Jul 15

Best of the Best Part II

For the second installment of Rep's "Best of the Best" re-posts we're reprising his missive on Comcast's horrible customer service. It first ran on March 10, 2009 and prompted a comment, email and phone call from Comcast Customer Service and restoration of Rep's cable service.

See what you think. BTW, we welcome fresh comments on a still highly relevant topic…

Thanks for Choosing Comcast. An Additional $4.95 Will Be Automatically Charged to Your Account for Speaking to a Live Customer Service Representative

6a00d8341c39e853ef011279454d7a28a4 Comcast customer service is an oxymoron. The monopolistic cable giant is one of, if not, the worst examples of poor customer service. In fact, I'd put Comcast right at the top of my all-time "rude, indifferent and boorish behavior" rankings alongside TSA agents, NJ Transit conductors and my St. Francis Grammar School nuns.

Every few months or so, Comcast arbitrarily yanks my basic and pay-per-view service. And every time it happens, we call to complain. And, every time it Comcast happens, we're greeted by a voice mail explaining that our payment is "overdue." We then punch another button, enter our check number and are told checks typically take 72 hours to clear. Growing increasingly frustrated by the automated ineptness and our knowledge that the payment was mailed weeks earlier, we keep punching various options.

Finally, after being told we should punch "2" for Spanish and "8" for "Urdu," we're told we can speak to a "live customer service representative," but an additional $4.95 will be automatically billed to our account. Say what! You've screwed up for the umpteenth time and you have the unmitigated gall to bill me to speak to a live person to fix it? What's wrong with this equation? That would be like an innkeeper charging extra to rid my sleeping quarters of bed bugs.

But, since Comcast (like a certain law firm that shall remain nameless) is a total monopoly, what's a poor cable viewer to do? So, we punched the live person button, spoke to a nice, but ineffectual, CSR who first told us our account was overdue, then verified they'd received our check and finally confirmed that, sadly, checks took 72 hours to clear. We told this live, if somewhat dim, person that the check had been sent weeks ago. The light bulb finally went on and he promised he'd "re-boot" our system ASAP and service would be returned right away.

That was Thursday night. By Monday morning, there was still no Comcast service.

Comcast's horrific business practices are just one of one zillion reasons why America finds itself in the fix it's in. We vent and we blog, but in the end, we keep paying for what amounts to criminal performance.

Jul 14

The best of the best

Six years iWhile Repman beats back black flies, bats and mosquitoes in northern Maine, we thought we'd  reprise the very best (and most controversial) blogs in Repman's six-year run.

Today's blog first appeared on July 24, 2009.  It generated more than two dozen comments and prompted no fewer than three separate articles in O'Dwyer's. In the blog, entitled, 'Useless. Useless', Steve questioned the value of the PRSA's APR certification.

See what you think. BTW, we welcome fresh comments on a still highly relevant topic…

Useless. Useless.

I've just received an e-mail from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) encouraging me to sign up for an intensive, four-day APR preparation boot camp.

For the unenlightened, APR is an ersatz credential that has been bandied about for decades as proof positive that one is, indeed, accredited in public relations. I've been reluctant to comment publicly about APR because, frankly, I didn't want to offend some industry leaders who actually believe the APR is meaningful.

But, the time has come to take off the gloves and enter the fray. An APR is worthless. It's never meant anything to any client organization I've ever encountered. Nor has it ever made one iota of difference in considering a prospective employee's strengths and weaknesses.

Created long ago and far away, the APR has always lacked any real teeth and is based on a false assumption: that a PR pro should master rules and regulations in the same way a doctor or lawyer must. But, because PR is an art and not a science, there are no hard and fast rules, regulations, practices, policies or procedures that a public relations professional must study and then prove competence in some sort of 'bar exam.' One earns his or her stripes in PR in one way, and one way only: through the School of Hard Knocks.

The APR is even more irrelevant in today's social media environment in which black has become white, and vice versa. Controlled, top-down, inside-out communication has gone the way of the carrier pigeon. And, no four-day boot camp or three-day written exam is going to help me learn to listen or react any better to the quicksilver changes being made by consumers who now decide with whom they wish to speak, as well as when and where.

I wish Dr. Kevorkian could euthanize this bogus test (and credential) once and for all. In the meantime, I'll continue to associate the APR with the immortal final words of John Wilkes Booth who, having been mortally wounded by pursuing Union soldiers, looked at his hands and uttered, “Useless. Useless.”

Jul 12

Nothing to Bloody Smile About

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer (and UK citizen) Carl Foster.

As the world’s preeminent media mogul, you might expect Rupert Murdoch to have this public relations thing down pat. Evidence would suggest otherwise. NOTW

Let’s ignore the fact that Murdoch-owned News International has ignored the standard PR crisis modus operandi of ‘tell it all, tell it early’. When an investigator working for Britain’s largest selling Sunday newspaper, The News of the World, was jailed in 2007 for hacking into the phones of royals and celebrities, the News International hierarchy must have known that this was just the beginning. Coming clean was never on the agenda though and the level of institutional obfuscation, with thousands of deleted emails, is only now becoming apparent. For News International, and its parent company, News Corp, ‘tell it all, tell it early’ became ‘tell nothing and circle the wagons’.

Anyway, back to the here and now. Much was made of Murdoch flying to London to take charge of the crisis, a crisis that has ballooned from hacking the phones of celebs to that of a murdered schoolgirl, families of soldiers killed in Iraq and possibly even the families of 9/11 victims. So, when Murdoch’s plane touched down you’d think it would be an ideal chance to make a short statement about sorting this mess out. But no. Instead, the evidence of his presence in Britain was a sneaked snapshot of him driving away from the airport looking like the man from Del Monte.

Next, Murdoch went to his Mayfair apartment to meet Rebekah Brooks, the editor of NOTW at the time of the alleged hackings and now chief executive of News International. Murdoch and Brooks are close; according to The Economist they share an almost familial bond. It is understandable they would want a tête-à-tête before heading into the breach, but the meeting was badly managed.

First, they met in Mayfair. In the British version of Monopoly, Mayfair is the last place on the board before you collect your £200. Nothing like reinforcing the image of being an elitist.

Second, when they emerged they were dressed with all the gravity of a Sunday afternoon game of bowls in Henley-on-Thames. When an investigator working in your name hacked into the cell phone of a missing schoolgirl and deleted messages, which gave hope to her parents that she was alive when in fact she was dead warrants at least a tie, don’t you think?

Third, they are smiling! Bloody smiling!

Fourth, and this is the clincher, with thousands of people all over Britain wondering what intrusion might have occurred in their worst moments of personal tragedy, Murdoch was asked what his top priority was. Punishing those responsible? Giving what compensation might be possible to those affected? No. His answer? ‘This One’, referring to Rebekah Brooks.

This story has got a long way to run. Some are calling it Britain’s Watergate. Whatever the case, News International should try and avoid making matters worse for itself with poor public relations.

Jul 11

Beating them to the punch

Ogilvy PR just fired the California High-Speed Rail Authority. In so doing, the firm walked away  from a four-and-a-half year, $9mm contract.

I-dontaaa Ogilvy fired the client after hearing through the grapevine that some CHSRA officials weren't pleased with the work and planned to terminate the agency relationship.

  This is big news for two reasons:

A) Ogilvy PR walked away from a huge budget. Regardless of the rumors being circulated, it takes serious guts to walk away from something that big without first putting up a fight.

B) The Daily Dog reported the news. PR trades cover 'reverse firings' less often than Fox runs positive pieces about the Obama Administration.

So, three cheers for Ogilvy PR and The Daily Dog.

Agencies seldom find about impending terminations in advance. But it does happen. I'll never forget the time it happened to me.

We were representing a tech company at the height of the dotcom craze. As was usually the case at the time, the client paid us a serious monthly retainer, expected 24×7 access to our team, routinely mistreated them and began complaining about poor results about three days into the relationship.

Since that sort of client behavior was de rigueur in those crazy, hazy days, I didn't think much of it. We were growing at a 100 percent clip annually, so we just assumed such behavior came with the turf.

That was, until, I interviewed a prospective employee. At that point, talent was so scarce most agencies were hiring pretty much anyone who could walk and chew gum at the same time. This particular guy could. So, as I was wrapping up the interview, I told him he'd be working on the brand new, high maintenance, dotcom account. “Oh, I know them well. We just pitched them,” he said in response.

I smiled. “Yeah,” I said, “They told us we'd beaten four or five very good firms.” He shook his head. “No. I mean we JUST pitched them earlier this week.”

After my anger had subsided and I verified the facts, I called the client. As was her wont, she began the call with a complaint, “Oh, hi, Steve. You know, you guys never sent yesterday's end-of-day report. That's unacceptable.” I cut her off at the pass. “Diane,” I asked, “Are you interviewing other agencies?” Dead silence.

She finally coughed and said, “Ah, yes.” She tried to continue, but I cut her off again. “Then, this relationship is over. You're fired. I'll e-mail the termination notice this afternoon.”

Man, that felt good. And, I hope the fine folks at Ogilvy PR are feeling good right now despite the loss in fees. I respect agencies that walk away from badly behaving clients. And, employees respect managers with the chutzpah to do the right thing. Now, all we need is the trade press to provide some crack investigative reporting like The Daily Dog just did.

Jul 08

Ignorance is gender neutral

Dumb-and-DumberEver take note of the steady drumbeat of male bashing in print ads, TV commercials, sitcoms and  movies? It's not overt but, like death and taxes, it's something you can count on.

Here's a quick case in point. Doubleclick on this current State Farm commercial and tell me what you see. What I see are three separate examples of absurdly stupid men who spend the savings from their low-cost State Farm policies on such idiotic items as falcons. Note how the clever, level-headed wife uncovers the mystery of the missing money, who spent it (her hubby) and on what (the bird).

I wouldn't be writing this blog if the State Farm spot had included even one dopey woman. But, it doesn't. All three morons are men. In fact, if Madison Avenue creative directors and Hollywood screenwriters were asked to describe the average American male, they'd use adjectives such as: clueless, idiotic, helpless, befuddled and overwhelmed. Ask the same influencers to describe the average American female and you'd hear such superlatives as: bright, engaged, sensitive and multi-tasking (re: the latter, journeyman comic Darryl Salerno likes to ask, “If women are such great multi-taskers, how come they can't have sex and a headache at the same time?” His words. Not mine).

Want another insurance sector example of subliminal male bashing? Look no further than Geico's brilliant caveman campaign. How come the tagline doesn't state, “Insurance made so simple even a cavewoman could understand it”? The answer is obvious: we've been programmed to just accept the fact that men are stupid. So, ipso facto, cavewomen were smarter than cavemen.

I've been around long enough to know there are just as many ignorant women as men. But, our entertainment gurus have decided otherwise.

It doesn't bother me. But, it SHOULD bother you if you're a mom or dad of impressionable boys and young men because it's reinforcing a negative stereotype in their minds. And, conversely, girls and young women are being told they're superior to boys and, aside from procreation, really don't need them for much of anything.

Feminists might argue that men have no one to blame but themselves for the negative stereotyping. But, for every Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods, there's a Casey Anthony, Tonya Harding and the former governor of Alaska. Ignorance is gender neutral. But, the perceptions of our nation's future leaders are being shaped to believe otherwise.

Too much of anything is bad. It's high time for some responsible (and balanced) marketing and entertainment content from what Ad Age used to refer to as the 'intersection of Madison and Vine.' Let's call for a cease-fire on male-bashing.

Jul 07

RealDiana, FauxJournalism

Today's guest post is by Courtney Chauvin Ellul, Director, Peppercom Europe

The hotly debated July 4 Newsweek feature, “Diana at 50: If She Were Here Now,” written by the always controversial Tina Brown, sounds more like an episode of Coronation Street, than the cover story of a major news magazine. Adding insult to injury is that photo – the super-freaky, Zombie-like, Photoshopped image of the Princess walking with daughter-in-law Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. It’s a new low for today’s media, especially for an outlet that has the word ‘News’ in its title.
Diana
Not surprising, the British are none too happy about this. 

The media here, not unlike many U.S. outlets, are tearing the story to shreds. According to The Telegraph, “The ghoulish cover exudes bad taste: using Diana’s image is one thing – the late princess still sells papers in America as elsewhere. But presenting her, artificially aged, in a hat and frock next to the young Duchess, similarly attired, is beyond the pale.” The Guardian calls the story “ill-judged’” and “a rather flaky imagining of what the dead princess would be doing now.” The issue underperformed with advertisers as well, selling 13.8 ad pages, which is considered low for a ‘special double issue’ (hardly special and, wafer thin, hardly double).

Britons are also peeved by the U.S. publication’s creepy depiction of the late princess and exploitative grab for sales (imagine, for just one moment, how you would feel if that was your digitally altered dead mom on the cover of a ‘reputable’ magazine?). According to an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll, more than a third of Britons think the cover is offensive, and three-in-ten brand it as useless. More than half of respondents are not interested at all in reading the story. A reader posted a comment on the Newsweek site on Tuesday morning, asking: “When will the new title be official: Fictionweek?” It would take more than a tea-filled afternoon to read through the hundreds of other scathing comments.

Peppercom Europe managing director Jacki Vause agrees that the piece is tasteless; the sort of editorial you would expect to see in a down market woman’s magazine (“People has better standards of content!”) – not Newsweek. She said:

The speculation on Diana’s life as it would have been was written like some kind of bad rom-com movie script outline – with her slick ‘hedge-fund’ guy and her secret trysts when she became bored. I am not sure what the purpose of editorials like this are.

Does it serve any information need? No, it’s just a titillating byline from Tina Brown who is obviously just keen to keep her profile up. And for Newsweek, a sad way of dragging out the Royal Wedding story so that it can boost its sales/profile. I think it backfired on both. Tina Brown appears frivolous and without substance (she could speculate on a lot more important and relevant matters) and Newsweek has dumbed itself down. The fact is, it’s boring. Diana is dead – move on!

British native and Peppercom director Carl Foster offers his two pence – in the form of three thoughts:

First thought: That’s not the greatest Photoshop job when we’re talking about the cover of Newsweek.

Second thought: What a cheap and opportunistic way to piggyback on the recent popularity of the royals while at the same time highlighting your own social connections while at the same time generating web traffic for your publication and selling more copies at the newsstand (it must be the time of year when these pubs get ABCed).

Third thought: Who is that bloke in the background?

I’m a fake Brit – living in London now but from Canadian/American descent – but I share in the outrage here and am bitterly disappointed with Newsweek. It’s a fluff piece – a real yawner – that lacks editorial integrity and shows a blatant disregard for the late Princess’s accomplishments and legacy – not to mention her family and devoted fans who hold on to the person she was, not the person she’s imagined to have become.  What can we expect next from the magazine? Pippa at 28? Sarah Palin in another pair of gym shorts? 

When Tina Brown took over Newsweek in 2010, she said her vision for the magazine would be "about filling the gaps left when a story has seemingly passed."

To me, and to many of my fellow Brits, this is not a gap. It’s a Royal gaffe.

Jul 06

Corporate Social Irresponsibility: PR’s next BIG thing

What do brands such as 7-11, Armour and Hooters have in common? They all sponsor competitive binge-eating contests. Slide1 In case you've somehow missed it, competitive binge eating is the next new thing. Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs pioneered the caloriefest and now lots of other brands are following suit (and setting a horrific example for a nation already beset by obesity and weight-related illnesses).

All of which spells opportunity for some enterprising public relations entrepreneur. In fact, I'll bet a quarter pounder with cheese that there's some latter-day, bizarro world version of Carol Cone just salivating over the revenue potential. (Note: Carol Cone is widely recognized in PR circles for pioneering cause marketing and corporate social responsibility programs. Today, nearly every organization purports to 'do good' and some actually do.)

But, back to the business development opportunity. This past July 4th weekend, Joey 'The Jaws' Chestnut won his fifth consecutive Nathan's hot dog eating contest at Coney Island by consuming 62 dogs in 10 minutes (@ 397 calories per frank, Jaws inhaled some 24,614 calories in 600 seconds. I gag just looking at those numbers).

I'm also thrilled to report that Sonya Thomas won Nathan's first-ever women's competition by scarfing down 40 dogs in the same 10 minutes. I say thrilled because now women can't point to this obscenity as yet another example of 'stupid guy things.'

By winning their respective competitions, Chestnut and Thomas automatically become members of the Major League Eating Hall of Fame. For you non-foodies, MLE is the official governing body of binge eating and includes such other superstar athletes as:

– Don Lerman, who holds a world's record for consuming SIX POUNDS of baked beans in one minute and 48 seconds (note to self: do NOT stand downwind of Big Don).

– Cookie Jarvis, who shoveled down six and two-thirds pounds of linguini at one sitting (and, I'll bet she remained seated for some time afterwards. I wouldn't be able to move for a week).

– Takeru Kobayoshi, who sucked down 57 cow brains in 15 minutes (something tells me Kobayoshi-san didn't have much category competition, though. "The cow brain-eating contest? Hell no. I'm here to throw back some bratwurst.").

A cursory glance at the World Eating League's website reveals such major sponsors as Heinz and Pepto-Bismol. Heinz ketchup and mustard has to be the K-Y Jelly of binge-eating. I can't believe anyone can taste anything after, say, the 41st dog has inched its way past the trachea. It's all about lubrication at that point.

Pepto's marketing spend is a no-brainer. But where are Tums, Immodium and, of course, Scott Tissue?

And, how, exactly do the makers of Heinz and Pepto explain their sponsorships in annual reports? "In another area of cause marketing, Your Company once again contributed $1 million to sponsor the World Eating League. Management and directors alike believe obesity is not a problem but, rather, an opportunity that will provide immediate shareholder growth (and girth)."

I jest of course. These companies should be ashamed of themselves. So, too, should the competitors, who actually believe they're athletes. I always thought athletes burned calories, not consumed them.

The real losers though, as always, are our nation's kids. I can just picture 12-year-old, 200-pound Johnny or Sally Ann  giving up on their fitness program and opting instead to pursue a career as a World Eating Champion. "Hey mom and dad! I finally know what I want to be when I grow up. The king of the hot dog eating universe!"

But, enough already with French Fries finger pointing and Buffalo wing bashing, I have a business plan to write and some misbehaving brands to pitch. I think Corporate Social Irresponsibility is PR's next BIG thing (and, what a great double entendre the service offering's initials will make. "CSI? You betcha! In fact, we have an entire division devoted to it.").

And a tip o' the toque to Valerie "the Foodie" Di Maria for this suggestion.

Jul 05

Evil spirits

I perform stand-up comedy as a hobby.

Every time I sit in the green room awaiting my turn on stage, I listen as my fellow comedians struggle to maintain the fine line between the irreverent and the obnoxious. Some succeed. Some bomb. And, those that do bomb are not only greeted by boos but, even worse, by dead silence. And, trust me, the latter is far worse. Silence tells a comedian, an actor or a brand for that matter, that they’re not worth the time of day.

And, frankly, the new Spirit Airline campaign isn’t worth the time of day either except that it serves as a textbook example of how not to use humor in marketing.  In case you’ve somehow dodged the endless barrage of unsolicited spam from the low-fare discount airline, their sleazy promotions have run the gamut from scantily-clad, pole dancing ‘flight attendants’ who strut their stuff in flatbed trucks going from market to market to frat boy, promotional riffs on the latest political scandal.

For example, during the endless Anthony Weiner scandal, Spirit blasted this very unfunny e-mail:Weinerone And, when the Governator’s reckless ways with his house maid generated front-page news, Spirit jumped on the bandwagon with an ad entitled, ‘Hasta la vista to high fares!’ The text was predictably accompanied by a photo of an attractive young lady in a French Maid’s costume.

Spirit supplements these breaking news one-offs with an endless barrage of daily e-mails sporting such witty titles as: ‘The Red Light Special’ (a trashy tome that trumpets $9 one-way and $17 round-trip fares).

I have three fundamental marketing problems with the Spirit campaign. The first two are obvious:
1.)    Sophomoric humor isn’t funny (unless you’re a sophomore in high school).
2.)    Since they’re neither clever nor witty, the ads end up being nothing more than offensive and stupid. The latter may work for Godaddy.com and Howard Stern, but not for an airline.
3.)    Airlines are a very serious business. Each day they transport thousands of people to and fro in their planes. If, God forbid, something tragic should occur on a Spirit Airline, these ads will be dredged up by the media and used against them (remember how the media savaged BP with its own advertising after the oil spill?).

Reputation management is fundamentally critical because it helps build a reservoir of trust and credibility in the minds of end users. That’s why, despite endless product recalls, J&J continues to finish at, or near, the top of the Fortune and Reputation Institute lists for most admired organizations. The company spent decades making itself synonymous with trust. BP, on the other hand, changed the meaning of its initials (from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum) before it had built a reservoir of trust. Then, adding insult to injury, BP didn’t back up the change with quality assurance programs. Hence, when the oil hit the fan, as it were, pundits and comedians had a field day (‘i.e. Did you hear what BP stands for? Beyond Pathetic.’).

I’m not sure what the polar opposite of reputation management is, but Spirit Airlines is pioneering the craft.

Smart, insightful humor can be a powerful weapon in any organization’s marketing arsenal. And, it can work very well in serious industries too. Just look at Geico (life insurance) and Southwest (airlines). But, crass, offensive junk like the kind being served up by Spirit is akin to whistling past the graveyard. They know they’re over-stepping the boundaries of common decency in an attempt to sell tickets. What they don’t know is how the media will use these very same ads to destroy Spirit’s reputation if, and when, something goes south.

I think the new motto for Spirit Airlines should be: ‘An accident waiting to happen.’”