Aug 23

Updated Packaging Keeps Animal Crackers Out of the Soup

I had the distinct pleasure of working with Chris Tennyson at Hill & Knowlton at a time in history when H&K was considered the Tiffany’s of the PR universe. There was H&K, and then there was everyone else.

But, that was then and this is now.  

After leaving H&K in the mid-1980s, Chris went on to build a formidable career on both the corporate and agency sides of our business.

Today’s guest blog is excerpted from his upcoming book, “The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm.” 

The excerpt, just like the book itself, is a MUST read for anyone counseling a CCO, CMO or CEO. Enjoy!

This week the Nabisco division of Mondelez International unveiled a newsworthy packaging redesign of its Barnum’s Animals cookies. Since 1902, small boxes of America’s favorite brand of animal crackers have been adorned with images of circus animals caged in boxcars. Not anymore. The majestic lion, elephant, zebra, giraffe and gorilla on the updated packages now roam free.

Great move by Mondelez to keep an iconic brand in step with the times – and avoid a crisis.

In Chapter 3 of my book, The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Company’s Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm, I discuss nine common sources of crises. They all start with the letter “P”: people, products, priorities, policies, performance, politics, procrastination, privacy, and past. “Packaging” didn’t make the list, but I believe the Barnum’s Animals redesign provides an excellent example of a company knowing when it’s time to address a problematic “policy.”

According to an article in the August 21, 2018, USA Today (“Nabisco uncages its animal crackers after 116 years”), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals first called for a change in what they considered insensitive packaging back in April 2016. Commenting on the redesign, Modelez’s Chief Marketing Officer Jason Levine explained, “When PETA reached out about Barnum’s, we saw this as another great opportunity to continue to keep this brand modern and contemporary.”

Good move. The new art in no way diminishes the appeal of the product (the brand’s distinctive yellow and red color palette and fun illustration style have been maintained to draw in customers of all ages). And the folks at PETA are happy. The group’s Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman confirmed, “PETA is celebrating this redesign.”

No shaming, no boycott, no crisis.

Smart policy updates should not be seen as any less heroic just because they were made in response to outside pressure. CVS discontinuing sale of all tobacco products, SeaWorld ending its controversial orca whale breeding program, and the Miss America organization’s elimination of the swim suit competition are examples of corporate decisions, generally well-received, influenced at least in part by looming reputational threats.

Timing is important. Slow response to changing mores contributed to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus folding its tent for good in 2016, just a year after begrudgingly announcing that it would phase out elephant acts. So, the responsive cookie brand survives, while the stubborn institution it was named after no longer exists.

There’s a valuable lesson in that scenario for marketers and communicators wanting to improve their crisis preparedness quotient.

*Animal Crackers in My Soup was a hit song performed by child star Shirley Temple in the 1935 film Curly Top (it’s probably not on your playlist).

Aug 22

Another brand is being roasted for not taking a smart stand

Today’s guest blog comes courtesy of Matt Purdue, one of my Peppercomm colleagues who started his career as a sports journalist yet still can’t win our fantasy football league….

When will brands finally realize that standing in the middle of the road on controversial issues of the day is only going to get them run over? And maybe even run over by the most powerful influencer on Earth.

Our latest victim is ESPN, which is being blindsided for doing…well…nothing really. In the midst of the NFL’s bubbling anthem controversy, an ESPN executive recently stated that the network was sticking to its longtime policy of not broadcasting the anthem before games. In fact, most networks don’t broadcast the anthem unless it’s a special occasion.

Our president, however, has chosen to ignore this reality (as he is often wont to do). Last night, President Trump blasted ESPN at a rally. “It was just announced by ESPN that rather than defending our anthem, our beautiful, beautiful national anthem and defending our flag, they’ve decided that they just won’t broadcast when they play the national anthem,” Trump said. “We don’t like that.”

As I’m writing this, ESPN has not responded — and that’s a huge mistake. Love him or hate him, Trump has a huge following. His approval rating among Republicans is 87 percent! If you don’t believe the power he wields, check out the exploding #BoycottESPN on Twitter. ESPN staying silent is tantamount to condoning Trump’s stance.

However, ESPN ’s biggest flub occurred on August 17, when new network president Jimmy Pitaro simply restated the current anthem policy. “We generally have not broadcasted the anthem and I don’t think that will change this year.”

He added: “It’s not our job to cover politics, purely, but we’ll cover the intersection of sports and politics.”

It’s not ESPN’s job to cover politics? Excuse me? It’s 2018, and we’re living in the most polarized political climate since before the Civil War in the 1850s. ESPN and every brand must realize that it’s at risk of running into a political firestorm at any time, 24/7/365.

So every brand must be prepared to take a smart stand based on what’s best for its stakeholders and its business. In a perfect world, ESPN would respond just like Texas senate candidate Beto O’Rourke did when he was asked if he thinks NFL players kneeling during the anthem is “disrespectful.”

But this is far from a perfect world. In reality, ESPN has two choices: 1) Stand firm on not airing the anthem because our “beautiful, beautiful” national hymn has become a political hot potato; or 2) commit to airing the anthem before every game to bring viewers real-time reporting of how players and fans are reacting during the song. They still have an opportunity to take a stand, but will they?

Instead, ESPN is sitting in the middle of the road. And now it’s getting run over.

Aug 21

A brand brave enough to embrace its weakness

Fact: The Cleveland Browns lost every single game last season. They hold the distinction of being one of the few NFL franchises to ever record such a dubious accomplishment.

Fact: Bud Light is one of three or four mega beer brands that routinely spends hundreds of millions of dollars to convince the NFL faithful to sip their suds while lounging on couches and channel surfing from one game to another.

Fact: The two organizations partnered to shine the spotlight on Cleveland’s horrific team AND create a brilliant, breakthrough campaign that has this blogger shaking his head and thinking, “How come I didn’t come up with something this smart and strategic?”

Then I remember that my personal and professional motto is: “Expect Less.” That comforting reminder enables me to de-stress.

But I digress.

In case you don’t want to read the article link, here’s the gist of the campaign:

If, and when, the Cleveland Browns win their first game of the season, free beer will be made available in multiple locations in the “Mistake by the Lake” thanks to Bud Light’s “Victory Fridges.”

The specialty-designed fridges, painted brown, chock full of Bud Light beer AND chained shut will be unlocked by smart technology as soon as the game ends.

The football team’s official Twitter site announced the campaign with the following: “You’ve stood by us through it all. We love you for it and so does @budlight.”

FYI, the chained fridges will open regardless of whether the Browns win at home or on the road.

Analyzing this campaign from a strategic communications standpoint, I feel compelled to point out the following:

  • This would NEVER have happened if the Browns hadn’t embraced their vulnerability. That tells me they have wise, humble ownership (a rare commodity in any business).
  • In one fell swoop, Bud Light outflanked every one of its competitors vying for market share in BrownTown. Critically, though, they also connected with NFL and beer fans alike by “rooting for the underdog.” I’m not a Browns fan and I don’t drink Bud Light, but you can bet your last glass of Sancerre that I will be closely following the Browns’ exploits and maybe, just maybe, will buy a six-pack of Bud Light to join the celebration.

The latter is called “consideration” by marketing types and it’s the currency of the realm. If ANY marketer can disrupt my typical buying (or viewing) pattern AND get me to consider their product in my selection process, then they’ve completed the sales equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

I wish the Browns well, salute their willingness to embrace vulnerability and lift my wine glass to the brilliant marketers at Bud Light.

Aug 20

Is Google’s North Star Going South?

Today’s guest blog comes courtesy of Deb Brown, one of my Peppercomm partners in crime who doubles as the very best media relations strategist in the business….

All companies – regardless of size – need a purpose, the reason why employees come to work each day and what the company stands for. The purpose is its North Star, guiding the company through difficult decisions and challenges, ensuring it remains true to its beliefs. Yet, Google’s North Star seems to be going south. According to Fortune, Google, which originally pulled out of China in 2010 because the company refused to give in to the government’s censorship demands, staying true to its focus on digital rights and an open Internet, is now seeing things through a different lens, specifically a “green” lens. Google’s “secret” project called Dragonfly is expected to enable a censored search engine and censored news aggregator app for China.

While some employees are supportive, many employees are furious. And it’s probably just a matter of time before consumers react as well as other companies that do business with the search giant.

How prepared is Google to deal with the potential fallout?  How far is Google willing to stray from its purpose as a company and what it stands for? If Google’s deal goes through, will the money be worth the hit to its reputation? And, even if the deal falls through, is the damage already done? What will Google stand for now?

While we help companies navigate these very rough waters, only the company itself can determine what it should stand for. Google may think it won’t be hurt because it’s the giant in the industry. But, every Goliath has its David.

Aug 16

It’s Not a Matter of If, But When

In our tumultuous scandal-riddled, societal crises-driven landscape, organizational vulnerability has never been more fragile. And the role of the CCO/CMO has never been under greater stress.

But, for those who anticipate, plan, test and re-test the societal crisis response systems, the opportunity to rise above the fray and bring clarity to the fog of war has never been more readily available.

Ah, but one needs to know where to look, determine what constitutes a brand threat, assure your response will align with the organization’s higher purpose AND then decide if, how and when to respond.

I had the amazing opportunity to co-host an IPR-sponsored webinar (playback available next week) yesterday with Linda Rutherford, SVP and Chief Communications Officer of Southwest Airlines. We were simultaneously addressing the best practices IPR and Peppercomm, my firm, had gleaned from in-depth interviews with 50 leading CCO/CMOs.

I enumerated the top-line research findings (doing my best to intersperse such late-breaking crises as):

  • The war of words between POTUS and Harley-Davidson
  • The latest revelations about Roman Catholic Church priests running amok in Pennsylvania
  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s baffling remark that, “America was never great.”

(Note: I made the editorial decision that the Donald/Omarosa nonsense didn’t warrant any more attention).

Linda went way above-and-beyond the call of duty to share the inner workings of SW’s iterative, rapid response model using such examples as the Texas Bathroom Bill to explain how each and every facet functioned.

Our central themes were two-fold:

  • The days of remaining silent as social crisis after social crisis unfolds outside your corner office are over.
  • The social issues crisis you overlook is the one that will put you on the front page of The New York Times faster than you can say Gail Collins.

To wit, we briefly addressed a recently-released list of 15 U. S. organizations with high-priced, long-term contracts with the controversial government agency I.C.E. (Think: separation of children from their parents along our country’s Southern borders).

To my knowledge, only two of the 15 have been savaged by internal constituents for “apparently” endorsing human misery. And only one has found itself a front-page story in the Times: Deloitte.

I have no idea if Thomson Reuters, Dell or the other mega players playing with I.C.E. (Or F.I.R.E., if you prefer), have issued statements clarifying why they continue their relationships but they better do so soon.

Any crisis counselor, whether old school or new, knows the best way to manage a highly politicized crisis is get out in front of it. Explain why you’re in bed with I.C.E.

Follow Deloitte’s lead in explaining that NONE of your contracts have anything whatsoever to do with separating children from parents or detaining the kids in medieval holding pens and double down on your higher purpose and guiding principles.

I hope yesterday’s webinar attendees grasped the immediacy of the situation and the need to overhaul whatever crisis plan their global agency may have created back in 2003. Those work plans are about as relevant as a Blackberry in today’s workplace.

If I need to scare you even more, consider this: the mid-term elections are just a few months away. If your organization is headquartered in a state holding Congressional elections, you better be prepared for employees (and, perhaps, board members) to insist your CEO speak up on everything from gun control and tariff wars to Russian hacking and NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem.

And, if you should happen to find yourself on the receiving end of a vicious attack by President Trump, you better have already decided whether to respond, if an employee and dealer-only e-mail a la Harley’s strategy is sufficient as well as how your multiple constituent audiences will respond.

It seems to me the days of sticking one’s head in the sand are gone with the wind (and trust me, when the wind hits your company, it will probably carry the wallop of a Force 5 Hurricane).

So, get thee prepared. Now!

Aug 13

Virginia Dandridge Stevenson

I loved Dandy Stevenson. And I deeply regret never having told her so while she was alive.

Dandy had been my executive assistant for 15 years, before being forced to retire and eventually succumbing to lung cancer this weekend.

But she was far, far more than my executive assistant.

Dandy was my biggest cheerleader. She was more excited than me when Mcgraw-Hill published my first (and only) book in 2003. And she would whoop it up with her North Carolinian shouts whenever I would win some type of recognition from one of the awards programs (or be named to a prestigious board).

But she wasn’t just there in the good times. Dandy would also bend over backwards to prop me up after an evil client had just fired us or a key employee walked out the door. “They’ll find out they made a mistake and come crawling back,” she’d predict. And she was right on more than one occasion.

Dandy not only felt like a member of the Peppercomm family; she felt like a member of the Cody family as well. She would never, ever hesitate to help my 97-year-old dad (who always referred to her as his “passion flower”). Dandy just adored him. For me, it was a don’t ask/don’t tell. And she would help Angie, Chris and Cat in a New York minute as well.

She grieved with me when I lost my mom as well as Mick, the best dog I ever had. And she rejoiced with me when Crain’s New York Business named Peppercomm the single best workplace in New York.

Dandy, along with Sir Clayton Fletcher, Maggie O’Neill, Deb Brown, Jackie Kolek, Ann Barlow and, perhaps, this blogger were instrumental in creating a workplace that Crain’s judges rated the very best among some 933 other NYC businesses. That remains the most important award my firm has won in its 23-year history.

If you stumble across the Crain’s article, you’ll see Dandy’s face smiling back at you. In fact, I can see her smiling back from the screen of my iPhone as I’m writing this.

Three final memories before I let my fellow Peppercommers share a few thoughts:

1.) Dandy took my Repman blog far more seriously than I did. And I cannot tell you how many heated arguments we had debating whether I had once again stepped over the line. I always respected Dandy’s intellect and sensitivities and, almost always, let her carry the day and spike the offending or self-aggrandizing blog.

2.) Dandy prided herself on being the note-taker for our twice-a-month staff meetings. And I must tell you, her reports were as unique as the woman herself. They were equal parts hysterical, insightful and, at times, baffling. But, boy, did Dandy love it when I would send her an e-mail afterwards telling her how beautifully she’d captured the spirit of the meeting.

3.) Dandy was tough as nails and beat the bejesus out of any incompetent, uncaring or abusive customer service representative. I often had to run over to her desk and ask her to lower her voice when she was in the midst of eviscerating some unsuspecting United Airlines ticket agent (I think Dandy hated United even more than me). Dandy feared no man (or woman). But she loved Mr. Coffee, her cat.

And now my colleagues will weigh-in:

“The world truly lost its sparkle yesterday.  Dandy was a light like no other, and the light that helped Peppercomm shine for so many years. She brought her own brand of NY sassiness coupled with southern charm and motherly care to Peppercomm’s offices each and every day.  She cared immensely, laughed wholeheartedly and embraced life in a way that I only hope I can.  The last time I saw Dandy we had a few too many lunchtime sparkling roses toasting memories, gossiping a bit and focusing on a commitment to life well lived.  Dandy told me to always take chances, don’t put things off until tomorrow and don’t ever settle.  The spirit she gave to Peppercomm and the impact she left with me will certainly live on.  I just hope I can pull it all off half as well as she did.”Maggie O’Neill, partner and managing director 

“It could be easy to forget that under Dandy’s impish demeanor lay a razor-sharp wit, one that we would get an occasional glimpse of when she wrote up the ‘minutes’ of our staff meetings. I think it was fair to say that we looked forward to her write-up more than the meetings themselves, much as we love to gather as a team. This wit, in turn, was only outdone by a remarkable level of thoughtfulness and empathy when you were hurting. When my dad was sick and then passed away at the end of last year, she couldn’t have been kinder, even though she was dealing with her own illness at the time. I’ll miss her more than I can say.”Ann Barlow, partner and managing director

“Dandy was truly one-of-a-kind and will be greatly missed.  No matter what you had going on in your life, how busy you were or how stressed you might be, the sight of Dandy would always bring a smile to your face.  Her pink raincoat, her orange shoes, her fluorescent green blouse, she was truly always the bright spot of the day.  I will miss her ripping her glasses off her face to give you the best expression of shock, glee or joy.  She was a physical comedian who did fantastic impressions (a certain gazelle will always be my favorite).  Dandy embodied the true spirit of Peppercomm by not only working hard, but playing harder.  She was more than a colleague, she was family.  Even when her own health was deteriorating, she never failed to ask after your parents, spouse, children or pets.  She will live on in our hearts and we’ll be telling stories of the Danderoo for generations of Peppercommers to come.” Jacqueline Kolek, partner and managing director 

“There are so many beautiful and warm and wonderful things to say about Dandy. But one that I’ll always cherish is how she always genuinely cared so much about others and put others first. I will miss her dearly.”Deborah Brown, partner and managing director 

“I am not sure words will ever be able to capture the woman that Dandy Stevenson was to all of us. A pillar of the Peppercomm family. She cared about us fiercely and loved us individually. A woman who embraced and welcomed me from day one and kept me laughing each subsequent day. She kept us in line when needed but also egged us on and joined in on our fun. I will always remember her helping a few of us prank Steve by filling his closet with plastic ball-pit balls while he was in London so he would return to an unexpected shower when reaching in for a rain jacket. She was the absolute life of the party who lived her best life and it was a honor not only working beside her, but getting to know her. She will be greatly missed, but a piece of her lives on with each of us Peppercommers. We are better for having known her.” – Samantha Bruno, former manager of client relationships 

“She was always the most thoughtful person! No matter what was going on with her, she took the time to ask what’s new in your world. Every time I ever spoke to her, I knew she was really listening. She loved to laugh and I loved to make her laugh, too. R.I.P.”Clayton Fletcher, Comedian 

Aug 01

You’re Fired!

I’m impressed by the actions of Fallon, Olson Engage and Initiative to step up, stand out and fire their client Papa John’s in the aftermath of the N-word controversy.

Skeptics could argue that, by firing Papa John’s, each agency will now attract new, and more reputable, clients as a result. One could also surmise such a move will motivate existing employees to stay put while attracting recruits with a desire to work for an agency with ethics.

Perhaps.

But I can tell you as an owner of a 22-year-old firm, it’s very tough to walk away from guaranteed billings. Very tough indeed.

Setting aside higher purpose for a moment, the owners of Fallon, Olson Engage and Initiative also have a payroll to meet. And, that’s when an entrepreneur has to stop and think about the implications of firing a quasi blue-chip client like Papa John’s.

Sure, your Millennials will love telling their peers you did the right thing, and they work for an agency that places ethics above profits. And, in your mind, you HAVE done the right thing.

But then your CFO strolls into your office and says, “I truly respect your decision to deep-six Papa John’s, but it’s put us in a real bind. We either reconsider or reduce our workforce by 10 percent or put an indefinite freeze on raises and bonuses.”

And that, my friend, is why it’s so lonely at the top.

I’ve fired quite a few clients during my tenure as Peppercomm’s CEO. But, none were a result of what I’d call a societal crisis a la Papa John’s N word debacle.

I’ve deep-sixed clients because:

– They were beyond abusive to our account teams (I’d rather keep good people than uncouth clients).

– They poached a key employee without first extending the courtesy of asking my permission (a clear breach of ANY client-agency letter of agreement).

– They were actively interviewing other agencies while we were under contract and none the wiser to their Machiavellian machinations.

– They demanded too much for too little.

Having the spine to fire a client sends a strong message to one’s employees and reinforces the organization’s higher purpose. But, it’s a decision that carries serious financial implications as well (which I doubt the average account manager appreciates).

Firing Papa John’s would have been a no-brainer for me (regardless of the billings).

It’s the gray areas that keep turning what little hair I have left even grayer.

Jul 25

Animal Lovers Take Note

One can be excused for missing the various Obama-era regulations that are being overturned right and left by the current administration. But, one New York Times headline in particular caught my attention, “Push to weaken law protecting at-risk wildlife.”

According to the article, the Endangered Species Act, which has been on the books for 45 years is now under attack by the White House, lawmakers and, of course, ranching, logging and oil drilling lobbyists. Why? Because the act protected such rare animals as the gray wolf in Wyoming and the western Great Lakes, the sage grouse, a chicken-size bird that inhabits millions of oil rich acres in the West and the American Burying Beetle, yet another bane to oil-drilling companies.

In the past two weeks alone, more than two dozen pieces of legislation, policy initiatives and amendments designed to weaken  the Endangered Species Act have either been introduced or voted on in Congress.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of beetles (the insect, not the legendary group) or the sage grouse. But, I’ve always had the call of the wild in me and see myself as something of a lone gray wolf in an industry chock full of sameness.

But here’s the deal. I care about preserving wildlife for future generations and am vehemently opposed to destroying the environment and wiping out  endangered species just to create jobs in a country with a record-low unemployment rate.

It’s just plain wrong and beyond shortsighted.

The real losers are the next generations of Americans who will inherit a heavily polluted, deforested and endangered species free world. I wouldn’t want that for my grandchildren, but Trump Republicans seem to view the world through a different lens.

In fact, Richard Pombo, a former Congressman from California who more than a decade ago led an attempt to rethink the Endangered Species Act and, surprise, surprise, is now a lobbyist whose clients include mining and water management companies, said: “It’s probably the best chance that we have had in 25 years to make any substantial changes.” That’s scary, sobering and sad.

My Repman columns focus on image and reputation. And, if I were one of these gung-ho environmental opponents and climate-change deniers, I’d think long and hard about putting the final nail in the coffin of endangered species. I believe in karma. And, Trump Republicans will eventually reap what they’ve sown (or, in this case, strip-mined).

Politicians, be they Republican, Democratic or Independent have a moral and ethical responsibility to preserve, protect and defend our national treasures for future generations.

How nice would it be if the collective cohort aiming to eradicate the wolf, sage grouse and beetle were themselves put on an endangered species list? Alas, only voters can make that happen. And by the time the  midterms roll around, we may have seen the last of the wolf, grouse and beetle.

Jul 19

A culture of courage?

Thanks to the Papa John/Laundry Service imbroglio, the marketing world at large can be excused for missing a major societal crisis that recently engulfed Deloitte, the Big Four accounting firm.

In a nutshell, some 750 employees signed a petition calling for the firm to end its multiple consulting contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At the same time, a group of 100 or more employees protested outside Deloitte’s Manhattan headquarters holding up placards that read, “Shame, Shame. Shame.” And “Families Belong Together.

The petition, as well as an e-mail, were sent directly to Deloitte’s CEO, Cathy Engelbert. In addition to demanding Deloitte sever all ties with ICE, employees insisted the firm take a public stance against the Trump Administration’s  policy that resulted in migrant children being separated from their parents.

Engelbert responded with her own e-mail, saying she “appreciated” the employees’ concerns and added, “We often talk about fostering courageous conversations. That is what our culture of courage is all about.”

But, Deloitte did NOT sever its contractual arrangements with ICE. The leader of the firm’s governance practice informed employees (in yet another e-mail) that Deloitte had been working with immigration and border agencies for many years and said their work did not “directly or indirectly support the separation of families.” What , exactly, does that mean????

One other note: Deliotte’s contracts with ICE include one for administrative and data records management support services for the division dealing with detention and removal of unauthorized immigrants. It was signed in 2015 and is worth as much as $5.3 million, according to The New York Times.

To sum up, the firm decided:

  • To address a massive issue with e-mails.
  • To continue to work with ICE.
  • To hope employees would be satisfied with their non-response and refusal to stand up to the Trump Administration.

In my mind, Deloitte’s actions were the exact opposite of what a firm guided by a higher purpose should do.

  • First, and foremost, the communications team should have identified any, and all, potentially toxic client relationships such as ICE, anticipated employee pushback and developed a communications strategy months before the anti-ICE petition and picketing became front-page news.
  • Second, the CEO should have held an all-hands meeting that was video conferenced around the world to ALL employees. An e-mail simply doesn’t cut it and, if anything, reinforces how detached Engelbart is from the feelings of the rank-and-file.
  • Third, the firm should have initiated an internal audit of its relationship with ICE and made smart, values-driven decisions rather than continuing to invoice ICE and hope employees get back to their day jobs.

I’m not privy to the C-Suite thinking at Deloitte, but their actions and reactions tell me two things:

  • The firm lacks a higher purpose. Vision and values are fine. But, employees need to understand why the firm exists and why they should be passionate about showing up for work every day. The higher purpose would have guided their words and actions vis-à-vis ICE.
  • The courage of culture is akin to the lion in The Wizard of Oz. It lacks courage.