Apr 30

RepTV: Basketball, baseball & black players

Who better to comment on the totally surreal Donald Sterling/L.A. Clippers/NBA image and reputation fiasco than Wayne McDonnell, Clinical Associate Professor of Sports Management at NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

Join RepTV Host, Paul Merchan, and this blogger as we discuss the actions, and reactions, of Sterling, the Clippers and the league as well as the curious reasons why there are fewer black baseball players this season than at any time since 1959.

Apr 29

Practice doesn’t always make perfect

no-silosWe just won a very nice piece of business yesterday. And, the new client told me one of the contributing factors was our very different business model.

Unlike 99 percent of PR firms and advertising agencies, our business is divided neither by geography nor by practice group. So, in the former instance, we don’t have multiple profit centers fighting for their share of the client’s budget. In the latter, it means you won’t a find a Tech Group or a Health Care Practice at Peppercomm.

And, while prospects absolutely adore the first differentiator they can be puzzled by our silo-free business model. But, then we explain the logic:

- Initially, Peppercomm DID feature three practice groups: one was a BtoB unit, another was consumer and the third was comprised of dotcom era tech heads. The three group heads saw themselves as Vladimir Putin wanna-bes.

Even though they didn’t have separate P&L’s, they acted as if they did. So, they wouldn’t share information or resources. Within a few years’ time, we actually had three tiny agencies within one. And, the internecine warfare actually got nasty at times.

The dotcom crash enabled us to blow up the practice silo approach and start over.

- Today, we match the client or prospect’s specific needs with an integrated communications team that possesses the deepest industry-specific expertise, the right set of traditional, social or digital skills AND exhibits the most passion for the new account. That assures a win-win on both sides.

A practice-free workplace also assures our employees aren’t pigeon-holed in one area for their entire careers. Trust me, once you’ve spent five or six years plying your trade as a health care specialist, you’ll never find a gig with an agency representing Fortune 500 BtoB or financial services organizations.

It also provides an employee with variety. So, in the morning, Jane may be working on MINI Cooper and TGI Friday’s and, in the afternoon, she’ll switch to Honeywell and Oppenheimer. It’s a beautiful thing when it’s managed correctly.

And, truthfully, the latter is really our greatest challenge. Happily, though, we have a talented group of middle and senior managers who keep a close eye on who works on what.

Like my alma mater, Northeastern University, which pioneered the Co-op system of education, our practice-free model isn’t for everyone. Nor is it for the faint of heart.

And, for those of you who think it prevents specialization in an era of specialization, think again. Our model also assures that should Sally WANT to specialize in financial services only, she can. Ditto for Dave’s desire to only work on consumer business.

The model works.

So, for those of you who are burning out after 10 years of representing the same old clients in the same old category and pitching the same old trade or beat reporters, shoot me a note. Ditto to those of you who may just starting out, and believe variety is the spice of life. We just might have a silo-free gig for you.

Apr 28

The more you don’t know, the more you think you know

rep2I recently had the pleasure of hosting a Manhattan-based fundraising dinner on behalf of my Boston-based alma mater, Northeastern University.

Attendees include Dean Xavier Costa and Dr. Susan Ambrose, senior vice provost of the school along with fellow alumni and parents of current students.

At one point, a parent was bemoaning the oft-discussed sense of entitlement that seems to be permanently attached to Millennials and the fast-rising Gen Z’ers who are following them.

Dr. Ambrose, who joined NU from Carnegie-Mellon, said the perceived sense of entitlement of the young is a common complaint among parents and, when it occurs in the classroom, is called, ‘the expert blind spot.’  Ambrose describes this as “the state when instructors are blind to the learning needs of novice students.  This happens because the experts are at a state of unconscious competence, while novices are often at a state of unconscious incompetence…”
Thus, they miss an opportunity to connect, and learn.

Translating that academic-speak to the real-world, Dr. Ambrose suggested we Gen Xers and Boomers may be blind to Millennials’ needs because we already know so much about life. Conversely, she says of Millennials, “The more you don’t know, the more you think you know.”

That’s spot on, and leads me to a recent social media incident involving former employees.

In our nearly two decades of existence, we’ve routinely posted significantly lower turnover rates than our competitors. The 2012-13 time-frame, however, was an anomaly because our largest client at the time decided that, after seven years of award-winning work on our part, they needed a global agency. C’est le guerre.

That decision, though, forced us to cut costs and, unfortunately, lay-off a few employees (something we hadn’t done since the dotcom bubble burst). We did our best to treat the departing employees with dignity (and dough). Some beat us to the punch, and jumped ship before we asked them to leave.

Regardless of whether they left, or were asked to leave, a small group begun posting negative and nasty comments about Peppercomm as well as photographs of themselves celebrating “their escape from Peppercomm.” That’s fine (and certainly understandable in the immediate aftermath of such an incident).

Now, though, a few people who have left Peppercomm under completely different circumstances (and were told the door was always open if they’d like return) began popping up in similar Instagram or Facebook photographs with their predecessors.

That photograph in, and of, itself is harmless. But, when one links it to some of the previous ones, creates a certain distaste of the entire group.

Make no mistake that some of these alumni are doing very well. Others are well-heeled and may never have to work another day. But, according to the grapevine, a few are struggling and will be looking for new jobs shortly.

And therein lies the danger of unconscious incompetence. For reasons known best to them, this group assumed their visual and written post-Peppercomm social media outings would somehow escape our attention. They didn’t.

So, when a future employer calls a member of our management team asking for a reference on one of these individuals, we will confirm his employment, but that’s all. And that, in turn, will signal the future employer to steer clear.

I’m writing this blog not to ‘out’ the offending alumni but, rather, to alert other junior executives as well as every college and university students to avoid unconscious incompetence.

I know the more I learn the less I know.

Millennials need to understand, if not embrace, Dr. Ambrose’s words of wisdom: “The more you don’t know, the more you think you know.” To which I’d add, think before hitting the send button capturing any after-work libation.

Apr 25

Tales from the PR crypt

20140425095036aaaaaaaaaaa105_0001Even though Halloween’s a long way off, I feel inspired by New York’s cold and blustery weather to share two tales from my personal PR crypt.

The first is ancient and the other is real-time.

So, pull up the bed covers to your chin and don’t worry; those noises you’re hearing outside are only the wind…

1.) Tale one occurred in the earliest days of Peppercomm. As Ed and I slaved away in his squalid, one bedroom apartment, we became increasingly desperate to land just one, paying client.

Finally, like manna from heaven, I received a call from a colleague at a previous employer. He’d just landed the top human resources gig at a major chemical company and had employee communications reporting directly to him. He wanted to hire us ASAP.

I used the hot lead as my rational for moving us out of Ed’s hellhole, and into a Sam Spade-like detective agency in the venerable Graybar Building. We set up shop just in the nick of time to greet ‘Joe’ and his two direct reports.

After some idle banter, Joe got to the point. He wanted a refresh on everything the chemical company communicated to its global employee base, and was willing to spend big. He wanted the plan and budget, and to get started ASAP.

After we finished high-fiving each other, Ed and I scrambled to line-up a freelance team to execute what we promised we could deliver. I wrote the plan and FedEx’d it to the prospect. Days passed without a response. Undeterred, Ed and I felt confident enough to begin investing in such necessities as a second computer, a voice mail machine, real stationery, etc.

Long story short, we never heard back from Joe. After repeatedly calling corporate headquarters, I was told “Mr. Jones is no longer employed here.” Ouch. I dialed his direct reports, and reached one who said, “I have no interest in working with you or your firm. Good-bye.” Brrrrrrr…..

2.) I occasionally invite a client or prospect to provide a quote or piece of thought leadership for my Repman blog.

I see it as a win-win-win. The client gains some slight, additional visibility. My column gains some slight, additional credibility. And the poor reader gets a slight break from my proselytizing.

And so I sat down with a client CEO to discuss native advertising. I could immediately tell by his swagger that he thought highly of himself and believed he was the second coming of Steve Jobs.

We nonetheless had a fascinating conversation. At the conclusion, I asked my typical question:

Me: “Anything else on the subject you’d like Repman readers to know?”
Him: “No, but there is something you should know. You’re fired!”
Me: “I’m what?”
Him: “Your firm’s failed to produce any big hits in the past few weeks, and I’m ending this relationship right here and now!”

I was tempted to let out a blood-curdling scream, but bit my lip and said, “Well, if you feel that strongly about it, then it makes sense to end things.”

It was obvious that anything short of having this guy’s profile carved into the wall at Mt. Rushmore wouldn’t be enough.

And, those are today’s tales from the PR crypt.

Do you have some crypt-worthy stories to share? There’s nothing like a good scare to kick-off a windy, rainy weekend.”

Apr 24

“Yer out!”

keep-calm-and-play-dirtyIt seems to me that Major League Baseball is facing just as many issues as the NFL, the National Hockey League and other major sports combined. In the case of baseball and the sport’s signature franchise, the Yankees, the problems range from steroid ingesting and poor attendance to an increasingly low number of black players and fans and cheating players.

Long-time Peppercomm freelance specialist par excellence, Greg Schmalz winds up and throws a perfect game in today’s guest Repman blog.  And, please feel free to provide your answers to some of Greg’s questions….

Guest blog by Greg Schmalz, president, Schmalz Communications

The Major League Baseball season is only a few weeks old and already there’s controversy- to wit, last night as the New York Yankees lost to arch-rival Boston.

When the teams met earlier this season in New York, pitcher Michael Pineda was found to have a questionable substance on his glove. Boston claimed it was pine tar, but the Yankees insisted it was dirt, and no formal complaint was made.

However, last night was cold and windy, and Pineda apparently found it difficult to get a good grip on the ball and find the strike zone.  When he took the mound in the second inning, a brownish substance – believed to be pine tar – was visible on his neck.

Boston manager John Farrell brought it to the attention of home plate umpire and crew chief Gerry Davis. He approached the mound, checked Pineda (not unlike an airport TSA agent pat down), saw the sticky substance and ejected him from the game.

Some players say they know that pitchers use something but because this time it was out in the open, something had to be done. But, this raises a number of questions. Stick’em in the National Football League was outlawed years ago when both receivers and defensive backs used the substance to get a better grip on the ball.

It seems to me that the game has serious problems not need to be addressed. Not only at the league level, but also at the team level. Do you mean to tell me that manager Joe Girardi or pitching coach Larry Rothschild didn’t know that Pineda applied or had the illegal substance applied to his neck? These people need to be held accountable. We’ll see what type of punishment is handed out.

So, what’s the answer? Maybe gloves. Football players wear gloves. Not just the receivers or defensive backs, also quarterbacks to get a better grip on the ball.

Golfers wear gloves as do bowlers. In baseball, hitters wear batting gloves. So why not a pitching glove that can be worn on the throwing hand? It might take a while to get used to, but why not use it during winter baseball and spring training to see if it works.

Is the game of baseball hopelessly tainted? Should the MLB shorten the season? How many years have we seen snow in April and October?  Would MLB dare shorten the season for a later start or earlier finish to the playoffs.

So, what are your thoughts? Who has ideas about how the MLB could solve even one of their problems and keep its reputation from striking out?

Apr 22

Simply the best

babe ruthDo you think 100 years from now, people will remember Beyoncé, Eminem or Bruno Mars? How about Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber or Pink?

I ask because, 100 years after he first began playing major league baseball and 80 years after he retired, George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth is better known than ever.

That’s due, in part, to a significant new museum wing being opened at Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, this June.

But, Ruth’s name remains top-of-mind because whenever other the monikers of other all-timers (from Joe D. and Willie to Henry and Ty), come up in conversation, Ruth’s accomplishments always dwarf those of his fellow Hall of Famers.

Why? I’ll allow HOF member and current vice chairman of the Hall’s board, Joe Morgan, to explain: ‘Babe Ruth is the best of all-time. But, it’s not just because of the home runs. It’s also because he was one of the best pitchers EVER. People always forget that. When you hit the way he did and pitch the way he did, that makes you the best player of all time in my opinion.’ I agree.

Consider these facts about Ruth’s pitching accomplishments:

- He amassed a pitching record of 94-46 in the big leagues. His 2.28 ERA is the 17th lowest in baseball history.
- In 1916, he pitched nine complete game shutouts, a record that stood until Ron Guidry tied it in 1978
- He set a World Series record that remains unrivalled to this day by tossing all 14-innings in a 2-1 victory over Brooklyn.
- Ruth pitched, and won, the first and fourth games of the 1918 World Series against the Cubs.
- Last, but not least, Ruth tossed 29.2 consecutive scoreless World Series innings, a record that stood until Whitey Ford broke it in 1961.

Who else but Ruth can lay claim to being the best pitcher in baseball in one era and the best hitter in another?

When one compares Ruth with legends of other sports, they, too, pale in comparison: aside from Bo Jackson, who briefly played at an all-star level in both pro football and pro baseball, I cannot think of another such dominant athlete (save Jim Thorpe).

It’s nice to know the Babe’s fame (if not fortune) lives on, especially in an era when sports and entertainment ‘stars’ routinely pound their chests and strut their stuff during their nanosecond of fame.

In fact, I’d be willing to wager a bet I won’t be around to collect: in 200 years, more people will remember Babe Ruth than Rihanna, Daft Punk and Katy Perry combined.

And, as Ruth did when he ‘called’ a home run in the 1932 World Series (again against the hapless Cubs), I guarantee it.

Now. Who wants to argue the case?

Apr 21

Corporate bullying 101

female-bully-3Rest assured that, the warm and fuzzy best workplace reviews by PR trades notwithstanding, every firm has some form of workplace bullying. It’s impossible to prevent.

In fact, as Don Spetner’s superb column in the most recent issue of PR Week details, corporate bullying is very much alive and well.

Spetner’s personal anecdotes are riveting, and date from the 1980s and ’90s. My two experiences with corporate bullying aren’t quite as captivating, but also occurred during the same time frame:

- The first involved a loud-mouthed CEO who dropped the F-bomb in each, and every, sentence.

One day, having found displeasure with a recent newsletter I’d written, he proceeded to positively eviscerate me in front of 25 or so peers, and ended by saying, “Cody, you should be embarrassed every f*cking day when you look in the mirror!” Nice, no?

Like Spetner, I chose to rise to the occasion. After reflecting about the incident over a depressingly long weekend, I bounced into work the following Monday morning full of piss and vinegar (BTW, why would one be full of the latter?).

I walked up to the CEO and said, “Thanks for the feedback. Tom. I intend to prove you wrong.” I proceeded to double down on the quality and quantity of my work and, sure enough, he promoted me in a few months. The public dressing down had been a test.

- The second bully was also a CEO. But, he worked in a devious, destructive manner and employed subtle, subversive but oh-so-deadly tactics.

He’d never confront me directly.

Instead, I’d receive a call at 5pm from an account manager named Kate asking me why Jim had just asked her to remove my name from the list of attendees at that night’s client dinner.

That kind of last-second maneuver was typical of this bully.

Absolutely incensed, I’d charge across the hallway only to be halted by his PA Lorraine, who would tell me Jim (whose door was always closed, BTW) was not to be disturbed.

I’d end up going home, tail tucked between my legs, beaten down and totally clueless as to a counter-strategy. Fifteen months later, there was a mutual parting of the ways, and Ed and I gave birth to Peppercomm.

Modern bullying is very real and, with the advent of e-mail, even more pervasive.

We do our best to identify it when it occurs and end it as quickly and efficiently as possible.

We don’t hold workshops about workplace bullying, but we should. And, BTW, corporate bullying is not limited to the top down, boss-to-employee models described above. I’ve witnessed some very effective bottom-up bullying as well.

So, if your organization doesn’t provide anti-bullying guidance, here are some tips:

- Speak directly to the bully, discuss whatever his or her issues are, and see if there are ways to diffuse the situation.
- If that fails, sit down with your human resources manager, explain the situation and ask for guidance/intervention.

Whatever you do, do NOT attempt to counter-punch the bully in public (and by that I mean online or face-to-face). While it worked on one occasion in Spetner’s anecdotes, it almost always guarantees a one-way ticket to Palookaville. And, the senior executive won’t be the one boarding the train. It’ll be you.

So, please, share your personal workplace bullying stories with me. I’m all ears.

Apr 16

Call me an advocate

plusssmbinEvery six months or so, I have the distinct pleasure of breaking bread with one of our industry’s preeminent thought leaders. This is a gentleman who pioneered strategic partnerships, enjoyed countless successes and reinvented himself many times over.

So, I was more than curious when he recently shared a story with me.

He’d been approached to join one of our industry’s top trade groups.
“I said no way,” he told me.
“You didn’t see the cost-benefit ratio?” I asked.
“I don’t want to join a PR industry group because I don’t want to be known as a PR firm anymore,” he responded.

I know what he means. We abandoned the PR moniker about three years ago, and now describe ourselves as an integrated strategic communications firm (whatever that means) and now have full advertising capabilities.

PR firms everywhere are struggling with the same name game. The best, and brightest, have expanded into many new fields and now routinely compete with ad agencies, digital shops, word-of-mouth specialists— you name it. Sometimes I half expect to be told we lost a pitch to a plumbing outfit that offered to handle the prospect’s PR and HVAC repair.

I don’t get hung-up on the name game. In my mind, it’s easy to differentiate what my firm does from just about every other one. And, I use words and visuals that wouldn’t occur to most.

I see Peppercomm first, and foremost, as an advocate. But, we’re no longer solely an advocate for our client. We also represent the best interests of the multiple audiences our client is trying to engage.

So, we listen to the wants and needs of each.

I then draw an intersection on a white board. I call one line ‘Client Street.’ I describe the other one as ‘Audience Avenue.’ And I sketch the figure of a traffic cop in the middle. ‘That’s Officer Peppercomm in the middle,’ I say. ‘It’s our job to understand exactly how and where you and your audiences need to meet. If we don’t listen long and hard to both of you, one of two things will happen:

- You’ll pass each other by (and there will be no interaction at all).
- You’ll collide head-on (with the consumer suing you for reckless and unnecessary messaging).

Getting back to my buddy’s desire to distance himself from PR, I often wonder what our industry trade groups and media must be thinking right now:

- Does PR Week (which already has a naming problem since it’s a daily and a monthly, but not a weekly) become MarCom Week? Ugh.
- Does the Public Relations Society of America become the Engagement League (since everyone and his brother wants to engage in authentic conversations with audiences).
- Does PR News become U News since everything nowadays is all about personalizing the messaging in order to become an important part of each, and every, audience member’s life?

Beats me. I’m happy directing traffic and being an advocate. I’ll let my breakfast buddy and the industry trades and media figure out how they want to handle the name game. One thing’s for sure, though: PR is just too limiting a term to accurately define who we are, and what we do.

Apr 14

Why male role models are more critical than ever

Bart_Simpson-Role_ModelHave you noticed how it’s become both politically correct and socially acceptable to bash males early and often during the workday? I know many men have.

As a sort of mild rebuttal, I thought I’d share a compelling argument for the growing NEED of more male role models from a most unlikely source.

A New York Times feature quoting a Major League Baseball survey said only 8.3 percent of players on Opening Day identified themselves as African-American or black. That compares to an all-time high of 19 percent in 1986. In fact, there are fewer blacks in MLB than at any time since 1959.

So, what’s that got to do with male role models, you ask? Bear with me.

Like many other know-it-alls, I’d always assumed the reasons for black flight from baseball to football and basketball were obvious: the latter sports were just a whole lot faster and cooler.

Well, according to the Times, that’s NOT why blacks have abandoned baseball. Rather, the reasons are two-fold:

- Division I college baseball programs offer only 11.7 scholarships per team and those few are divided among many, many players. As a result, says the Times, choosing baseball over scholarship-rich football or basketball programs made little sense to gifted young athletes from low-income families.
- As the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia told the Times,  “Baseball’s a sport where you learn how to play catch with your dad. There’s a lot of single-parent homes in the inner city, so it’s hard to get kids to play.” As an aside, a SmartCEO profile of FUBU founder Daymond John said he was raised by a single parent after his father left home when he was 10. John turned to clothes instead of Little League, and the fashion industry’s gain became MLB’s loss.

I can relate to the second scenario. My uncle, Buddy, made it his business each and every Saturday morning to take my cousin, Barry, and me, into our backyard beginning when we were three or four years of age. He taught us how to catch, hit, throw and run the bases.

Buddy also made sure Barry and I played Saturday Morning League, Farm League and Little League baseball. While neither of us made it to the Bigs, we had a male role model who might have enabled it. That’s a distinct competitive advantage.

So, the next time you pick up a book asking if men are still necessary, read another business magazine extolling the countless reasons why women make better leaders or overhear a co-worker say something like, “What do you expect? He’s a man,” think about ALL of the missing male role models in so many American families today. And, think about the impact the missing male role model is having on the development of someone’s son or nephew.

Forget about whether the kid will play major league baseball or not. Boys need the steadying hand, guidance and counseling that can ONLY come from a trusted and competent male role model.

OK, ladies. Go for it. Bash me for being just another typically boorish Neanderthal.