Nukes Your Brand

What’s a poor chief communications officer to do when the president of the United States launches a 140 character hydrogen bomb at you for dropping his daughter’s fashion line? That’s the dilemma facing Nordstrom’s CCO this afternoon in the aftermath of the high-end retailer’s saying bye-bye to the daughter-in-chief’s apparel.

Trump not only attacked Nordstrom on his own handle but used the Twitter handle of the Office of the President of the United States! Holy blurred lines, Batman! And, naturally, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was right there to not only back him up but also to lash out at Nordstrom’s for punishing poor Ivanka.

Nordstrom defended their actions by saying Ivanka’s stuff simply wasn’t selling. Others (the Alt Right, perhaps?) are suggesting the move was in retaliation for Trump’s recent Muslim travel ban.

Whatever the reason, Nordstrom finds itself right smack in the middle of a Category Five crisis. And, the question facing the CCO is this: Do you step up to the plate, defend your brand and provide further clarification (i.e. sales figures that prove the move was purely a business decision) or simply lay low, monitor the Web and see if Mr. President launches a second wave of nukes.

TrumpLand, and its myriad business and political entanglements are presenting communications challenges never before faced by the chief communications officer, chief marketing officer or whomever is in charge of an organizations external communications. And, there is no textbook or best practice for this dealing with type of mugging. Up until January 20th, we PR types have been able to respond in precise, measured ways by following procedures from countless ‘traditional’ crises such as the legendary gold standard itself: Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol crisis.

But there are no Harvard Business School case studies titled, “When the President bullies your brand.” And I’m not aware of any white papers issued by the Arthur W. Page Society titled, “Don’t mess with the President’s daughter.” Nor is PR Week’s cover screaming, “Incoming!”

CCOs are truly flying by the seat of their pants. I’ve spoken to 30 of them in recent weeks, and almost all fear the uncertainty of what lies ahead. While some define uncertainty as unstable global markets and others point to our offending allies while cozying up to our enemies, quite a few voiced concern about The Donald’s picking up his iPhone and banging out 140 characters that could level their corporation’s sales and reputation in a nanosecond.

Were I asked to provide counsel, I’d advise Nordstrom to stay the course, be on the alert for incoming missiles and fully armed with facts and figures to defend your actions. I’d also begin scenario planning everything from angry Ivanka fans ripping apart your retail stores to some complete whack job going after your CEO with an AR-15.

These are indeed the times that try men’s (and CCO’s) souls.


Feb 06

Has Trump made CCOs the new orange?

CAP JPGA recent survey by APCO Worldwide revealed that 89 percent of chief communications officers surveyed said they have direct access to the chief executive officer and 75 percent reported the CEO understands the value of their company’s reputation.

How nice. Ah, but check this out: Only 52 percent report directly to the CEO and just 26 percent said their opinions always matter when critical decisions are being made! Holy Throw Back Monday, Batman! Is this 2017 or 1917?

Ah, but there is a silver (or orange, if you prefer) lining to this otherwise bleak news.

And the orange lining is our man in the West Wing, Donald J. Trump.

I’m in the midst of conducting 30 in-depth interviews with global CCOs. My original working title for the white paper, which is being prepared exclusively for the IPR, (www.ipr.org) was “Digital, Data and Disruption.” I’ve now add a fourth D to my alliterative headline: The Donald.

Since January 20th, CCOs are telling me their CEOs are deathly afraid of being summoned to Washington, and bullied and berated before being issued an ultimatum: Keep American jobs right where they are, or else.

CEOs are even more frightened by the prospect of being personally singled out in one of Trump’s temper-tantrum Tweets. So, guess who they’re now turning to for counsel? That’s right. The good, old CCO.

And, that’s because the CCO alone commands the CEOs highest respect in times of crisis and, baby, are we ever living in times of crisis!

As a result, the CCO is being invited to join their CEOs for discussions with the new president. Sure, they may be relegated to the far side of the Potomac while Trump threatens to either impose higher corporate taxes on CEOs who won’t play ball with him or, worse, hints that he may lay-off Schwarzenegger for a day and instead insinuate the CEO is betraying the U.S. of A.

And, that’s when the CCO rises to the occasion and stands tall vis-a-vis her C-Suite colleagues.

Senior public relations strategists train their entire lives for moments of crisis (although I’ve yet to meet a single CCO who’s been taught best practices for dealing with a completely unpredictable president who may go off the rails at any second).

Regardless, the CCO is trained to calm down the CEO and soothe his battered ego. They come together as a team. And, together, they craft a carefully worded announcement highlighting key points stemming from their ‘productive’ meeting with President Trump. They pledge to work with Trump to address the issues and find a balanced win-win solution. And, then they scramble under their desks and hope he’ll re-direct his fire.

Sometimes the CorporateSpeak will placate Mr. Trump. At other times, especially after unpleasant phone calls with, say, the prime minister of Australia, the words may engender his full wrath. And, if the latter should occur, The Donald could very well shine the spotlight on the CEO and call him everything from a bad dude to a so-so CEO running a loser of an organization.

The CCOs with whom I’ve spoken now spend a good deal of time scenario planning for either defending nuclear attacks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, countering completely fake news or both.

And, while they may be working 24×7 to wordsmith various responses, many CCOs are smiling inside. And, that’s because they’re meeting, face-to-face with the CEO and their marketing peers and handling such critical business decisions as whether to double down on the corporation’s promise to create and support open, diverse and inclusive workplaces or, instead, capitalize on the America First frenzy by citing their organization’s countless contributions to our country.

Needless to say, the CCOs ethical and moral compass is being tested in ways never thought imaginable only a few months ago. But, hey, look at the bright side: As long as Trump is ensconced in the Oval Office, the CCO really WILL enjoy a seat at the table.

Suddenly, CCO’s matter very, very much. One might even call them the new orange.


Feb 02

Never, fight on email ever!

Diana Soltmann, chairman of Flagship Consulting, a Peppercomm company HQ’d in jolly, old London, shares this provocative tale of two e-mails gone horribly wrong (a particularly timely subject considering the POTUS has no filter whatsoever when it comes to Tweeting horrific insults aimed at everyone from Democrats and the media (the true opposition party) or Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep. Enjoy!

How 11 words hit the top 1000 list of atrocities

fight“You are a despicable bottom feeding wretched disgrace of a person.” This was the email sent to a prospective bride by New York catering company Sweetery in November 2016. It hit all the headlines, and went viral on social media and then around the world several times. Google ‘Sweetery’ New York and guess what you find?

Desperate to salvage his shattered, reputation Co-founder and President of the Sweetery Grant Di Mille sent an email to prospective PR companies in which he wrote “Although our horrible mistake was highly egregious, it would be difficult to imagine that what we did would make most people’s top 1000 list of all-time atrocities, but somehow it seems as if it has.”

The worst mistake you can make is to think you are having a conversation when you email someone. You are not! In your head it sounds like one thing; on paper it is something entirely different. Emails can be painful, are always visible and can quickly go viral and once sent, can never be eradicated.
As the unfortunate Mr. Di Mille said “My Company very well might have signed a death warrant on our own business. It has created a firestorm of negative PR and social media that one might think would be reserved for the most heinous crimes against humanity.”

When Durham graduate Oliver Alcock decided to spend his last day at a leading accountancy firm writing an excoriating email about his boredom at work; never did he dream his exploits would propel him into the headlines. In his email he wrote “In hindsight scraping a B in GCSE maths and getting a Social Sciences 2:1 from Durham that consisted of £1.50 pints and fifa with some light work squashed in, possibly wasn’t the best prep for the ACA.” To add insult to injury, he wrote a list of things he did and did not do including verifying a breast cancer screening unit which earned him a damning headline from the FT ‘Moaning Millennials let down their generation’. Not surprisingly he was not invited to the accountancy firm’s summer ball!

However, all that pales into insignificance as the world enters its own media firestorm. As the new President of the United States issues more and more explosive statements from his Twitter account, holds hands with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, tells the Attorney General “You’re fired” and openly condones policies that people only whisper about a “bottom feeding wretched disgrace of a person” starts to become quite mild.

Nevertheless the mantra still is: if you want to negotiate, have a conflict, disagree do it face to face or on the phone or don’t do it at all. It could come back to haunt you for ever and ever.

Jan 30

The right message with the right tone at the right time

budCheck out Adweek’s fascinating “behind-the-scenes” look at the planning and execution of Budweiser’s upcoming Super Bowl ad (http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/how-budweiser-created-an-epic-immigrant-story-to-reclaim-the-super-bowl-spotlight/ ).

Now, I’m not a big fan of Super Bowl advertising because I think there are better, more laser-focused and cost effective ways to reach target audiences. And, according to the Adweek feature, Bud is counting on the campaign to help turn around the brand’s sagging market share.

I’m not qualified to comment on whether the ad will, or won’t, bend more elbows in Bud’s direction but, in light of this past weekend’s protests at airports nationwide, the spot’s timing couldn’t be better.

Bud’s Super Bowl campaign follows the trials and tribulations of Adolphus Busch as he leaves his native European roots to travel all the way to St. Louis in 1857. It’s a period piece with period costumes and trappings, but a message that packs what appears to be an unintended political wallop in post-Trump America of early 2017.

Immigrants such as Busch are the men and women who made America great. Assuming the current madness that includes building walls, picking fights with long-time allies, cozying up to arch enemies and profiling, detaining and returning of Muslims can be stopped and turned around, immigration will once again make America great.

Little did Adolphus Busch know that his 170-year-old story would be more relevant today that it was in 1753.

I’m not a fan of beer in general or Budweiser in particular, but I’m a big believer in inclusiveness and diversity. It’s the special DNA that’s made us the greatest democracy in the history of the world. So, while I honestly don’t care if the ad does, or doesn’t  help Bud, I salute them for sending the right message with the right tone at the right time.

Jan 23

These are the times that try marketers’ souls

Love the new president’s policies or hate them, many marketers are facing a conundrum: How to reconcile their future marketing campaigns with the stark reality of what we’re seeing unfold before our very eyes.

trump-nuts-hed-2017Does one bury one’s head in the sand and pretend it’s business as usual? Do pro-Trump brands aggressively underscore their ‘America First’ commitment to making products and hiring people? And, what about the countless purpose-driven organizations who have drawn a line in the sand, created a higher reason for their existence and support diversity and inclusiveness in everything they say and do?

AdWeek just ran a fascinating ad from a Lebanese nut-maker (no pun intended) that read, “The world’s gone nuts!” The CMO justified the bold message by saying that’s exactly how his target audience feels about Mr. Trump’s election. That makes sense to me since listening to, and engaging with, one’s audience is paramount to marketing success.

But what about here, in this incredibly divided country of ours? What’s a poor CMO to do?

Seeking advice, I turned to perhaps the finest journalist/influencer in the marketing world today: Stuart Elliott.

We’re Twitter buds, so I asked Stuart how American marketers will act, and react, in our new fake news, post truth Trumpland. His response: “Brands that have had pro-social campaigns in recent years are likely to run inclusive ads.”

That not only made perfect sense, it was also music to my ears.

As Thomas Paine might have written, “Now is not the time for sunshine marketers to turn a blind eye.”

I’d like to believe that, as Stuart suggested, purpose-driven, socially-conscious marketers WILL stick to their guns (Sorry. Poor word selection on my part).

Make no mistake that marketers whose campaigns anger Trump are very likely to engender the same kind of excoriation he’s meted out to the mainstream press, Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep and so many others.

For conservative marketers who sell to the ‘base’, these are the best of times. But, for marketers who sell to all races, creeds and colors, it’s go time.

Do they fold up their moral and ethical tents and go home? Or, do they continue to follow their organization’s purpose and risk possible sanctions from the now “swampless” Beltway?

How marketers respond today will most certainly be remembered tomorrow.




Jan 17

The Apollo 17 Principle of Recruitment

Today’s Repman is penned by Peppercommer Carl Foster…

APOLLOI don’t know about your industry but the world of PR is hotting up, and I find myself interviewing an increasing number of candidates.

When I interview people, particularly junior level candidates, I look for something I call the Apollo 17 principle.

You might be familiar with the Apollo principle. It’s the premise that everyone in an organization can pull together toward a common goal. It’s based on the 1960’s anecdote in which John F Kennedy, while on a tour of Cape Canaveral, asked a janitor what he did. “I’m helping put a man on the moon, sir” was the reply.

The Apollo 17 principle is different. It’s about valuing skills that are either innate or have taken a long time to develop over easier to develop skills, like PR and marketing.

Following Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in 1969, NASA launched five more Apollo missions, each manned with highly trained astronauts – the objective being to study the lunar surface. That required the skills of a geologist, so the astronauts undertook geology classes.

But here’s the thing, NASA realized that instead of an astronaut trained in geology, what they actually needed was a geologist trained as an astronaut. It turned out to be easier to layer astronaut training over years of study in geology than train astronauts to sort the lunar wheat from the lunar chaff. Step forward Harrison Schmitt, who studied geology at CalTech and Harvard. Schmitt was the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 17, and now, with the passing of Gene Cernan yesterday, he is now the last living person to have walked on the moon.

The result of putting a geologist on the moon was that the Apollo 17 crew returned more rock of more value to earth than any other lunar mission.

So if you’re thinking of applying to Peppercomm but don’t have a background in PR or marketing, don’t let that immediately dissuade you, especially for entry level positions.

The same principle applies to skills and traits rather than experience. I once interviewed a junior candidate with zero PR or marketing experience, but she had set up dance schools in Africa, interned at foreign embassies and generally had an all-around “can do” approach to life. Unfortunately, she didn’t join Peppercomm, but wherever she lands, the astronaut part of her career will be easy to learn. She has the geology part sorted.

Jan 13

It’s the sales call, stupid

goldA few years back, I had the rare opportunity to lunch with the legendary Harold Burson.

I put him on the spot and asked him to name the one strategy Burson took in the 1960s and ’70s to overtake Hill & Knowlton in the ’80s as the world’s largest PR firm.

He paused and then said, “That’s easy. We insisted every single account team accompany a client’s salesman on his calls. By listening first-hand to the client’s customer’s wants and needs we crafted precisely tailored campaigns that rang true with target audiences and ran rings around our competitors’ work.”

I followed up by asking if Burson continued to follow his strategy. He shook his head and said, “Nope. And, I have no idea why we don’t.”

I cite this conversation because Matthew Schwartz who, in my opinion, knows more about how PR works than the collective staffs of every trade publication’s editorial staff combined, just penned an article for CMO.com that illustrates exactly how far ahead Mr. Burson was in his thinking.

I’ll let you peruse the full text but, the bottom line is this: CMOs (and, one would assume CCOs) are just now waking up to the brilliance of tag-teaming client and prospect calls with sales AND marketing executives in attendance.

Schwartz spotlighted a company called Legrand North America, which sends sales and marketing executives on sales calls. They believe sales and marketing, in tandem, can better close the sale when push comes to shove.

“Wrong!” As a certain president-elect would say.

Marketing communications executives SHOULD attend as many sales pitches as possible. But, they shouldn’t be part of the pitch. They should bring their listening skills with them and home in on EXACTLY what’s keeping customers and prospects up at night. To quote a recurring character from Seinfeld, “That’s gold, Jerry. Gold.” Why? Because it assures the subsequent campaign will deliver.

Primary, qualitative research runs rings around the panacea of the day, Big Data, and its cousin, Data Analytics.

But, I’m not aware of a single integrated marketing firm that implements what the Burson of PR Past practiced. None.

We dabble at it. And, when we have, it’s produced immediate results. But, I blame myself for not insisting it be embedded into every single client assignment. And, I blame every CMO and CCO who relies solely on quantitative-heavy Big Data to shape their campaigns. We’re better than that.

Nothing replaces primary research. And, there’s no better way to invest in a client relationship than to INSIST the account team tag along on sales calls, listen carefully and shape the campaign accordingly.

Sadly, we’ve become enamored with data and analytics to tell us what to do.

I’m taking a guess here, but I’ll bet if Big Data had existed in the ’60s and ’70s, Mr. Burson would have taken it very seriously. But I’d also like to think he’d still insist his account team attend sales meetings and listen, first-hand, to exactly what the end user’s pain points were and how the client was best positioned to solve them.

Would that the greats of the past could opine on the ‘best practices’ of today. I’d be willing to bet the big names of the past would probably be the biggest opponents of the Big Data driven campaigns of today.



Jan 11

Analyze This

Guy-with-Antenna-on-Head-30t0fud1wcjfjrtrysmw3kMy firm’s in the midst of arguably the coolest proprietary research project in our 21 years of existence.

It involves more than 30 in-depth, qualitative interviews of Fortune 500 CCOs and CMOS. Note my use of the word qualitative.

While digging deep into such darlings of the marketing communications world as earned, owned and paid media along with, of course, digital and Big Data, robotics and A.I. we uncovered a rather interesting disconnect.

I’ve been surprised to hear how many CCOs and CMOS are not only totally overwhelmed by data but highly SKEPTICAL of the resulting analytical findings. As it turns out, they’re not alone.

A recent KPMG survey of the aforementioned cohort revealed that, while 50 percent use data and analytics tools to analyze existing customers, 48 percent to find new ones and 47 percent to develop new products, less than half “don’t TRUST that analytics is actually providing insights beneficial to ANY of these areas.” Talk about an indictment.

I heard this exact skepticism from the CCO of a global manufacturing company. She said she scrutinizes every morsel of analytical data, takes time to conduct her own qualitative research and then relies on her GUT instincts to determine the eventual marcom strategy.

We do the exact same thing for our clients because, frankly, Big Data, no matter how powerful, cannot possibly replace the gut instincts of a seasoned marketing communications professional who’s been through countless wars.

We’ve proved this time and again when, after analyzing the Big Data (and analytics) a client’s research firm has provided, put ourselves in the shoes of constituents and personally experience the brand. We’ve ALWAYS uncovered gaps Big Data missed.

So, I come here not to bury Big Data but, rather, to echo what the very best marketing and communications pros are telling me: Spend all the money you want collecting the data and analyzing it, but DO NOT move forward if the data tells you one thing while your gut says to take a different course of action.




Jan 05

My unrequited request

fingers.The news reports from the Consumer Electronics Show (otherwise known as “The Woodstock of the Nerds”) are chock full of articles about the impact of artificial intelligence on virtually every new product on display.

And yet Apple’s iPhone keypad remains frozen in the year 2012. It also remains at the top of my unrequited holiday wish list.

Please fix the damn thing. Or can some Zuckerberg wanna-be do so and steal the entire market? Please.

The iPhone keypad exists to exacerbate the angst in a world of uncertainty (great new tagline, BTW). It distorts, dismays or embarrasses the sender while totally confusing the reader.

Case in point: Not too long ago a pleased as punch client sent a highly complimentary e-mail to our entire team in which she praised their “sexual efforts.” Now, we pride ourselves on being a full service agency but that’s clearly above and beyond the call of duty.

Naturally, the client was mortified by her mistake and quickly apologized. But, the damage had been done. The Apple iPhone autocorrect had claimed yet another victim.

In fact, unless one is a president-elected gifted with unusually small fingers, typing a grammatically correct e-mail, Tweet or text is akin to stopping North Korea’s nuclear plans. Ain’t gonna happen.

To wit, I’ll write the next paragraph without checking autocorrect at all. Wish me luck:

“Vexbeen. Hear to be both a Jets and Mets fan. s a result, I’ve grown accustomed tonmisery and biting into false expectations. But I also think Mets and Heys fans are better equipped to face the uncertainties of life after January 20th because we’ve been tough to ecboect a bleak future.”

The preceding graph concerned the unexpected benefits of being a lifelong Mets and Jets fan in a Post Truth world.

So, how about it, Apple? Can you set aside a billion dollars or two to fix this horrific design? Ironic that the company that’s become synonymous with beautiful design turns out to be the ugly duckling of virtual communication.

Jan 04

Enter at your own risk

blue-states-vs-red-2012-electFamilyBreakFinder, a travel website, recently compiled the English-language tourism slogans of more than 150 countries (Man, it must have been an especially quiet day at FBF to find the time for that assignment). Click on this link to access the full report 

Anyway, there are some really clever and funny ones as well as those that do their best to make do with what they have. To wit:

– Nepal (home of the Himalayas) “Once is not enough”

– “Remarkable Rwanda” (I’m not sure I buy that one after seeing “Hotel Rwanda)

– Syria: “Always beautiful” (No comment necessary)

– Honduras: “Everything is here” (I wonder if their definition of everything is the same as mine? I’m guessing no)

– Denmark: “The happiest place on Earth” (Also the most boring. After touring Copenhagen, there’s not much to do except to count the days until you return)

– Cape Verde: “No stress” (Probably true, but I have to believe getting to such a remote locale is beyond stressful)

All of which leads me up to the person, government agency or tourism bureau responsible for updating the good, old U.S. of A’s tourism slogan.

How’d you like to be responsible for coining the new fake news, post truth, complete lack of civility, badly divided country’s welcoming tagline?

Here are a few thoughts (but, I’d welcome yours as well):

– “Red state. Blue state. You’ll enjoy your stay. As long as you pick the right state”

– “Where the cradle of democracy has tipped over”

– “Where one-way trips are the new normal”

– “Where yesterday trumps tomorrow” (my personal favorite)

– “We’ll decide if you’re welcome”

– “Just leave us the hell alone”

– “If you liked Russia, you’ll LOVE America”

I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled to see how the U. S. Travel & Tourism Board does alter its slogan after January 20th. It should be great. The best ever. Beautiful. Everyone loves us so why shouldn’t it be?