Apr 30

This constitutes breaking news?

News1One of our leading industry trade journals just loves blasting all-too-frequent breaking news e-mails to its thousands of loyal readers.

That’s cool because, as is the case with CNN, I count on breaking news to keep me current on important developments in my chosen field. But, as is the case with some CNN breaking news bulletins, the ones I’ve been receiving of late from the PR trade neither constitute news nor demand alacrity in their dissemination. Consider these recent examples:
-    ‘GM Media Director Cooney Joins Ford’
-    ‘Dun & Bradstreet Taps Porter Novelli as AOR’
-    ‘Ogilvy Hires Edelman Veteran as Consumer President’

Outside the incredibly narrow circle of mega organizations mentioned in the above items (along with the family and friends of the individuals) who cares? Paraphrasing Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca, these breaking news stories “…don’t amount to a hill of beans.”
My colleague, Sam Ford, felt the exact same way about TelevisionWeek, a trade journal which began bombarding him with such non-breaking news items as:
-    ‘Wheel’ Contestant Even Stuns Sajak with Answer’
-    ‘Davy Jones of The Monkees Dies’
-    ‘Clarence Clemons, of Springsteen’s E Street Band, Dies’

As Sam says of the latter two, “Sure, both were interesting and beloved performers, but qualifying this as breaking television news is ludicrous.” (Read Sam’s complete blog on the subject.)

As Ford points out, TelevisionWeek did itself and readers a disservice by not only blasting out non-news items, but headlining them as breaking news. They undermined their own journalistic credibility and, ultimately, led Sam to unsubscribe from the publication, an experience he described as “liberating.”

I don’t intend to unsubscribe from the PR trade journal in question because, frankly, we have so few decent ones serving our industry, that I’d rather be spammed with non-breaking news items than be left completely in the dark.

That said, is it not the height of irony that a media property whose mission is to cover the news of an industry lacks a nose for news itself? Their non-breaking news is just one example. The same publication is devoid of any semblance of investigative journalism (a sad trait shared by every other PR journal, BTW). It also paints such a rosy picture of PR that one is tempted to call it, instead, StepfordWeek or, perhaps, UtopiaWeek.

I do hope this is read by the journalists in question as constructive criticism. Please continue to alert me when something of importance to the entire PR industry occurs. But, don’t spam my in-box with such breaking news announcement as ‘The Planet Neptune Names Burson Galactic AOR.’ Such information is important to only two, narrow constituents: Burson employees and Neptunians. Neptunites? Neptunarians?”


Apr 27

There’s hope for graduates with journalism degrees

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

Journalist-AThe school year is winding down and any day now, students will be graduating from college and ready to make their mark in the workplace.  Or will they?

According to the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published in March, the unemployment rate remains at a hefty 8.2 percent. 

On top of that, many are left with paying back hefty student loans. But there’s hope.  Hope, at least, for those journalism majors, according to a recent Georgetown University study.

The study reveals that recent graduates with an undergraduate degree in journalism have a 7.7 percent unemployment rate. The unemployment rate for experienced graduates is at 6 percent while people with graduate degrees in journalism have only a 3.8 percent unemployment rate.

Obviously, earnings are commensurate with experience.  But media earnings for recent grads are $32,000 annually, according to the study. Salary jumps to $58,000 for experienced college grads and increases to $66,000 for people with graduate degrees.

While the introduction of the Internet has had a dramatic effect on the print publishing industry, journalism is still very much needed from newspapers and magazines to web sites and broadcast.

Beyond the traditional journalism streams, recent graduates can benefit from both written and oral communications skills in the workplace whether it is business writing or presentations.

Plus, these communications skills are easily transferable to other industries such as public relations. In fact, this guest blogger began his professional career as a sportswriter as a freshman in high school.  My career path later transitioned to network radio and television, sales and now public relations.

As the Repman often writes in this space, good writing skills are important.  Good luck graduates in your job-hunting. And, remember to be resourceful. While there may be a dead end in your chosen field, use your skills and talent in another area.  You may be pleasantly surprised.

Apr 26

Be careful what you wish for

Debb Not too long ago, we were contacted by a relatively small company with a surprisingly big crisis. Not surprisingly, they wanted to meet immediately. We were one of three firms to whom they'd been referred, and had come highly recommended (or so they said).

And, so we scampered off to their offices and sat down to hear about the crisis. After about an hour of positively riveting plot twists and turns, the prospect paused and began asking our thoughts. He liked what he heard. We shook hands, bid one another adieu and were told we'd be contacted momentarily.

Sure enough, a call came within 90 minutes. The prospect said, 'Steve, we're inclined to go with you, but we need a day-to-day person with an iron stomach. Your person seemed very good, but we need a real tiger,' he stated. No pasa nada, I thought. I'll send in our uber tigress, Deb Brown. Deb's the one person with whom you'd want to share that proverbial foxhole. When the bombs are bursting and the shells exploding, Deb dusts herself off and begs for more. She'd literally fall on a grenade for Peppercom.

And, so Deb marched off to battle just like a Delta Force specialist. She spent a full two hours asking pointed, direct, probing questions. She parsed every aspect of the prospect's story and kept finding flaws. She relentlessly pushed him to explain each and every seeming incongruity. When the 120-minute session ended, the clearly exhausted prospect thanked Deb and asked if she'd ever worked as a prosecuting attorney. He said he'd be in touch.

And, then there was nothing. Several days passed. Deb finally shot the prospect a note. The response? "Thanks, but we've decided to go with another firm." My read? Deb scared the prospect silly. He'd asked for a tiger with an iron stomach. But, when a tigress with a steel reinforced stomach showed up at his doorstep, the prospect blinked. He wasn't prepared to work with a manager who demanded the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Deb's tale isn't unusual. There have been many prospects over the years who've said they wanted one thing, but really desired the exact opposite. Some ask for out-of-the-box thinking when they really want to play it safe. Others have said they didn't want a firm with deep sector experience and then hired a firm with deep sector experience. In this case, the prospect got exactly what he asked for. In hindsight, he should have been more honest with himself (and us).

BTW our tigress is available to help with your next crisis and can be reached at 1-800-Don'tMessWithDebBrown

This post is dedicated to Danielle Lundquist.

Apr 25

You Can’t Be Angry at Someone Who Makes You Laugh

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer and RepChatter Co-host Deb Brown. Be sure to check out Deb's blog, StandUpExecutive.com.

300px-Happy-birds What’s one of the best ways to diffuse anger?  Humor!  We prefer to say comedy, but according to Michael H. Smith, Ph.D., humor creates an unexpected response that can change an angry situation into a productive one.   The reason we, at Peppercom, prefer comedy is because, in the words of our great Chief Comedy Officer, Clayton Fletcher, humor makes you smile and comedy makes you laugh.

In addition, Smith talks about the importance of self-deprecating humor and how it can turn an argument into a calmer discussion.  “It’s safest to laugh at yourself. Even if you don’t believe you’re at fault, a funny, self-deprecating remark can reduce tension.”

This is why comedy (or humor) is so important in the workplace.  When employees are under a lot of stress, it’s very easy for one person to lash out at or start an argument with a colleague.  Yet, saying something unexpected that is also funny can quickly diffuse the situation.  After all, if you laugh at something someone says, it’s almost impossible to remain angry at that person.

But, organizations need to think about incorporating comedy on an ongoing basis in order to create a good workplace that consistently demonstrates respect for one another and understands how to handle stress.  Comedy will never eliminate tension from an office, but it will help employees deal with it in the right way and improve overall morale. 

Comedy has to become part of the workplace’s DNA so that it becomes second nature to the employees.  And, I don’t mean telling jokes at the water cooler every morning.  When you incorporate comedy into the workplace, you learn how comedic skills translate to business skills.  And, when comedy becomes part of the culture, the way employees deal with stress completely changes. 

When you laugh, your brain releases endorphins that make you feel good. When you feel good, you can’t be angry.

My boss, RepMan Steve Cody, reminded me of a story he heard from public relations executive Howard Rubenstein at a conference.  He and one of his account teams were in a very tense discussion with a client.  The client was yelling that he deserved to be on the cover of BusinessWeek and it was the agency’s team’s fault for not making it happen. Rubenstein leaned back in his chair, pulled out a toy gun, slid it across the table and said, “You want to be on the cover of BusinessWeek?  Here, go shoot someone.  We’ll get you on the cover.”  After a second, the client laughed out loud and the tension was relieved.

Have you ever diffused a bad situation by making someone laugh?  Has anyone done that to you?  How did it make you feel?

Apr 24

Spare the rod. Spoil the employee,

Trends_pic1Did you know the average Google and Facebook employee's day begins with a comfy, Wi-Fi-enabled shuttle bus whisking him or her to work? Once there, dozens of free breakfast options await. Free buffet lunches break the monotony of the day. There are free snacks for those peckish between meals. There are on-campus gyms. Day care. Dry cleaning. Car rentals. A sunbathing site equipped with 30-inch TV monitors. And, yes Virginia, even toilets with heated seats.

According to a Nick Bilton column in The New York Times, such coddling has produced two results:

– A workforce that is willing to work 24×7 in exchange for such extravagant perks
– A sense of complacency.

Bilton believes the outrageous sense of entitlement that goes along with such pampering is a primary reason why both Silicon Valley superstars risk “…being left behind as technology shifts from PCs and Web browsers to mobile devices.”

He says Google Plus completely ignores a smartphone app and mobile site while Facebook's recent purchase of Instagram underscores their struggles, as does their mobile app which, Bilton warns “is sometimes painfully slow.” In other words, while the technology sector is charging ahead in fast forward mode, Google and Facebook remain perfectly content to stay in neutral.

I think Bilton's analysis is spot on. I believe too many companies go too far in making their employees happy and content. In fact, I engaged in a rather heated discussion with my Peppercom colleague Deb Brown in one of last week's blogs.

I also believe too many bosses try to play the nice card instead of being tough and direct.

It's my contention that Bilton's peers in the media are partly to blame for the heated toilet seat syndrome. Publications ranging from Fortune to The Holmes Report heap glowing praise on employers who provide the coolest, neatest, trendiest perks, handing out ‘best workplace’ accolades and rankings (which is suspect, considering these rankings are based solely on anonymous employee surveys and not the journalist's qualitative experience in the actual workplace).

Please don't misunderstand my POV, though. I'm all for periodic massages, telecommuting, fun, offsite activities and the like. But, NOT at the expense of productivity or innovation.

Peppercom is first, and foremost, a meritocracy. We reward employees for achieving the best results, not the deepest tan. And, that mentality has stood us in good stead. Our best employees have stayed. Those who didn't perform (or who didn't buy into our culture) left. And, the end result is a business that's grown to $15 million in 16 years (while those aren't Google or Facebook numbers, you won't find ANY public relations reporter opining that Peppercom risks being left behind. We excel at introducing new products and services to the market).

But, enough of the paid political announcement. What's your take on employee perks? Should employers continue to pamper their workers with meditation rooms replete with faux waterfalls and music by Yanni? Or, should such rewards be distributed individually and only to those who merit them? It's an interesting question because, as I've said, the Fortune's and Holmes Reports of the world don't track productivity when they rank workplaces. And, I think that's a mistake.

Spare the rod. Spoil the employee.

Apr 23

Deep throat?

S-DEEP-THROAT-largeCollege lecturing is one of the true loves of my life. I adore interacting with the students, uncovering their wants and needs and, critically, probing for their world view (I say critically because I learn more from the students than they do from me).

Last week, I was invited to address a class of 40 business students. To a person, they were bright, attentive and engaged (which, considering the caliber of the guest lecturer, came as a surprise).

I was there to discuss crisis communications, leadership and the role of the media in today's intense, 24×7 world.

As expected, the class was completely up to speed on current events. But, just like their cohorts at scores of other colleges and universities at which I've had the privilege to lecture, the undergrads were at sea when it came to important people and events of the recent past. It's a puzzling, missing link in the DNA of many Millennials (I say puzzling because, as the well-worn aphorism warns, 'Those who ignore the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.').

At one point, I was discussing the recent death of CBS legend Mike Wallace. I asked the students if they knew about him. Most did. I then asked what form of journalism Wallace had literally invented. Not a single person knew Mike Wallace was the George Washington of 'gotcha' journalism. Nor did they immediately grasp the impact of gotcha journalism.

As most older people know, Wallace excelled at exposing and confronting everyone from fraudulent executives and philandering politicos to pedophile priests and despicable despots. But, he almost always did so in a blunt, almost corrosive, way that often left lives, careers and families in tatters. Indeed, it's not a stretch to argue that today's highly charged, highly polarized news coverage is Mike Wallace's legacy.

Intrigued that America's future business leaders knew next to nothing about Wallace, I proceeded to ask a follow-up question (in the best Mike Wallace tradition, of course). “Who,” I asked, “were Woodward & Bernstein?” The blank stares were pervasive; the silence deafening. Finally, one timid soul raised her hand and said, “Didn't they have something to do with Watergate and Deep Throat?”

I thanked the young woman for volunteering part of the story, filled the class in on the full role Bob & Carl had played in bringing down a presidency and then told them how important understanding the recent past was to making informed business decisions in the future.

While I marvel at the technological prowess of Millennials, I do worry about their future (and the future of our country as well). I worry that, not taking time to learn the mistakes of the past, they will be doomed to repeating them (if not exacerbating them).

Considering what a mess informed leaders have made of the present, I shudder to think what uniformed leaders will do with the future.

Apr 20

A taxi tale for the ages

B3320e60I subscribe to e-newsletters authored by experts in fields ranging from sales and organizational behavior to trend spotting and strategy. I do so because, usually, there's a nugget or two of insight that, I believe, helps make me a better boss (though not a nicer boss).

So, imagine my surprise when I scanned a 'top' sales trainer's e-newsletter that was anything but insightful; unless the executive in question was purposely trying to position herself as an absolute goofball.

Here's the link so you can read it yourself (Download TaxiLady). Allow me, though, to summarize it:

Based in Minneapolis, but frequently in Manhattan for client meetings, our intrepid sales trainer admitted she always walked to meetings. Why? Because, until her clients clued her in, she had no idea that 'if the lights of a Manhattan taxi are on, they already had a passenger. If they were unlit, they were for hire.' That's jaw-droppingly dumb. And, as everyone knows, it's the EXACT opposite.

The sales trainer went on to call this lights on, lights off phenomenon, “New York's dirty little secret.” To which I respond, seriously? Where have you been living? In some cave on a prehistoric Polynesian island? Have you never seen a Manhattan-based movie? Or, such Manhattan-based shows as Seinfeld, Friends or NYPD: Blue? More to the point, New York taxis are not unique in leveraging the sophisticated lights on, lights off strategy (even though you've got it backwards). In fact, I've seen it used in every large city I've ever visited.

It makes me wonder if this sales strategist has yet to figure out Manhattan's complex traffic light system (red for stop, yellow for caution and green for go). I know she prides herself on walking, but do you think she grasps those highly complicated Manhattan walk, don't walk signs? The addition of the seconds remaining feature on some must leave her completely dumbfounded.

Adding insult to injury, the sales leader's story quickly transitions to the issue at hand: sales. Using Manhattan taxis as a metaphor, she wonders if salespeople sometimes find themselves at sea. If so, she says selling is 'every bit as much a skill as taxi-flagging.' Ah, no. Not exactly. I'd say hailing a taxi is a tad easier than closing the deal on a major piece of business.

And, that's when I decided to opt out of this street savvy sales leader's newsletter.

Who, in god's name, would hire a senior sales consultant to provide high-level strategy and advice when she admits to having no clue whatsoever about how a basic, century-old transportation tradition functions? And, when she does finally figure it out, she gets it backwards? This woman is wasting her time in sales. She belongs in Congress.

Without intending to do so, the taxi lady absolutely destroyed her image and reputation. I love metaphors and story-telling as much as the next executive. But, when the author passes herself off as a moron, it's time to find another source of information (if not transportation).

That said, I do wish the taxi lady well in her consulting work. And, I do hope she realizes that once she finally sets foot in a Manhattan taxi, the meter begins running! I'd hate to have finally flag down a cab, arrive at her destination and then be asked to pay the amount on the meter. “Wait a minute, driver. Are you telling me that box has been running all the time?”

There's dumb. There's dumber. And, then there's the taxi lady.

Apr 19

Mean vs. Tough

Blue-meanie-leaderMy colleague Deb Brown recently posited her view on a Fast Company piece arguing that nice bosses finish last . As Deb notes, the article is less about mean bosses being more successful and more about the importance of being direct and, if necessary, tough in order to succeed.

Deb thinks one can be nice and successful at the same time. I don't agree. I think it's more important to be direct and honest, to the point of being blunt if necessary. I believe employees want clarity. They want to be led. They want someone with a vision who can clearly communicate it. Once that's been accomplished, one can add a spoonful of sugar.

Employees also want a leader who isn't afraid to fire underperformers. Nice bosses want to be seen as one of the guys (or ladies). They shy away from sharing bad news. They let consensus rule the roost until inertia sets in. Most importantly, they want to be liked (as opposed to being focused on building the best business possible).

All of this can be done with a smile and, as Deb suggests, by showing vulnerability. But, decision-making isn't for the faint of heart.  And, I agree with the Fast Company POV that tougher, more direct bosses do better than their weaker, sweeter counterparts. 

I've worked for nice guys and true a**holes. I loved chilling with the nice guys, but they never motivated me. The a**holes, on the other hand, always inspired me in one of two ways:

– I worked harder than ever in order to prove them wrong, or
– As was the case with the Green Bay Packers players coached by legendary mean guy, Vince Lombardi, I pushed myself to the absolute limits to achieve results my a**hole boss thought impossible.

Do I like working with nice people? You bet. Is respect in the workplace critical? No doubt. But, give me a tough, direct boss any day of the week. Save the consensus thinking for the Beltway (which, BTW, is how our country got in the fix we're now in: a dearth of tough, decisive leaders. Where's Harry Truman when you need him?).

Apr 18

I never promised you a rose garden

110618-no_smilingA new survey from Leadership IQ shows that “…corporate cultures pushing happiness actually have lower engagement scores than more competitive and challenging cultures. Leadership IQ says the happiest people act more selfishly, are worse at defending their opinions (they produce weaker, less detailed arguments) and are less creative.” Man, am I happy Peppercommers are so unhappy!

Seriously, though, this survey would be laughable if it didn’t fly in the face of everything publications ranging from Fortune to The Holmes Report have told us is absolutely critical to employee acquisition and retention. Whether it’s back massages and manicures or meditation rooms and weekly beer drops, employers have been schooled on what they should do to build a happy workplace. But, what if it doesn’t make a difference? What if Leadership IQ is correct and happy employees are simply a workplace version of the Stepford Wives?

I think this is a critically important answer for The Holmes Report in particular to address since so many PR firms aspire to be named to the publication’s annual Best Workplaces list (note; I’m pleased to report that we’ve made the list three times. But, I can’t tell you if we were any more productive in those three years).

I do think there’s a germ of truth in the new research. We’ve always described Peppercom as a work hard, play hard meritocracy. We want happy employees. But, more importantly, we want motivated employees with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Leadership IQ says focusing solely on employee happiness, and hoping it will translate into productivity “…is like doubling the salaries of salespeople and hoping they’ll just magically double their sales.” That statement makes sense.

Leadership IQ also opines that happiness should follow achievement. One shouldn’t aim to make all employees happy and then just hope they produce great achievements. It should be the exact reverse. I disagree. I think it should be a combination.

I think the best workplaces are those that shine the spotlight on achievement while simultaneously producing a best-in-class culture. There are still plenty of public relations firms that believe in using and abusing their younger staff and then, and only then, rewarding the survivors. That model works for the pure publicity shops that spend their days smiling and dialing, and measuring success by a stack of client placements. But, it doesn’t work in rapidly-evolving firms that, like us, are channel agnostic consultancies. We need happy, driven people who think about what’s next. We don’t want people chained to their desks and forced to blast out endless e-mail pitches to the media. Nor, do we want a group of Stepford Wives singing Kumbya in a conference room that features a waterfall and white noise.

I’d like to hear from those of you who work in happy workplaces. Do you think happiness negatively impacts productivity? And, what about those of you who work in sweat shops (you know who you are). Does the almighty dollar trump happiness? And, should perks only be distributed after an employee has slaved for years? I’d also love to hear from the arbiters of workplace culture reports. They’re the ones who dispense ‘best in class’ recognition to happy workplaces. Should they also be identifying the most productive firms if what Leadership IQ says is true?

Apr 17

Here’s looking at you, kid

Slide1Slide2 I recently enlisted. I joined a fight against an enemy every bit as sinister as Nazi Germany, the Viet Cong or Al Qaeda.

In this case, the army I joined is called The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (L&LS) and the enemy is the twin diseases that claimed almost 20,000 lives last year alone.  One child out of 79 born will be diagnosed with leukemia at some point in their life.

Children are especially vulnerable to the ravages of leukemia and lymphoma. That's why the special competition I've joined, the Man and Woman of the Year, focuses its fundraising efforts on research and aid to kids already stricken by the diseases. In fact, I recently attended a 'mid-point' fundraising gala in which I had the opportunity to meet some of the “Boys and Girls of the Year'. It was moving, to say the least. (Their touching thank-you notes illustrate this post.)

I'm not permitted to share my precise fundraising goal but, suffice it to say, it's a significant sum. In addition to reaching out to family, friends, clients and passers-by on the streets, we're hosting two special events that, schedule permitting, I'm hoping Repman readers might attend.

The first will be a wine tasting at our brand new offices at 470 Park Avenue South. We'll be sampling some special wines on April 24th at 6:30pm. Here's the link for details.

The second is a stand-up comedy fundraiser at The Broadway Comedy Club on May 2nd. Here's the link for those details. The comedy event will be followed by a live auction in which you'll be able to bid on such items as Kangoo classes with Mario Godiva Green and stand-up comedy training with Clayton 'Bloody' Fletcher and other cool sports and fashion items.

As the LLS people like to say, every penny counts, so I'd really appreciate anything you can do to help me fight the good fight. And if you cannot attend either event, feel free to donate online by clicking on this link to my page on the L&L Society website.

Speaking of which, Humphrey Bogart's signature line in the movie, 'Casablanca', was, “Here's looking at you, kid,” In this instance, I'd like mine to be, 'Here's fighting for you, kid.' But, I need as much ammunition as I can muster, so here's looking at you, kid, if you can help me.