Nov 30

Trying to pull a fast (company) one

Today's guest post is by Greg Schmalz, president, Schmalz Communications.

Show-me-the-moneyBeing a solo public relations practitioner, I provide services in a number of ways.  One, I have clients who work directly with me and I provide them with counsel, strategy and services from writing press releases, case studies, bylined articles and the like as well as media relations.

Having been an award-winning sportswriter earlier in my professional career and having worked in network radio for years, I made the transition to public relations. It has been a rewarding career as I took the entrepreneurial approach of starting my own business after being downsized several times.

Media relations is my niche and often I am called upon to deliver results – whether it’s for my clients or as a free-lancer to small, medium and even large agencies from New York to California. In baseball lore, I’m like a “call to the bullpen” as I often bail agencies out of a jam.  I’m a “hired gun” with a bulldog approach.  In other words, I am aggressive in working with editors and getting results.

But, on occasion you get situations where the client doesn’t see the value in hiring you unless you deliver the results.  In other words, they want to see the results.  I’m a seasoned communications professional and my track record speaks for itself.  But they want to skirt the issue and pay only when you deliver.

Often I am asked “who (journalists) do you know here” and “who do you know there.”  And my response is the same.  “All the right people.”  In these tough economic times where the publishing industry has been hard hit and magazines are closing, newspapers are folding and everyone is having a tough time making ends meet, writers are now wearing more than one hat on an editorial staff and some journalists have jumped ship to find a better financial deal.

But when it comes to media relations, it’s commonplace to research and navigate your way to find the right person to pitch a story.

I recently was consulted by an agency to deliver an article in Fast Company magazine for their client. They issued a Request for Proposal and, naturally, I was one of many that had pitched the business.  But they liked what they read and the next step was a conference call with the client. Not only did the conversation with the agency’s client change about the scope of work, but now the client was pushing towards a “pay for performance” agreement. While I have rarely worked in this scheme of things, I was willing to listen to what he had in mind.

Now, the opportunity has been placed on hold.  But it gives me time to think.  Would you work under these conditions?  I know I bring value to the table.  It’s a gamble at best.  It’s like playing roulette.  If the ball falls on my number, I get paid.  And by the same token, I only collect a payday if I deliver the article in Fast Company.

But what about the time I spend researching and reaching out to editorial staff?  Isn’t that worth something?  Would you work for nothing with hopes that “well, it could be a big payday?”  It’s like playing the lottery.

Suppose I do deliver a placement.  Now, the question becomes “is the client happy?”  Is it the type of article he hoped for?  Or is it another opportunity to push off paying you what you rightfully deserve and earned?

Those in the industry are fully aware that there are no guarantees in public relations.  You want a guarantee – buy an ad.  But public relations can help shape opinions, is every bit as important as other disciplines in the marketing mix and helps build credibility.

Whether you’re an intern or an experienced professional, don’t get caught up in these “one-sided” situations. Time is money and you are worth something.  Determine what it is and stick to your guns.  Would they work for little or nothing for the opportunity to strike it big?  I don’t think so.

Nov 29

Defining the undefinable

My hat’s off to the Public Relations Society of America for attempting the Herculean task of  redefining the term public relations. Actually, the assignment is perhaps better suited for Sisyphus than his heavily-muscled peer.

Here’s why. No one, and I mean no one, can agree on a single definition for public relations (just like no one can provide a single way in which to measure PR. Ah, but that’s another blog for another day).Edd-1

The PRSA last attempted to define public relations in 1982. At that pre-Millennial point in time, the PRSA said ‘PR helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.’ That sounds more like a marriage counselor than a profession. But, Rosanna Fiske, president of the PRSA, along with her peers in 10, count ‘em 10, other PR trade groups, have banded together to crowdsource a new definition.

In fact, the PRSA has even created a special blog on its home page ( and is inviting anyone and everyone to submit a definition. I’ve already done so. And, so should you. Why the heck not? Misery loves company.

I say misery because public relation is more fractured than the Balkan States (or the Beltway. Take your pick). There are so many ways to look at PR that one could liken it to the fog of war. To wit:
-    Is public relations media relations? The purists would certainly say so.
-    Is it helping an organization do well by doing good? The cause marketing types would nod in the affirmative.
-    Is it advocating on behalf of an organization, no matter how heinous the platform might be (think alcohol, tobacco and firearms here).
-    Is it insisting PR be the lead marketing discipline in any strategic marketing campaign because, well, we’ve always understood the conversation and advertising folks haven’t?
-    Is it being the conscience of the organization as the fine folks at the Arthur W. Page Society would argue?
-    Is it planning parties and attracting B-level celebrities to the hottest, new restaurant as most of the American population believes?
-    Or, is it keeping an organization’s name OUT of the media limelight when an especially egregious client calamity strikes (after all, as any crisis expert will tell you, success is measured in silence, not in column inches).

It’s a sticky wicket, as we Anglophiles are wont to say.

I’ve submitted my definition. But, I’m less than sanguine it will be one of the three finalists the groups will post on the PRSA website between December 6th and 15th. I mean, what are the odds? And, besides I’ve never won anything in my life. Speaking of which, what does the winner get? An all-expense weekend for two at the home of the late Edward Bernays? A life-sized replica of the Silver Anvil bearing the winner’s likeness? What size-obsessed, holding company agency CEO wouldn’t kill to have a six-foot anvil in his reception area?

So, do yourself, the industry and me a favor: submit your definition of PR. If you like, post it here first and I’ll react to it. Maybe I’ll even share my submission with you. In fact, I think I’ll create my own, alternative Repman’s Definition of PR Contest! The winner will receive a solid gold loving cup etched with a portrait of Peppercom co-founder and managing partner Edward A. Moed. Now, that’s what I’d want in my reception area.

Nov 28

In the Shoes of Your Wage Payers

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Carl Foster.
What do these three Steves have in common?
•         Steve Jobs, former CEO of Apple
•         Steve Joyce, CEO of Choice Hotels
•         Steve Cody, Co-founder and Managing Partner of Peppercom
Answer: They have all taken time to step out of their corner office and actually experience their organization from their employees’ perspective.
Why is this important? Getting in the trenches helps you directly understand what your frontline employees deal with, and what they deal with most often are customers, the people who pay all our wages. So here’s a question: Why stop with just experiencing life as a low-rung employee? Why not actually put yourself in the shoes of your customers and prospective customers? Image0183
We all know the days of top-down marketing are over; companies are now in a conversation with their customers. So shouldn’t more people at the top make more of an effort to ‘get’ where their customers are coming from? And by that I do not mean registering zip codes or monitoring cookies.
A recent article on claimed that Steve Jobs fielded a number of customer service calls – a pretty amazing fact considering he was the head of a company with more cash than the U.S. government. Here is an exchange between Jobs and Apple customer, Scott Steckley:
"Hi Scott, this is Steve," Steckley recalled hearing from the other end of the phone.
"Steve Jobs?" he asked.
"Yeah," Jobs said. "I just wanted to apologize for your incredibly long wait. It's really nobody's fault. It's just one of those things."
"Yeah, I understand."
Then Jobs explained that he expedited the repair.
As for Steve Joyce of Choice Hotels, he appeared on Undercover Boss on CBS. He plunged toilets, made beds and cold-called potential conference customers.
There was no toilet plunging for our own Steve Cody, but spending a day as Peppercom’s receptionist and another as a junior PR pro led to concrete changes for the better at Peppercom.
How many CEOs do this? Or, more importantly, have the mindset to even consider doing anything like this?
Spending time as the low person on the totem pole gets you closer to the customer and the issues they face. It’s a good start, but you’re still on the wrong side of the fence when it comes to understanding your customer’s experience, or, to be exact, your audience’s experience, because there are a lot of people in your target audience who are not your customers.
Sure, you have reams of reports, stats and data about your customers, but there are also reams of reports, stats and data about your employees. For those who have done it – named Steve or otherwise – the value of this reported information pales in comparison to the actual experience of life as a lower level employee. If there is so much value in putting yourself in the shoes of the people you pay, imagine how much value there is in putting yourself in the shoes of the people who pay you?

Nov 22

The Distrust Barometer

TrustI’ve just returned from visiting my alma mater, Northeastern University, where I’m honored to say I’m a member of The Northeastern Corporation, a body constituted to provide counsel on a variety of strategic issues. (And, in the interests of transparency, I should also note that I’m helping the school communicate its amazing value proposition).

During my full day on campus, I had the opportunity to lunch with five or six of the most impressive undergraduates I’ve encountered at any college or university (and, I’ve literally met thousands). Each shared his or her personal Northeastern journey with me, and some of my fellow ‘corporators’ and, I must say, each story was more compelling than the last. These ‘kids’ were not only committed to finding new ways to help make the world a better place, they were also racking up some amazing international work experience courtesy of Northeastern’s unrivaled cooperative education experience (a.k.a. co-op).

After listening to their tales, we were invited to ask questions of the students. I wanted to know their feelings about the society in which they’d grown up. After all, as I said to them, the one fundamental difference from the world I knew at the Northeastern University of the late 1970s and the world of today could best be summed up by the word ‘trust’. While The Vietnam War and Watergate may have eroded my generation’s trust in certain political leaders, we still believed in The American Dream. Today, though, every single pillar of society is either immersed in a major scandal or recovering from one. Be it religion, sports, politics, entertainment or business, kids today are growing up in a world without trust.

So I asked the undergrads if they trusted anyone and, if so, who. They all said the same thing: they trusted their friends and family first. Then, as we’ve seen in some of our audience research on clients’ behalf, the students said they trusted objective sources such as Consumer Reports. From there, they turned to bloggers and what we PR types call influencers. Next came local and regional news, followed by national news and, finally, advertising. To a person, the students said they no longer trust leaders. One volunteered that she’d actually quit her co-op job in state government because of the sleaze factor. She’s now considering an alternative career path as a result. (Note: that’s one of co-op’s many strengths; it can not only provide deep, practical experience in one’s chosen career path. It can also red flag a professional pursuit that doesn’t make sense).

After word: The world’s largest independent public relations firm has gained notoriety for its annual Trust Barometer, which measures peoples’ trust in various sectors. Based upon what I just heard at Northeastern, though (and, what has been echoed by many other students with whom I’ve spoken), the time is right for someone to create a Distrust Barometer. We need an index that will regularly take the pulse of pre-Millennials; the kids who’ve grown up in an era marked by a complete erosion of trust in everyone and everything. If Peppercom represented brands seeking to reach that demographic and how to re-build trust with it, I’d fund the study immediately. As far as I’m concerned a Trust Barometer can no longer be trusted; at least not by anyone under the age of 21.


Nov 21

Already over me

Business travelBreaking up with an airline is not unlike separating from a significant other. The same raw emotions, finger-pointing and angst come into play.

I first met the airline of my dreams, Continental, when they acquired my two former flames, Eastern and PeopleExpress. At first, I wasn't sure what to make of the hard-charging, Houston-based hussy, but I gave her a chance. I had to. Continental suddenly dominated Newark Airport.

And, sure enough, as the years unfolded, the newcomer found a way to fill the voids in my travel life. She rewarded my constant flying. She welcomed me to her presidents club. And, she not only gave me gold elite status but, on international business class flights, she went out of her way to make sure I was content. Yes, I actually used the word content in the same sentence as airline.

I distinctly recall one Continental attendant on a London flight asking me, 'Shall I address you as Steve, Steven, Mr. Cody or sir?' You had me at shall, miss.

Then, as is so often the case in relationships, my significant other found 'another.' In this case, the other man was United Airlines, a big, old-time, deep-pocketed blow hard from the Windy City.

Mr. United swept Ms. Continental off her feet and, just like available overhead luggage space, she was gone. So, too, was her personal service, tender loving care and the feeling that I was someone special.

I found myself mixed up in the midst of a messy merger. My elite status disappeared. My access to the presidents club went the way of all flesh and, instead of asking how I preferred to be addressed, I was told by a rude flight attendant to sit down, shut up and shut off my Blackberry.

All that abuse might have been palatable if the reservation experience hadn't also taken a nose dive. I suddenly found myself swiping my card at a Continental kiosk and being prompted to enter all sorts of alphanumeric codes that, despite my best efforts, often told me to go in search of a gate agent. And, once at the ticket counter of what used to be Continental, but is now Continental about to become United or, may in fact be United, I would be told by a lobotomized automaton, 'Sorry, there's no record here. If you want to fly to Boston, I suggest you buy a new ticket.'

This wasn't just a trial separation. It was a divorce, and a very nasty one at that. I went from adulation to resentment in the time it takes a flight attendant to say, 'The use of approved portable electronic devices is now permitted.'

I wouldn't mind the messy divorce if my former lover didn't go out of her way to ballyhoo her new beau's service and quality everywhere I looked.

The happy couple's tagline line boasted:

'It's not who's merging. It's what will emerge.' And, some of the newlyweds' brand promises included:

– 'Creating the right flight plan' and

– 'Place your expectations in the upright position'

Oh, the pain of it all.

I don't mind a woman (or an airline) dropping me like a hot potato. But, I do mind it when she (or they) pours salt in the wound.

Continental. United. United Continental. Or, whatever the heck you're calling yourself these days, I want you to know something: I am SO done with you.

I have no choice but to fly you (since you OWN Newark), but I will never, ever love you again.

As the Stones sang in Already over me, 'you're so cold. You're so cruel. I'm your man. Not your fool.' Well, guess what, Ms. Continental Airlines about to become Mrs. United Airlines? I'm already over you too.

Nov 18

Do you have the right stuff?

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Lauren Begley.

NASA has launched a new campaign aimed at recruiting new astronauts for its class of 2013. The crux of the plea is simple: NASA seeks the next generation of curious dare devils willing to explore deeper into space than ever before.

There is a sense of national pride and raw, unbridled courage that is seemingly required to participate in the space program. However, the announcement comes just a few short months after the halt of U.S. space shuttle missions. The organization’s reputation is also hurting as people today are more concerned with spending government funds on programs that will help the economy here on earth. Was this recruitment campaign ill-timed?

I say no. And here’s why:

We need better role models: Pop culture is filled with so-called icons but half of their last names are Kardashian. I remember reading The Right Stuff in college (one of my all-time favorite books, by the way), and wishing we had heroes like Chuck Yeager and fellow Ohioan John Glenn. They stood for courage, adventure and American pride; a much better alternative than celebrities who stand for making unearned cash and having a good time.

We need to reinvigorate wonder around the possibility of what’s out there: Perhaps sci-fi movies over the years have diminished our curiosity about space. I wasn’t around in 1969, but I imagine it was a pretty incredible experience to watch Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon. Considering how far technology has advanced since then, it’s inspiring to think of where we can go and what we can learn in the future.

We need to encourage young people to study science and math: This point is most important in my book. I was always fascinated by science as a kid, but the math got in my way so I ended up a communications major in college. Not to say that marketing and PR professionals aren’t making a difference, but it’s the professionals in the research, engineering, medical and technology fields that are moving humanity forward by leaps and bounds. The economy is still struggling and the best way to ensure a stronger, better future is to foster the intellectual curiosity and capability of young people.

Nov 17

Now serving: Agency #11

Today’s post is dedicated to the memory of Peppercommmer, Sara Jane Whitman Ramos.

A couple of weeks ago we made an unfortunate decision. We trusted a prospect when she told us we'd be among a few, select agencies to pitch her fairly significant piece of business.

BedpostSince we possessed serious category expertise, we bit the bullet, invested the staff time and out-of-pocket expense, and traveled to Outer Mongolia to meet the prospect's fellow marketing, communications and purchasing decision-makers.

We arrived a few minutes early for our 3pm presentation. The prospect's assistant came to the reception area and asked us to take a seat. “The other agency's running late,” he said. “Oh,” we replied.

Twenty minutes later, we were ushered into a conference room. Fifteen minutes after that, a bedraggled group of client-side types staggered into the room, yawning, stretching and bleary-eyed from what we were told had been a full day's worth of agency presentations. “And, we have one more after you today and two tomorrow!” exclaimed the prospect. Ugh. It became abundantly clear that we were smack dab in the middle of a major cattle call.

“How many agencies have you already seen?” I asked. The prospect scratched her head, and sighed, “Well, there were a couple yesterday, and then all of you guys today and the ones tomorrow. I'm actually not sure. I do know we've got two Omnicom firms coming in tomorrow. That part I remember,” she chuckled.

I was appalled. I knew our odds had immediately dropped from one in four to one in god knows how many?

And, so we went through the pitch. And, the exhausted client-side types nodded their heads and asked a few questions. But, I knew their brains were just as dead as our chances.

Sure enough, an e-mail arrived a week or so later. 'Thanks for all the time and effort,' wrote the prospect. 'We've picked three finalists and, unfortunately, you finished a close fourth,' Yeah, sure. I'll bet seven or eight other firms received the exact same note.

All of which leaves me wondering why so many PR directors still spin so many wheels in their search for a new partner. It was clear by their non-verbals that the prospect's peers didn't appreciate the agonizing monotony of meeting one agency after another. And, I can personally attest to the fact that 11 of the 12 agencies this woman contacted rue the moment they answered her initial phone call.

So, why does the cattle call trend continue unabated when everyone involved, aside from the winning firm, loses big time?

The Council of PR Firms goes to great lengths to educate prospective clients on agency selection protocol. But, the Arthur W. Page Society doesn't do much in warning next generation corporate communications types such as our Outer Mongolia prospect about the sheer waste of time and money that is the cattle call. I'm hopeful incoming director Roger Bolton may change all that.

Until then though, we'll just have to rely on an ever-more vigilant internal evaluation process at Peppercom. I can tell you from first-hand experience, it’s no fun being agency number 11 in a 12 agency beauty pageant.

Nov 16

You get what you pay for

Banksy_Because_I_039_m_Worthless_Graffiti_street_art__1301348475_07Not too long ago, we received a cover note entitled, 'Motivated ABC College Grad will intern for free!'

Sadly, the subject line killed the applicant's chances from the get go. Here's why:

– We value our services and would NEVER offer to give away our time (unless it involved a charity or, as is often the case, we're Beta testing a new service offering). If you want Peppercom's brain power, you'll have to pay for it.

– Telling me you'll work for free immediately makes you a commodity in my mind. If you're as motivated as your subject line would indicate, you would place a monetary value on your intellect, energy and credentials.

– Finally, the exclamation point you added after the word 'free' makes me envision a going-out-of-business sign that reads: 'Closing immediately. All items MUST go!' In other words, you sound desperate.

Crafting a cover note to a prospective employer is no easy task. And, I sympathize with this particular graduate's dilemma. He's doing everything possible to differentiate himself from the tens of thousands of other applicants applying for the few available jobs.

But, I'm a firm believer in the expression, 'You get what you pay for'. We've experienced this truism in the past whenever we paid a lower rate for a particular individual, vendor or partner. The quality simply wasn't what a higher-priced competitor would have provided.

One other note on this note. The applicant's subsequent text reinforced my first impression. He used such phrases as:

– 'I have exceptional analytical and listening skills, and an eidetic memory, allowing me (to) think quickly, learn quicker and always get it right the first time.' (Note: is an eidetic memory contagious? It sounds scary).
– 'My previous successes were only achieved because I see opportunities in all impossibilities.' (Note: Do you think George W. Bush was his ghost writer?).

So, college grads, DO NOT cheapen what you bring to the plate. Value it. And, don't work for any organization that won't pay you. You're better than that. And, trust me, if you're as good as you think you are, you WILL find a great, paying gig. My eidetic memory tells me so.

This post can also be found on PRiscope, Peppercom’s blog geared towards the next generation of public relations professionals.

Nov 15

A funny thing happened on the way to the commercial

A recent Stuart Elliott column in The New York Times reported on a trend I’ve been aware of for some time: advertising agencies get the strategic advantage comedy can provide to a marketing campaign. For some reason, though, my humorless peers in public relations don’t.

Major advertisers such as Capital One, Cover Girl and Kellogg’s have retained the services of famous comedians such as Jimmy Kimmel, Jerry Stiller and Ellen DeGeneres to sell their wares.
And, National Public Radio has leveraged the white hot Alec Baldwin to launch a series of hilarious, counter-intuitive radio spots urging listeners not to make the financial contributions critical to NPR’s very survival. Click below to listen:  (Alec Baldwin Wants to Destroy Public Radio . . .).

Charles Torrey, vice president, marketing, for Minute Maid Pure Squeezed Orange Juice, explains why he’s opted for comedy in his commercials: “Humor is a way to differentiate our brand in a stodgy category,” he says, adding that it also humanizes the brand and makes it seem more relevant. Marc Mentry, senior vice president, advertising & creative at Capital One Financial Services, agrees, and added: “We’re very serious about your money, but we don’t take ourselves seriously.” (Hey, that’s been Peppercom’s mantra for 16 years. Do I smell an intellectual property lawsuit in the making?).

Elliot opines that comedy is hot right now because people need to laugh when times are bad. He cites the likes of Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Fred Allen and Jack Benny as three, top Depression-era comedians who did the exact same thing for brands way back when.
I don’t agree with Elliot. I think comedy is a universal and creates a distinct, strategic advantage in good times and bad.

Advertising people are using comedy solely because their market research tells them it will resonate with the 99%ers and others in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement. And they’re right. But most advertisers will also abandon comedy when happy days are here again. That is, except for the savvy ones who know that when people laugh, they fall in love with a product or service.
Comedy is incredibly effective in external and internal communications. It’s also a critical building block for creating better presentation skills as well as enhancing employee morale.
It’s nice to see the advertising guys finally getting comedy, if only as a short-term remedy during a recession.

As for my peers in public relations? Keep focusing on your dour, statistical-laden, off-the-shelf communications plans while we’re busy figuring out smart and subtle ways in which to inject ours with self-deprecating humor. Oh, and by the way, we also offer stand-up comedy experiences for Fortune 500 clients that are just now starting to take off. Talk about a non-traditional way in which to engage with a client that’s already listed Weber or Edelman as their AOR. Give it another year or so and we’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.


Nov 14

Sandusky, Ohio’s PR challenge

1849658501pLet’s suppose for a moment that your name is Daniel J. Kaman. For the past seven years, you’ve been president of the city commission of Sandusky, Ohio. During that time, you’ve no doubt had to deal with all the things city commissions deal with: taxes, infrastructure, tourism and attracting business to the city. Then, in the waning months of your seven-year term, boom! The earth, the moon and the sky itself suddenly fall on your shoulders. Your city’s name is front and center, day-in and day-out, right smack in the middle of the year’s uber crisis: The Penn State University scandal.

Can you imagine a worse image and reputation challenge? How do you deal with the fact that your city’s name is now synonymous with one of the worst alleged pedophiles in American history? What do you do?

I’d suggest several options for Mr. Kaman and the city commission’s consideration:
-    Ignore the crisis completely. Your terms end on 12/31/11. Let the incoming commission deal with the image and reputation fallout.
-    Call together the best image and branding minds in the city, county and state and brainstorm new and different ways to position the city’s outbound marketing.
-    Change the city’s name. This is a big deal though since, in 2018, Sandusky, Ohio, will mark its 200th anniversary.

I’d opt for the third choice if I were in Mr. Kaman’s shoes. Like it or not, his city’s name creates insurmountable business challenges. To wit:
-    Can you imagine some Mid-West husband shouting upstairs to his wife, “Hey honey, let’s bring the kids to Sandusky this summer!” Just placing the words Sandusky and kids in the same sentence sends shivers up and down this blogger’s spine.
-    Or, how about a CFO and risk manager making this recommendation to their CEO: “Sir, we’ve conducted our due diligence and made our choice. We believe it’s in the best interests of Moed, Moed & Birkhahn to move our corporate offices to Sandusky, Ohio. Yes sir, we’re aware that Jerry Sandusky is the Jack the Ripper of modern times, but we believe the tax breaks and local community environment outweigh the fallout we’d receive from every one of our constituent audiences.”

The city has to change its name. But, they can do so in a smart and strategic way.

I’d counsel Commissioner Kaman to involve Sandusky’s citizens in the name change exercise. Create a microsite that is linked to the city’s website and invite local kids, parents and seniors to contribute names. Or, maybe Kamen is a revenue-driven guy and decides, instead, to approach a technology or Web 2.0 company and offer his city’s naming rights for, say $1 million? Maybe Sandusky, Ohio, becomes, Ohio? I have to believe those Godaddy types would love this sort of negative buzz.

Whatever he does, I do hope Mr. Kaman does something. The name Sandusky will be forever linked in the minds of Americans to pedophilia, cover-up and disgrace. And, what city wants to have to deal with that albatross when trying to market itself?