Mar 19

Yesterday’s Mistakes can be Today’s Opportunities

We’re in the final stages of completing an exhaustive, co-branded research report in tandem with The Institute for Public Relations.

The purpose is to more fully understand how CCOs across myriad industries are coping with crisis preparedness and response in this new era of Trump Tweets, Fake News and seemingly innocuous actions finding their way on the front pages of media properties near and far (Think: Snapshat’s ill-conceived pot shot at Rihanna).

I admit though that, aside from #MeToo incidents, I hadn’t given much thought to past organizational mistakes, transgressions and outrages as opportunities to not only right wrongs but double down on an organization’s Purpose and Values.

My enlightenment is due in large part to my longtime friend and associate, Chris Tennyson, who just added a rearview mirror to my fully-equipped crisis HUMVEE.

In his soon to be published book, Tennyson takes a page out of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” writing style of simultaneously placing Billy Pilgrim, the lead character, in the past, present and future.  He does so by citing three superb examples of different organizations who suddenly woke up, realized mistakes made by previous generations and earned well-deserved accolades for fixing what had been broken (and making themselves seem more empathetic and forward-looking than ever).

Here are the examples. Each contains a link that provides additional insight:
1.) Brown-Forman: The company embraced the work of an author/researcher who, on her own, dug into the company archives to discover that a former slave named Dearest Green played a lead role in developing one of B-F’s signature whisky brands.history. Check out the CEO’s comment in the article link: 

2.) National Geographic: The iconic travel/adventure journal asked a University of Virginia professor (an expert on Africa and photography) to assess the magazine’s historic coverage of people of color. The report was dismal, if not downright demoralizing.

Rather than bury the past, though, the magazine’s current editor-in-chief dealt with the issue in a totally authentic and transparent way.

NG’s headline read, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

3.) The New York Times included a special section in last Sunday’s edition featuring newly written obituaries of women who deserved recognition at the time of their deaths (but had been overlooked by the Times obit deskmen of the day).

Now, compare the three examples above with the recent track record of Oscar Munoz & United Airlines. By the time he steps down, Munoz will have enough egregious mistakes to write an airline industry version of War and Peace.

As for me, I plan to highlight a few other choice tidbits from the Tennyson manuscript in the days and weeks to come (because they’re that good). And, hey, if someone accuses me of plagiarism, I will simply admit fault and leverage the opportunity to re-position myself as a stand-up guy who is willing to make good on my egregious mistakes of yesteryear.

Mar 14

United Airlines Continues to Be Dogged by Self-Inflicted Image Problems. But Do We Care?

Today’s guest blog was penned by Peppercomm’s Ann Barlow who weighs in a yet another atrocious crisis courtesy of the airline with the least friendly skies imaginable….

On Tuesday, we learned about the poor dog that died onboard one United flight when it was consigned to the overhead bin, and then the next day about another that went to Japan instead of Kansas (anyone could make that mistake). Like many of you, we at Peppercomm shook our heads at the level of callousness that CEO Oscar Munoz seems content to foster, and wondered at the tatters that United’s reputation has been left in following yet another set of senseless actions.

Then my colleague Matt Purdue asked the question: Does it really matter? He pointed out that United’s stock has not suffered despite all of the well-publicized treatment the airline has visited on its paying passengers. And, maybe worse, when we spot a $30 savings on Kayak with United over another carrier, how many of us blithely put our principles aside to save a few bucks?

The notion that bad behavior comes with no consequences horrifies me. Are we really in an age where we are so weary of, so numbed by, people treating one another with such contempt or compromising any ethics in the name of financial gain, that we shake our heads and move on? My colleagues and friends talk about feeling angry but frustrated by a sense of powerless to do anything. Understandable to be sure. For me, it’s more that stories of scandals and misconduct are coming at us so rapidly that it’s hard to remember who’s done what, when.

But I have hope. At Peppercomm, we’ve actually created an updated version of our crisis program because like never before, employees are calling on their company leadership to take a stand on the day’s most important issues. No longer are they content to let their employers remain neutral on things like DACA and #MeToo and gun control and the environment. And no longer are they willing to stand by and watch their leadership consistently put profit above principles. Like never before, companies will need to operate with purpose and walk away from actions and policies that don’t fit that purpose.

Matt is probably right in the short term. But based on what we are seeing, not only at Peppercomm but on social media and on our streets, as weary and busy as people are, we are only willing to take so much.

Mr. Munoz, perhaps you’re safe for now. But sooner or later, your employees and your customers are going to say: enough.

Mar 13

Fear Sells (Or Does It?)

As someone whose firm has represented countless insurance companies over the years, I’ve noticed a cyclical nature to the marketing themes and lemmings-like mentality of the field.

In recent times, for example, it’s been hard to find a single insurer that hasn’t employed comedy, a humorous situation or an actual character a la Allstate’s Mayhem to depict how truly dangerous, and fleeting, our lives are (but, in a laugh out loud funny kind of way).

Recently, though, Principal Insurance decided to change the rules and began playing the doom-and-gloom card. This one-minute video is a typical example.

There’s no question that fear is a powerful motivator. But, there’s a fine line to tread between scaring someone half to death and providing sound financial planning advice.

I think Principal stepped over the line in this particular spot. I’d be hard pressed to suggest any additional optics, music or non-verbals to convey a more depressing family crisis.

I wonder if playing on fear in a world ruled by fear is a smart and sound strategy?

During the Depression, for example, the downtrodden poured into movie theatres to escape the grim reality of their lives. And Hollywood provided them with a respite, however brief.

I’d argue that marketers of all stripes have the same responsibility today. I’m not suggesting they market their wares by employing slapstick comedy, but I do think the entire country needs a healthy dose of fun and entertaining content. And Principal’s medicine is the wrong tonic for the wrong audience at the wrong point in time.

Mar 06

Simply the Worst

While Donald J. Trump always manages to tell those who will listen that he’ll be remembered as the greatest president ever, a recent survey reveals POTUS has a mountain the height of Mt. Everest to climb in order to deliver on his boasts.

According to the just released “Presidents & Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey,” Donald J. Trump finished DEAD LAST.

The survey was taken of 320 members of the American Political Science Association (APSA), which bills itself as “….the foremost organization of social science experts in presidential politics.” And, who am I to say otherwise?

But, I digress.

The APSA  asked respondents to rate each president on a scale of 0-100 for their overall greatness, with 0=Failure, 50=Average and 100=Great.

The group then averaged the ratings for each president and ranked them from highest average to lowest.

Not surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln topped the list, followed by George Washington, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman (a long overdue salute to a truly great president) and Dwight Eisenhower (which I don’t get at all).

Check this out: Barack Obama finished eighth (which cannot make the likes of Steve Bannon and Sean Hannity very happy).

Obama was followed by Reagan, LBJ, Wilson and James Madison who, at 5’ 4” holds the distinction for being America’s shortest president (Note: There was no mention of the size of Madison’s hands in the survey).

Cutting to the chase, Trump is SO bad (according to the respondents) that he actually moved James Buchanan and William Henry Harrison up one notch each from the cellar.

Buchanan was an avowed Southern sympathizer, whose four years in office began with the Dred Scott Decision AND ended with the succession of every Confederate state from the Union. Talk about a legacy!

And, poor William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia only 30 days after delivering his inaugural address in a torrential downpour. Tippecanoe, we hardly knew ye.

Getting back to the current occupant of the West Wing, I did some serious due diligence to see if:

  • He’d lashed out at the APSA on Twitter (Nope).
  • Had Sarah Huckabee Sanders tell the White House press corps that until POTUS & Co. had had time to examine the report, she’d have no comment (Negative).
  • Placed KellyAnne Conway on Fox & Friends to decry the APSA results as yet another example of the left-wing Liberal elite savaging a president who accomplished more in his first 100 days in office than any of his predecessors (Nyet).

Where I asked to fill Hope Hicks’ stiletto heels and counsel the president on how he might go about moving up the ranks in the time remaining to him, I’d begin by suggesting he stop blindsiding his own government with spontaneous actions a la the recent steel and aluminum tariff threats while focusing instead on solving mega societal crises (as opposed to picking Twitter fights with Alec Baldwin or as POTUS calls him, Alex Baldwin).

Alas, as we’ve seen on countless occasions, POTUS takes advice from no one and prefers, instead, “to keep everyone guessing.” That may work in the cutthroat world of real estate but it’s a badly flawed strategy for leading the most powerful country in the world, AND only fans the flames of divisiveness that’s characterized his presidency to date.

The difference between the president who topped the list and the one who finished dead last might best be summarized by how I think POTUS would spin the most important passage of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With charity towards none and malice towards all.”

Afterword: The APSA publishes its Presidential Greatness Survey every four years. Assuming you know who is still in office in 2022, I wonder if he’ll have accomplished enough to at least challenge Franklin Pierce for the highly-coveted 41st spot in the poll? If he does, Trump will undoubtedly call it the greatest improvement in presidential rankings ever.

Mar 01

Delta Does the Right Thing… for the Wrong Reason

Today’s guest blog is authored by Steve Goodwin (BrandFoundations), a longtime friend and strategic partner to Peppercomm…

No one was surprised this past weekend when air carrier Delta joined the growing list of corporations abandoning business relationships with the NRA. The move made sense in light of the white-hot debate that’s gripped the nation in the wake of the horrible and senseless massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

It seemed – at least at first blush – that Delta was taking a purpose-based stand, and that its purpose (or North Star) dictated that the company come down firmly on the opposite side of the NRA on this particular issue.

Cue the applause track for a corporation brave enough to stand on its morals, knowing full well that it’s going to take some incoming flack for doing so.

But don’t hit “play” quite yet.

You see, a closer read of the company’s statement on its decision reveals that, at the end of the day, Delta’s actions weren’t driven by something so noble as “purpose” but rather by a vanilla-esque commitment to what could best be described as “neutrality.” See what you think:

“Delta’s decision reflects the airline’s neutral status in the current national debate over gun control amid recent school shootings. Out of respect for our customers and employees on both sides, Delta has taken this action to refrain from entering this debate and focus on its business. Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment.

This is not the first time Delta has withdrawn support over a politically and emotionally charged issue. Last year, Delta withdrew its sponsorship of a theater that staged a graphic interpretation of “Julius Caesar” depicting the assassination of President Trump. Delta supports all of its customers but will not support organizations on any side of any highly charged political issue that divides our nation.”

That’s right: Delta’s version of “taking a stand” appears instead to be a thinly veiled calculation of “sitting it out.” And therein lies an ongoing threat to the company’s credibility and brand reputation.

Failing to take a stand based on an agreed-upon set of principles, tenets or desired behaviors leaves Delta walking an extremely thin line as it seeks to offend as few people as possible… which, as we all know, offends the hell out of most people. Look no further than the reaction by Georgia’s Lieutenant Governor threatening to “kill” any tax breaks for Delta in that state unless it re-ups with the NRA. He apparently missed the “on both sides” and “Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment” parts of the carefully crafted statement. (Rhetorical question: How well did that “on both sides” stance work for the President in the immediate Charlottesville aftermath?)

Delta’s lack of adherence to a defined purpose also puts the company’s leadership in the unenviable – and unsustainable –  position of having to make a series of “judgment calls” every time a new controversial issue emerges.  And in case you haven’t noticed, they’re emerging with increasing frequency and (sadly) severity.

In the J.D. Power 2017 North American Airline Satisfaction Survey, Delta ranked #2 overall. Although the company did the “right thing” in hopping off the sinking S.S. NRA, its inability to come forth with the “right reason” puts those hard-earned gains – and Delta’s brand reputation – at risk.