Sep 30

A dicey proposition at best

I don't know Cohn & Wolfe CEO Donna Imperato, but I sure admire her moxie. Unlike most agency Donna-Imperato executives who've just lost a significant piece of client business, Imperato told PR Week exactly what was on her mind (insert link).

So, instead of the typical, “We're very proud of our work and wish the client well,” Imperato let loose with both barrels after the Hilton HHonors guest-loyalty program put their 20-year relationship up for bid. Imperato said CW not only refused to participate (which makes sense since incumbents almost never win), but also threw in a few very pointed barbs at the erstwhile client.

According to PRWeek, Imperato alleged the strategic platform CW presented in a previous review is now the basis for the client's "Go Hilton. Stay Everywhere." global advertising campaign. She also said the agency switcheroo had been caused by “international management shakeups, a layoff of half the workforce and significant internal changes at Hilton.” Wow. Talk about airing dirty laundry.

A Hilton spokesman fought back. He said CW's sister agency Y&R had created the campaign and that it had already been in place when Imperato's team made its presentation. He also deflected Imperato's claim about downsizing, stating, “To say that we laid off half our employees is not accurate.”

PRWeek noted that, despite the HHonors awards program loss,  CW remains AOR for Hilton's Doubletree and Hampton brands.

I really admire Donna's chutzpah for calling out a misbehaving client. More agency leaders need to do so, so that media such as PRWeek get the message that all client-side executives aren't saints (as they're typically depicted in the publication's various cover stories).

That said, I'll bet Imperato's in a little bit of hot water within WPP, the holding company that owns CW and Y&R (along with 3,000 other agencies). In one fell swoop, she undermined her own firm's long-term opportunities with the two remaining Hilton brands while also shining an unwanted spotlight on Y&Rs work for the client (i.e. who really created the campaign? Y&R or CW?).

Holding companies do not like internecine warfare. And, as a WPP alum, I'm guessing this article is causing quite a bit of angst at the moment.

Donna's words were a dicey, if brave, proposition. I admire her transparency and wish her and CW the best in salvaging what must now be a very difficult client relationship.

Sep 29

Hit the road, Jack. You too, Efrem.

According to a recent CBS Morning News segment there's a growing grassroots movement to ban 100909-screamingsign-hmed-6a.grid-4x2   or segregate screaming toddlers from such public domains as restaurants and airplanes. And I,  for one, heartily applaud the effort. 

Nothing can ruin a dining experience faster than a yelping baby at the next table. Likewise, I'd compare any flight to, or from, Orlando as aviation's version of Dante's Inferno. Just about every Air Disney plane is chock full of screaming kids hopped up on sugar. They'll barrel up and down the aisles, fall all over themselves and often fling their Mickey Mouse ears at some luckless adult passenger. While the kids run amok, mom and dad either snooze, shrug their shoulders and smile or crank up their iPods.

The call for a little kids crackdown is overdue and, I believe, a direct result of the hands-off parenting we're seeing in modern society. For whatever reason, more and more parents have abdicated responsibility for their child's education, diet and behavior. And, as regards at least the latter, the rest of us are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

It wasn't always this way. My dad wouldn't stand for bad behavior in public from his three sons. And, Ang and I reigned in Chris and Cat whenever they acted out. In fact, I'll never forget a brutal dining experience with a young Repman, Jr.. Chris couldn't have been more than two years old at the time, but he was on total overdrive that particular night. His banshee-like cries and Wrestlemania-like jumps, body slams and falls stunned fellow diners and forced us to beat a hasty retreat home. We were embarrassed and didn't want to subject others to the youngster's recklessness.

That sort of parental responsibility doesn't seem to happen very often these days. Instead, little Jack and Efrem are given license to run roughshod like some miniaturized, modern version of the Visigoths.

My personal bete noir is the kid sitting in the row behind me on a plane who continually pulls, punches and kicks my seat. I also adore the rotten tot who decides to run laps around his table and mine at a nice restaurant, completely destroying an enjoyable dinner.

I do hope the grass roots program I heard about on CBS takes hold. We should restrict misbehaving kids to the back of the plane or a separate section of the restaurant. Case in point, a restaurant in NC has banned unruly children and the owner says business has increased as a result. The world would be a slightly saner place if more restaurants followed suit.  Better yet, we should limit the number of flights and fine dining establishments that accept kids under the age of two.  But until then, look out for that kid with the applesauce! I think he's about to fling it your way!

Sep 28

Fair, balanced and well compensated

TODAY'S GUEST POST IS BY PEPPERCOMMER BETH STARKIN.

A post in Monday's POLITICO highlighted an interesting issue in that four of the anticipated  GOP candidates for the 2012 election are currently on FOX’s payroll.  This raises several concerns from both a communication and reputation standpoint, with the overarching issue that this essentially gives each of these potential candidates the opportunity to be paid to disguise Fox-news-gop their campaigning as news.  Despite the “fair and balanced” tagline, being on FOX’s payroll offers these politicians an opportunity that is anything but. 

Unlike other candidates, who will have to answer to reporters who may question their stances and proposed policies, these individuals have free reign to spread their messages without needing to answer to anyone but themselves.  In fact, no-compete clauses in the contracts of each pretty well guarantee that they won’t have to answer tough questions from other journalists, as they are forbidden from appearing on other stations.  When no one can challenge you, it’s pretty easy to keep your reputation intact and make the case that your solutions are best.

And what about the other candidates?  Is it fair that they will be up against a competitor who has unbridled access to the media, who in fact is being paid to share his/her opinions and publically stump?  I dare say, no.  They will have to fight that much harder to gain even the same level of recognition as their commentator competition, much less support for their stances and agendas.

As for all the other media outlets, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  How can you cover an election when you don’t have access to many of the expected candidates?  Is it fair to throw down the gauntlet and openly question stances and positions when the person being questioned isn’t available to answer?  Can you just ignore legitimate concerns because someone can’t appear on your station? 

Unfortunately, it’s the American people who are ultimately hurt because they can’t get access to the full picture about our candidates for the most important job someone can hold in this country.

Sep 27

“A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship.”

Those aren’t my words. They were spoken by John D. Rockefeller who, if memory serves, knew a  Rockefeller-7 little bit about business. And, although I’m not a fan of billionaires past or present, I do find profound wisdom in JRock’s words. You see, I’ve started, and conducted, business with friends and it’s almost always gone south.

While Ed and I were friends when we started Peppercom, it was a business friendship that had been forged through the ‘Romper Room’ days of Earle Palmer Brown and the Kremlin-like autocracy of Brouillard. Just like some of the case studies mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell’s amazing book, ‘The Outliers.’  Ed and I had probably already logged some 10,000 hours of working together before we ever hung up the Peppercom shingle. We may have been nascent entrepreneurs, but we were tried and tested public relations executives.

Compare that example with the several times my friend, Tommy, and I have tried to help each other out in business. Thos, as he is also known, reached out to me first, hiring my firm to do some corporate ID/branding assignments for the credit union he was running at the time. It started out well enough, but soon I was receiving some rather unpleasant calls from Le Poer (another one of Tommy’s monikers) questioning an invoice. The situation quickly escalated and we agreed to disengage. Now, fast forward to a time when I was able to reciprocate. It occurred when Ed and I started our very own dotcom firm, called PartnershipCentral. This was at the height of dotcom mania and, like everyone else, we figured we’d be multimillionaires within a few months. So, Ed spun out of Peppercom to run P’Central and hired 26 souls to staff it (a ragtag bunch if ever there was one, BTW). TLP (yet another one of Tommy’s aliases) was one of the few, decent employees we hired. If memory serves, he headed up research. But, when the dotcom bubble burst, guess who had to be laid off along with 25 other luckless people? Tommy. And, while it didn’t damage our friendship, it certainly didn’t help either.

I’ve also crossed the line with Dave Mandell, a good friend from long ago who resurfaced to hire us. Having Dave as a client, no matter how well he treated us, nonetheless put a strain on a friendship that, happily, remains very strong.

Ed’s done work with more ‘friends’ than me. In fact, his extended network of friends and contacts has become affectionately known as The Moed Mafia within Peppercom. It’s been the source of some great new business (as well as some totally bizarre dead ends). But, I’ll leave it to him to comment on whether mixing business and friendship works. I don’t think it does.

That said, I sincerely appreciate new business and prospective employee leads that come from my friends. But, I’ve learned enough to know by now that I’ll never cross the line again. JRock’s words are spot on: a friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship.

Sep 24

Lovely to see you again, my friend

Hundreds, if not thousands, of souls have toiled at Peppercom over the years. Reunion-full

Now, as we mark our 15th anniversary, we pay homage to the past with our first alumni event. It's scheduled for Tuesday, October 19th, from 6-8pm at the decidedly downscale, yet strangely appropriate, Desmond's Tavern 433 Park Ave. South, between 29th and 30th streets.

Those of you who have re-connected with us at the Peppercom Alumni LinkedIn site can obtain additional information- i.e. what we'll pay for, what you'll be stuck paying for, Ed's choice of wardrobe for the event, the location of stairwells for those of you who used them at Peppercom for nefarious purposes, etc.

Our alumni have pursued myriad career paths since departing. Some have become full-time moms. Others have become landscape architects or teachers. And, yes, one has even become a bellicose medical supply executive. We don't care what path you've chosen, just beat one to the front door of Desmond's on the appointed date and hour.

So, whether you were with us at the beginning a la Efrem Luigi Epstein, worked endless hours during the frenzied dotcom days a la Dominic Albanese, suffered through the dotcom bust a la Stacy Calder, staggered through the Great Recession a la Coach Zanzal or simply packed up your tent and went to a smaller start-up a la Stein, you'll be welcomed back with open arms (as long as you bring your own credit cards, that is).

As The Moody Blues sang, “It'll be lovely to see you again, my friend.”

Sep 23

Going mobile (and global)

Monica Teague, Senior Manager, PR, Brand Business Teams, Whirlpool, Tom Topinka, Public Relations Leader, Genworth and Amber Harris, Manager of Digital Communications for Discovery Communications work for completely different businesses and are faced with completely different communications challenges.

But, as you’ll hear in the second part of the podcast we recorded to mark Peppercom’s 15th anniversary, all three agree the future will be dominated by mobile and global communications.

Let us know what you think. Do you agree with our guests? Or, is there some other soon-to-emerge technology or movement that will supersede mobile and global?  Click on the gray bar below, and enjoy.


Sep 22

When in doubt, blame others

Birds don't do it. Bees don't do it. But, big business sure does it. “It” is blaming others for one's Blame-game mistakes.

The latest example came a few days ago when my beloved, primary source of commutation, NJ Transit, blamed Amtrak for its record 1,400 delays this past summer.

Talk about the summer from hell. NJT experienced 1,400 delays in a period of 90 days! Now, I'm not a math wizard, but that adds up to a staggering 150 or so delays a day. I'm surprised any of their damn trains moved at all.

But, hey, don't blame NJT. It wasn't their fault. A lead spokesperson pointed the finger at Amtrak, from whom NJT leases 'track time' on the Northeast Corridor. He said that, since Amtrak has always been underfunded by the government and unable to keep pace with needed maintenance, NJT really isn't to blame for overheated 20-year-old locomotives, overhead wires that drooped in the heat and electric power interruptions. That's the business equivalent of a kid saying the dog ate his homework.

To add insult to injury, NJT also implemented an across-the-board fare hike this summer. That's akin to charging the Titanic passengers a surcharge for life jackets.

NJT officials certainly aren't alone when it comes to pointing fingers at others. BP has made it something of an art form. So, too, have Wall Street executives who shrugged their shoulders when the markets collapsed but happily continue to pocket record bonuses.

No one's better at obfuscation, though, than religious leaders. My favorite is Brother Harold Camping, a Bible expert who holds court on a national cable channel.

The 90-year-old, hearing impaired, former engineer sits in a dilapidated studio, holding a Bible and entertaining questions from viewers. But, whenever an above-average viewer stumps Brother Camping with one of the Bible's countless contradictions, he claims not to have heard or understood what was just asked. So, he thanks the viewer for her question and simply hangs up. It's hilarious to watch.

Recently, the self-proclaimed Bible authority was thrown a real caller curve: “Brother Camping,” said the caller, “please explain how the Bible preaches an eye for an eye in one section but advises us to turn the other cheek in another?” Brother Camping squinted at the camera, fidgeted in his chair and finally responded by saying, “Unless you can cite the specific passages, I can't answer. But, thank you for calling Open Forum.” Classic dodge.

Brother Camping has somehow added, multiplied, subtracted and divided various 'mathematical clues' in the bible and declared that May 22, 2011, will be the end of the world. About 15 years ago, he made a similar prediction. But, when the day came and went without an apocalyptic event, Brother Camping pulled an NJT (or, BP if you prefer) and blamed a faulty computer.

Isn't it great to be living in a society with no accountability? Hey, my train's delayed again! At least I know it's Amtrak's fault.

Sep 21

The Raymond J. Carroll School of Management

Every now and then, Ed and I get it right. By it, I mean hiring superstars. IMG_0713

We did it when we hired Lee Stechmann, our original office manager (and, we did it when we hired his successor, Catherine Mok).

We did it again when we hired a wet-behind-the-ears Edward M. ‘Ted’ Birkhahn about a decade ago. Ted is now our president and was recently named to PR Week’s 40 under 40.
But, we really hit the trifecta with Raymond J. Carroll, our current receptionist.

Calling Ray a receptionist is like calling Muhammad Ali a boxer or Mozart a musician. Ray is so much more. Since joining us a year or so ago, Ray has rocked our world. He’s beloved by clients, prospective clients, employees, vendors, and just about everyone who comes into contact with Peppercom. He’s our brand ambassador, a can-do, go-to guy who never says no to any request.

Having spent years representing the likes of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and UNC’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business, I know the faculty and students of each could learn a lesson or two from The Raymond J. Carroll School of Management. So, why not share Ray’s POV on his job, his firm and his role as brand ambassador?

1)    You seem to have endeared yourself to everyone. What’s your advice for managing up, down and across an organization?
I reciprocate any attitudes projected toward me.  Like a mirror, I reflect what Peppercom shows me.  Life is hectic, especially professional life. Taking the time to treat people as people will establish a level of comfort.  Obviously, people have varying responsibilities, but everyone should be treated equally.  My advice for managing across an organization would be to praise good actions while analyzing and correcting counter-productive ones.     

2)    You’re our first point of contact with the outside world. What sort of experience do you want to create for each and every visitor?
I extend a cordial, accommodating presence to make people comfortable.  A receptionist should be able to provide information and/or assistance, just like a hotel concierge.  I’m attentive and I offer assistance to all guests.  In doing so, I follow the advice a friend once gave me: a lady or gentleman is a person who takes the time to be sure everyone is comfortable, and he/she always puts others before themselves.  I have this outlook outside the office as well. It’s a characteristic likely instilled by my mother and a testament to how she raised me. 

3)    Describe your job responsibilities:
To borrow a sports analogy, I’d liken myself to a utility man.  I’m willing to fill any voids necessary, for the good of the team.  From mailroom duties and moving filing cabinets to grocery shopping and changing light bulbs, I do it all. I also assist on monthly reports, and write guest blogs.

4)    How do you handle rude guests, phone callers, or fellow employees such as Ed?
Aside from Ed, I’ve yet to have an ‘encounter of the rude kind’ here at the office. That could be because my definition of “rude” is exceptional.  (please see response to question 5).  In my personal life, I believe it’s important to take the high road but also being sure a rude person’s made aware of how he or she is acting.  No one wants to be treated disrespectfully. If you gently point that out, you’ll usually see some bit of contrition (with the possible exception of Ed). 

5)    What path led you to our doors?
When I was younger, I didn’t have much patience for office life. In fact, my few attempts at it were short lived. I may have just needed more action in my day. That said, I’ve now accepted that ‘slow and steady’ wins the race.

Career wise, I’d tended a bar for nearly a decade, held some off-the-book construction jobs, a variety of temp work, and even a job at Yankee Stadium’s money room thumbing through George Steinbrenner’s dirty cash.  Tending bar exposed me to many of life’s negative elements, which became fine examples of which routes not to follow.  The variety of bar cliental exposed me to some decent, but mostly animalistic, conduct (rude was redefined here).  In all jobs it was a necessity to establish a rapport with folks I wouldn’t necessarily have much in common with. that said, each of these positions opened my eyes a quite bit. I’ve worked with persons from all walks of life.

6.) What are your professional goals?
My goal is to build a professional relationship that will afford my family and me comfortable lives.  Simply stated, I need to provide happiness for others. And, in this world isn’t, happiness doesn’t come for free.  That said, it’s in my best interest to establish myself while proving myself worthy of long-lasting employment. I believe every new day in life leads to improvements.  Learning and growing in both professional and personal realms is my life’s objective. 

7.) What’s your number one piece of advice for any brand ambassador at any organization?
Live your brand, walk the walk and talk the talk.  If you’re in a service industry, serve like no other.”

How’s that for a 30-second M.B.A.,?

Sep 20

You want skin with your coffee?

It's somehow comforting to know terrible customer service isn't the sole domain of New Jersey Panera1 Transit. It's actually alive and well in tony Brookline, Massachusetts, where the local Panera eatery may employ the most illiterate employees north of Secaucus Junction.

We frequent the Coolidge Corner Panera whenever we visit Repman, Jr.  (who lives nearby and pursues his master's degree in history at the white hot Northeastern University).

So, our dismal customer experience this past Sunday morning was in no way unique. Allow me to explain.

While it boasts a Peet's or Starbucks-like environment replete with soft jazz music, overstuffed chairs and Kindle-toting patrons, Panera's similarity to the higher-end chains ends there.

Once one survives a long wait on line, one places an order that must, repeat, must fall strictly within the guidelines of the menu. So, for example, if one prefers his egg whites without a bagel, the conversation quickly deteriorates faster than a Mets' fan's hopes in late Spring.

“You no want bagel?” the counter attendant asked me. “No,” I replied. “Just the eggs. Thanks.” He shook his head. “Not on menu. What type bagel?” I tried explaining my desire for bagel-free egg whites, but he continued to resist.

Finally, after a moment or so, he shouted, “Margie!”

Out strode a middle-aged woman who clearly knew the ropes. “What's the issue, sweetie?” She asked me. I explained there was no real issue, just a desire to be bagel free. She sighed, shook her head in a disapproving way, whispered something into the attendant's ear and, magically, my order was placed.

Next came my wife's trial by fire. Her order was simpler: a walnut raisin muffin and large coffee with skim milk. “You want skin with coffee?” The attendant asked incredulously. “No,” said my wife, “skim milk.” The server was completely baffled. “Skin?” Being the provocateur that I am, I stepped forward and added, “Yeah, and would you mind throwing in a finger or two, a spleen and some toenails?” This wasn't a language barrier, mind you. The attendant spoke English. He simply didn't, or wouldn't, respond to the request.

Back came Margie. If looks could kill, Ang and I would be dead on arrival. “What's the issue this time?” She sniffed. My wife said she wanted skim milk with her coffee. Margie didn't answer. Instead, she just pointed behind us to a partially obscured stand containing various types of milk and cream.

We grabbed our food and sat down, shaking our heads at yet another horrific user experience. While it was conveniently located to my son's spacious bachelor pad, we decided to place Panera on our endangered species list.

When will brands understand that customer service has become the new public relations? Billboards outside the Brookline Panera boast of its steaming hot coffee, wide assortment of bagels, croissants and breakfast fare. And, of course, the billboards come replete with photographs of smiling customers.

My visceral reaction to the marketing materials was similar to the one I experience whenever an NJT conductor announces an indefinite delay, but doesn't bother to add why it was caused or how long it would last.

Until, and unless, brands begin closing the gaps between what their marketing messages boast and what an end user experiences, they'll continue to lose customers (and, all the time, be at a complete loss as to the exact reason why).

We went into Panera hungry for breakfast. We left feeling like a combination of Jack Nicholson's character in 'Five Easy Pieces' and some sort of real-world Hannibal Lecter, who'd just ordered skin with their coffee.

So, note to Rep, Jr.: track down a new eatery in Coolidge Corner. Panera has bungled its last order for the Cody Clan. Oh, and I'll take an eyebrow to go with my egg whites.

Sep 17

Feeding the Beast

500x_cargood Thanks to last night’s horrific and totally unexpected thunderstorm, the New York media Beast has been sated. For now, that is.

The Beast had been grumpy of late. Highly-touted Hurricane Earl, predicted by many tri-state weathermen to be the worst hurricane to threaten New York since 1938, had hung a right turn instead and headed out to the Atlantic. So, instead of downed power lines, battered beaches and terrified citizens, the media Beast was left with hours and hours of ‘filler’ time. The ‘total team coverage’ every station had set to go had to stand down. And, most maddening of all for the Beast, the anticipated ratings increases never materialized.

Then, like manna from heaven, came yesterday’s mother of all storms. And, trust me, it was a world-class event of biblical proportions. Thunder, lightning, hail and incredibly strong winds shook Manhattan like a rag doll, shut down power at my beloved Penn Station and ended up stranding tens of thousands of Long Island Railroad commuters (note to tri-state readers: Ever wonder why the most horrific traffic, weather and news always seems to impact Long Island?).

The media Beast gorged itself on the storm’s offerings. Regular programming was interrupted. Teams were dispatched to scores of severely-affected areas in Brooklyn, Queens and, of course, the Island. Cameras showed downed trees, smashed cars and storefront windows blown to smithereens. It simply didn’t get any better for the Beast. Soon, reports began coming in that the storm might, in fact, have been a tornado. The Beast loved the ‘T’ word and continued suggesting such an event had, indeed, occurred.

The Beast’s representatives also succeeded in interviewing countless storm victims and somehow, some way, induced each and every one to agree that he or she had never, ever, seen the likes of Thursday’s storm (i.e. “I’ve been living in Bed-Stuy for 51 years and I’ve never seen nothing like this!”).

It was good. Very good. The coverage went on throughout the night and into the early morning. As might be expected, the Beast positioned camera crews at Penn Station this morning to intercept incoming Long Islanders. ‘How was your commute?’ shouted one CBS reporter to a passenger. ‘Fine. Just fine,’ she replied. Undaunted by such a positive response, the reporter kept his head and nailed the commuter with a follow-up: ‘But, last night was horrible, right?’ The commuter smiled, shrugged her shoulders as if to say, ‘such is life’ and continued on. Damn. That was not good. There was no hype. No fear. No indication that this particular person’s world hadn’t been crushed like so many trees.

But, back in the studio, all was well. The weatherman beamed as he relayed the news that the National Weather Service was conducting an investigation and would decide sometime later today if, in fact, yesterday’s storm had been a tornado. Wow. A tornado in Manhattan? It simply doesn’t get any better for the Beast.

And, so, as the hype and ersatz concern in the voices of reporters began to fade away, the Beast began to hunker down. It was content knowing it had done everything possible to not only cover but, indeed, escalate the drama and hype of this gift from heaven. The Beast had been fed.