Jul 30

My card. My pain in the ass.

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Dandy Stevenson.

I hate cilantro and American Express. I’m rather good at avoiding cilantro but as an authorized
American-express-logo agent for Peppercom’s accounts, I am doomed to suffer the slings and arrows of this once premier and user friendly company.  Once upon a time, AmEx did have clout and lived up to its reputation of having responsive,  intelligent and capable customer service representatives who understood how to deliver and assure that cardholder issues were handled properly.

That was then, this is now. No matter if I call to transfer points to an airline account, respond to a suspicious charge inquiry or attempt to find out if a local office has Rubles, as soon as I hear “Thank you for calling American Express, with whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?” my stomach locks up and my eyes bleed.

My latest romp thru the AmEx Circle of Hell involved reporting a lost card and requesting a placement. I clickety-clicked thru their maelstrom of options, answering mindless questions (Recording: “I see you are requesting to report a lost card. If you are not sure press your nose, if you have blue eyes enter your phone number…”) and finally connected with a 'Customer Service Specialist' half-way around the globe. We were then on to the perfunctory introductions to hear “And how are you today Ms. Stevenson?”  (Don’t waste my time pretending to care while you finish filing your nails. I am tired of waiting. I want help. I want it now.)

But of course assistance still eluded me as I was passed from one subterranean being to the next, which, of course required my recounting the situation each time. I will spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that after teeth grinding delays and mindless prattle I was finally told the new card would be shipped immediately, for delivery the very next day.

Not.

After downing a fifth of bourbon to prepare for yet another AmEx frustration-fest I called on the third day to report that we had not received the card.  Guess what? Someone with the brains of a toaster announced to me that he had located my request but didn’t have verification of completion. Huh? Oh… Just like the Seinfeld car rental episode: “You know how to take a reservation, you just don’t know how to keep it.”  I wanted to jump through the phone, look this idiot in the eye and ask if he REALLY expected me to find that acceptable.

On day four we finally received replacement card.

I canceled my personal AmEx, which I’d had since 1980. For now, at least, that will have to be retribution enough.

Jul 29

Are You Ready for Some Football?

Today's guest post is by Greg Schmalz, President, Schmalz Communications

National Football League training camps open this week and six weeks from tomorrow 
American-football-2
(Thursday,  Sept. 9) Minnesota and the Saints square off in New Orleans in a rematch of last season’s NFC Championship game won by the eventual Super Bowl champion Black & Gold.

All eyes will be on Minnesota as there are a lot of questions surrounding the Vikings. Will running back Adrian Peterson hold out in a contract dispute? Will veteran quarterback Brett Favre return for yet another season?

Methinks that Peterson will report to training camp and Favre will play once again. He hasn’t ruled it out to this point and I doubt he would leave the team hanging. Then, again, it’s Brett Favre. He could show up in camp in late August and still be ready for the regular season opener.

The oppressive heat will once again be a major concern during training camps. It was nine years ago that Minnesota All-Pro offensive tackle Korey Stringer collapsed on the field and subsequently died from complications brought on by heat stroke. Athletic trainers will be tasked with keeping players and all personnel properly hydrated.

Then, of course, you have the RepMan’s beloved New York Jets. Despite finishing 9-7 during the regular season, the Jets showed some spark in the playoffs with road wins at Cincinnati and San Diego before losing to Indianapolis in the AFC Championship game.

A new coach and a new quarterback helped the Jets make some strides last season. Rex Ryan built an aggressive defense and limited rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez’ passing attempts. Rather conservative, but it worked.

What’s on the horizon for 2010? A new stadium that the Jets will again share with the Giants. But they’ll face a tougher schedule this season and they will have to open up the passing game that ranked next to last a year ago if they are going to be successful.

May want to enjoy it while you can, RepMan, because there’s a better than even chance that the players will strike next season as they struggle to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. The issues between the players union and the owners aren’t about money. It’s all about greed.
 
 
 

Jul 28

You don’t know how lucky you are, boy, back in the U.S.S.R.

Phoenix and its 116 degree heat and Manhattan with its hazy, hot and humid spell of six million
St-petersburg-russia straight, 90 degree days have nothing on St. Petersburg, Russia.

Having had the pleasure of touring the historic Czarist city the past few days, I can report on the following:

The Russians don't do air conditioning. Period. And, that's not a good thing. I thought London struggled with excessively high heat, but the Brits could learn a trick or two from the plucky Russians. Most merely shrug their shoulders, sigh and deal with it. As Pauline, our tour guide put it: “Your Mr. Albert Gore was sure right about his world warming theory, da?”

To begin with, there's St. Petersburg's overall miasma: daytime temperatures soar well in excess of 100 degrees (F). But, unlike Phoenix and it’s much heralded and over-hyped 'dry heat,' the humidity here is Vietnamese jungle-like in its intensity (courtesy of its proximity to the Baltic Sea).

Stir in absolutely no carbon dioxide emission standards whatsoever, never-ending road construction work which sears the air with a heady aroma of burning tar and a sun that, due to our extreme Northern exposure, doesn't set until 11pm and one gets hot, hot, hot to paraphrase another pop song.

But St. Petersburg's special charm is its cigarette-addicted populace. When it came to conquering the Russian population, Napoleon and Hitler should have studied Phillip Morris instead of Carl von Clausewitz. Nearly every uber attractive, scantily-clad Russian lass can be seen strolling the Neskiye Prospekt with a cigarette dangling from her lips. And, the men puff away just as enthusiastically. So, if you're an investor, hang onto your tobacco stocks- Phillip Morris is making a killing here, literally.

On the plus side, St. Petersburg has beautifully restored 17th and 18th century Russian Orthodox churches on virtually every street corner. They also have a subway system that is clean and cool. (Yes, I said, cool. I was actually thinking of bedding down in one for the night.) There are also lots of historic sites for the hyperactive tourist. (But, one morning of inhaling noxious fumes and sweating through my clothes many times over was enough to put a damper on any extended tours for this blogger.)
 
Another plus is the World War II memorabilia. The Russians proudly display many of the weapons used to fight back the Nazi siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg's name during the Communist regime). And, there's even a brief tour of the Astoria Hotel (not to be confused with NYC's Waldorf-Astoria) where Hitler had already made plans to host a gala celebration of the fall of Leningrad. (As our guide, Pauline, beamed, “So, he did not have the chance for that, no? So, instead, Stalin came here and he give big, big celebration.”)

I found it curious that there were no statues or murals of Stalin to be found, but Lenin is everywhere. I guess those 30 million mass murders tended to dampen the Russians' pride in Uncle Joe.

Anyway, my climbing team leaves St. Petersburg this morning for a day-long flight South to Mineral Vody in the Caucasus Mountains, where we begin our assault on 18,840 foot Mt Elbrus. With cell service being as scarce as tobacco and nicotine are plentiful, this blogger doubts he'll be able to file an update until we reach Moscow midweek of next week. Here's hoping in advance that Moscow copes with the heat a little bit better than its neighbor to the North.

St. Petersburg was nice to visit, but here's one comrade who wouldn't want to live there. Dasvedanya, Amerikanskis.

Jul 27

Would you turn down a job in this market?

That’s the question I batter around with Repchatter Co-Host Ted “Ludacris” Birkhahn, Alicia “Captain of the Peppercom Interns” Wells and seven, count ‘em seven, current Peppercom interns. You’ll hear our interns wax poetic on whether a job, any job at all, trumps being unemployed or whether holding out for one’s dream job is the way to go. You’ll also hear Eric the Intern answer each and every question by saying, “Well, it depends upon the situation.”

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Jul 26

Ministry of Silly Names

Today's guest post is by London Peppercommer Sandhya Shyam

Sounding suspiciously like Nineteen Eighty-Four Newspeak, the newly elected British government
Big-Society is  busily unfolding it’s most dramatic manifesto yet, Big Society. Yes, they actually named it Big Society, an umbrella phrase to describe what will be a gradual transfer of power from the state to the communities.  David Cameron and his merry troupes are busy announcing initiatives that will see volunteers and local community groups adopt significant administrative and policy control of local schools, rural housing schemes, post offices, libraries, museums  etc.– you know, those things called jobs that people used to get paid for. 

Cynicism aside, I actually genuinely appreciate the concept of empowering people and making communities responsible for issues that impact them directly. Britain for the last decade at least has suffered from being spoonfed.  Huge chunks of society happily depend on handouts and for the government to tell them what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Big Society, in theory at least, is designed to get people thinking for themselves again.

Though Britain has a strong culture of volunteerism, I wonder who actually will participate and where will they find the time? An Audit of Political Engagement in 2009, found that ‘half the public do not want to be involved in decision making in their local area and over half (55 percent) do not want to be involved at a national level.’ At the very least, perhaps Big Society might cure the curse of apathy. Still, who are these charmed few who will be running our country? I’m pretty sure that my own local despot will be the busybody at the end of our street who keeps reminding us that the plants in our window box are a little too tall.

Oh dear. 

Jul 23

And, now, it’s on to Mother Russia and let’s win there

This Sunday, Chris “Repman, Jr.”, Cody and I leave on a two-week trip to Russia. Our goal is to
Elbrus-map summit Mt. Elbrus in the Caucasus. If successful, it will enable us to lay claim to having bagged two of the world’s ‘Seven Summits.’ We celebrated New Year’s Eve 2007 on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, East Africa, and hope to top out on Elbrus on August 3rd.

‘Kili’ was a beast, and Elbrus looks to be no easier. At 18,481 feet, it’s Europe’s highest point. It’s a double-coned volcano that is wrapped in ice and snow (which, if nothing else, will provide a welcomed break from this horrific hazy, hot and humid weather we’ve been experiencing for the last month or so).

In addition to the climb, we’ll be touring St. Petersburg and Moscow (and, possibly, ducking stray bullets and mortar shells from irate Chechnyan rebels).

As I’ve done on my previous trips abroad, I’ll be asking locals their views on the image and reputation of the U.S. (being careful not to offend any irate Chechnyan rebels in the process). This is my first big trip abroad since Obama assumed office, so it will be interesting to see if, as was the case with his predecessor, I hear the locals say something to the effect, “We love Americans. We just hate your President.” Most Tea Party members, Evangelicals and Glenn Beck fans would probably say the same thing.

I hope to file at least one blog from the former Soviet Union if the vagaries of wireless connection enable me to do so. If not, Repman readers will be blessed by content provided by a host of able and willing guest bloggers who have volunteered to fill the void (however miniscule said void may be).

And, so I end by paraphrasing the final, immortal words of Senator Robert F. Kennedy: “And, now, it’s on to Mother Russia and let’s win there.”

Jul 22

RepMan’s Recommended Readings

Every now and then, I come across a book that alters my point of view on a subject or provides
Reading-a-book-on-the-bea-001 fresh thinking that stops me dead in my tracks. When those seminal events occur, I like to share what I’ve stumbled upon with others. And, in this case, all three recommended readings touch on image and reputation in some way, shape or form. So, drum roll please, here are three recommended reads for your summer pleasure:

1.)    “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. Regardless of your religious persuasions and beliefs, you owe it to yourself to read Dawkins’ treatise on creationism vs. evolution. He explores both the Old Testament and New Testament as well as the Koran, the writings of Confucius and every other latter-day spin-off (think Joseph Smith, Sun Myung Moon, etc.) In the text, Dawkins argues very convincingly that there is no afterlife. Dawkins doesn’t see atheism as a downer however but, rather, as a reason to live a fuller, richer life and to make the most of the precious time we have here on earth. The book is also chock full of amazing quotes, such as this one from Emily Dickinson: “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” The book also contains a fascinating chapter on Stalin and Hitler, and the possibility that the latter’s Catholic upbringing may have planted the original anti-Semitic views in his mind.

2.)    “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein. This is a MUST read for any animal lover in general and dog lover in particular. In my humble opinion, it runs rings around “Marley and Me”. The beauty of this book is that it’s written entirely from the dog’s, Enzo’s, point of view. In doing so, it provides some surprisingly insightful views on human behavior. “Art” also contains more plot twists and turns than a Formula One racing course but sadly, like Marley, ends with Enzo’s demise. Surprise, surprise, though, there’s a very cool epilogue that will leave you panting for more.

3.)    "100 Bullshit Jobs… and How to Get Them" by Stanley Bing. I love anything Bing writes. This 2006 handbook on the 100 easiest jobs in the world is a laugh out loud page turner. Bing skewers every occupation from personal publicist and media trainer to industrial psychologist and Tarot card reader. In the process, he ‘ranks’ the bullshit level of each job from 1-200 (with 200 being attained only by Donald Trump who, Bing says, cannot be topped for round-the-clock pure bullshit). In each job description, Bing provides such observations as ‘The Upside, The Downside and The Dark Side.’ In his description of someone who holds a top job at the strategic consulting firm, McKinsey, Bing’s upside is: “License to kill comes with the job” (referring to all the downsizing that McKinsey types do when they’re hired). The downside as: “People run away and hide in the AV closet when they see you coming” and the dark side as: “You are found with a chicken skewer through your neck at the client retreat in Boca.”

So, there you have it. Three totally different books with three totally different POVs that open one’s mind, make one think and cause one to laugh out loud. What more could a blogger ask for? Oh, one criticism of the Bing book, though: how did he not list medical supplies executive as one of the top 100 bullshit jobs of all time?

Jul 20

Who needs talent when you have teamwork?

Sitcom impresario Jerry Seinfeld paid a recent visit to the New York Mets broadcasting booth to
Jerry_seinfeld discuss everything from Keith Hernandez's legendary guest appearance on 'Seinfeld' to Lady Gaga's typically gross behavior at a recent Mets game.

Jerry told the viewing audience that he was really impressed with the 2010 Mets. In fact, he predicted they had what it takes to go all the way to the World Series this year. Jerry turned to Keith, and asked Hernandez what he thought. “Well,” Keith stammered. “They have a lot of heart, but the 2006 team had more talent.” To which Seinfeld responded, “Who needs talent when you have teamwork?"

As it turns out, you need both. And, as recent weeks have painfully shown, the Mets are mighty short on talent. To wit:

- They have an over achieving pitching corps that is now being chewed up by competitors.
- They have a less than formidable closer who is now being chewed up by competitors.
- They have an injury-prone shortstop/lead-off man who always seems to spend more time on the injury list than on the field.
- They have two outfielders who, in the grand tradition of Jim Fregosi, George Foster, Bobby Bonilla and Mo Vaughn, are clearly past their prime (read: over-the-hill).
- They have a general manager who makes all the wrong moves and should have been fired last season.

That said, the 2010 Mets do seem to pull together and support one another when the chips are down. But, that's not enough.

Teamwork alone isn't enough in business either. We need talented people who can strategize, write well, doggedly pursue the media and be creative when they hit stone walls. It's important that they get along and be supportive, but 'team' without talent gets you only so far.

The Mets are finding that out as we speak. They've lost four straight series and were crucified last night by the lowly Arizona Diamondbacks. Jerry Seinfeld knows humor, but he doesn't know baseball. Talent is just as important as teamwork.

Jul 19

RepMan, APR

So, did you notice those little three letters that follow my blogging nom de plume above? Pretty 
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darn impressive, no? The letters stand for Accredited in Public Relations. And, they are the subject of a surprisingly heated debate within the greater public relations hierarchy.

One earns an APR by successfully completing a three-hour, SAT-type test that probes one's views, actions and reactions to hypothetical crisis and brand challenges. Having successfully completed the test, a PR practitioner is considered accredited in public relations. Critically, he or she can henceforth have the APR letters printed on his or her business card.

I wouldn't bother writing about something so insignificant if it weren't for the following:

- An alarmingly large number of otherwise informed and intelligent PR executives actually believe the APR automatically implies quality counseling and leadership ability.
- This same cult believes APR is a critical component in making PR a more credible industry.
- The Public Relations Society of America refuses to allow anyone to hold a senior position without possessing said letters.
- The PRSA charges a hefty sum for individuals to take the test.

Here's the bottom line on the APR. It's a nice little test that agencies can use as part of an overall management training and development program. And, I'm sure it's an ego boost for John Smith or Jane Doe to add the APR to their business cards and correspondence. But, that's as far it goes.

The APR is not an M.D. It's not a Ph.D. and it's not even remotely close to being the equivalent of passing the bar or the Series Seven. In short, it's meaningless in the larger public relations and business worlds. Clients don't demand their agencies are staffed with APR-certified staff. In fact, the vast majority don't even know what it is. Those who do consider it worthless.

And, yet the tempest in the teapot rages on in the power circles of the PRSA. It's sad to see so many 'fundamentalists' hold on to their ancient, bogus beliefs and withhold leadership opportunities to the many highly competent executives who, like me, have never bothered to take the APR test. All this, mind you, while advertising, interactive and other marketing disciplines continue to blur the lines between what they and we do.

It's akin to fiddling while Rome burns.

Jul 16

We put the ‘cuss’ in customer service

I have never had a worse user experience than my ongoing, nightmarish relationship with New 
Njt1 Jersey Transit.

Today's train ride is a classic example. We've been stuck sitting just outside Penn Station for 40 minutes with absolutely no explanation whatsoever. Why? Because NJT is a public utility, has no competition and could care less about its image, reputation or customer service.

The NJT user experience is one, long holistic descent into a transit version of Dante's Inferno. It's not just the dirty trains, rude conductors and tardy arrivals. It's the quality of one's fellow passengers that puts NJT into the top slot of my personal 'Brands Hall of Shame.

My thanks to Scott Rosenbaum and Juke Box Hero Productions for sharing this recent photograph of a typical NJT passenger. Note the upscale attire and care with which he treats his seat. Thanks buddy. Right back at you.

In the past, I've suggested myriad taglines for NJT that would underscore its shoddy performance and enable it to deliver on a credible brand promise. Fellow Peppercommer Matt Purdue suggested a new one that I just love….

“NJT: We put the 'cuss' in customer service.”