Jul 19

A culture of courage?

Thanks to the Papa John/Laundry Service imbroglio, the marketing world at large can be excused for missing a major societal crisis that recently engulfed Deloitte, the Big Four accounting firm.

In a nutshell, some 750 employees signed a petition calling for the firm to end its multiple consulting contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At the same time, a group of 100 or more employees protested outside Deloitte’s Manhattan headquarters holding up placards that read, “Shame, Shame. Shame.” And “Families Belong Together.

The petition, as well as an e-mail, were sent directly to Deloitte’s CEO, Cathy Engelbert. In addition to demanding Deloitte sever all ties with ICE, employees insisted the firm take a public stance against the Trump Administration’s  policy that resulted in migrant children being separated from their parents.

Engelbert responded with her own e-mail, saying she “appreciated” the employees’ concerns and added, “We often talk about fostering courageous conversations. That is what our culture of courage is all about.”

But, Deloitte did NOT sever its contractual arrangements with ICE. The leader of the firm’s governance practice informed employees (in yet another e-mail) that Deloitte had been working with immigration and border agencies for many years and said their work did not “directly or indirectly support the separation of families.” What , exactly, does that mean????

One other note: Deliotte’s contracts with ICE include one for administrative and data records management support services for the division dealing with detention and removal of unauthorized immigrants. It was signed in 2015 and is worth as much as $5.3 million, according to The New York Times.

To sum up, the firm decided:

  • To address a massive issue with e-mails.
  • To continue to work with ICE.
  • To hope employees would be satisfied with their non-response and refusal to stand up to the Trump Administration.

In my mind, Deloitte’s actions were the exact opposite of what a firm guided by a higher purpose should do.

  • First, and foremost, the communications team should have identified any, and all, potentially toxic client relationships such as ICE, anticipated employee pushback and developed a communications strategy months before the anti-ICE petition and picketing became front-page news.
  • Second, the CEO should have held an all-hands meeting that was video conferenced around the world to ALL employees. An e-mail simply doesn’t cut it and, if anything, reinforces how detached Engelbart is from the feelings of the rank-and-file.
  • Third, the firm should have initiated an internal audit of its relationship with ICE and made smart, values-driven decisions rather than continuing to invoice ICE and hope employees get back to their day jobs.

I’m not privy to the C-Suite thinking at Deloitte, but their actions and reactions tell me two things:

  • The firm lacks a higher purpose. Vision and values are fine. But, employees need to understand why the firm exists and why they should be passionate about showing up for work every day. The higher purpose would have guided their words and actions vis-à-vis ICE.
  • The courage of culture is akin to the lion in The Wizard of Oz. It lacks courage.
Jul 16

Blessed be the fruit – as long as it doesn’t toast rape

Today’s guest blog is authored by Scottie Ellis, who doubles as a superstar and our lone employee in Louisville, Kentucky. Like many of you, Scottie is an avid fan of The Handmaid’s Tale and, like many of you, was beyond insulted at what might have been the worst brand extension idea in many a moon.

Here’s her take on the wine that died on the vine…..

Developing a line of ‘seductive’ wines based off of women stripped of their rights and freedom, who are enslaved for rape and reproduction? All in the name of commodity.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are likely aware of Hulu’s Golden Globe winning series The Handmaid’s Tale, based off of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel. The story has found new life, not only thanks to the show led by Elizabeth Moss, but also, unfortunately, due to our current political state. Audiences have found themselves relating to the story of a futuristic totalitarian state (The Republic of Gilead), which has overthrown the United States government and stripped women completely of their rights thanks to the Trump-era rhetoric, which has become the new norm.

The story takes an extreme stance by designating some women as ‘Handmaids,’ forced to live with a family and reproduce on their behalf due to the family’s inability.  To be more frank, the women are raped on a regular basis, and then forced to give up their children to their rapist and his wife. To further degrade the women, the leaders also strip them of their identities through mandatory uniforms and new names.

Horrified at the thought of wine being developed around these characters? Well prepare to need a glass of something strong as you read the disturbing product description:

“Completely stripped of her rights and freedom, Offred must rely on the one weapon she has left to stay in control — her feminine wiles. This French Pinot Noir is similarly seductive, its dark berry fruit and cassis aromatics so beguiling it seems almost forbidden to taste. But it’s useless to resist the wine’s smooth and appealingly earthy profile, so you may as well give in.”

Not only does this copy transform rape into marketing, it also sexualizes and promotes tactics rape survivors often must use to get through their experience alive – and how they must process following their attack. The final statement reads, “you may as well give in?” Well, as a woman, that reads as I have no say or rights when it comes to my body – one of the things I fear most.

Dramatic? Noting that Trump, our president, who has sexually harassed women with no consequences, is working to take away our access to birth control and our right of choice, I see my rights dwindling before my eyes. For women, ‘under his eye’ is becoming more realistic day by day.

Should I drink to that? I’d rather be ordered to the Colonies.

Jul 11

It’s the audience, stupid

Unless you’ve been otherwise engaged during the past 48 hours, you’d know the public relations world is up in arms about Steven Pearlstein’s lambasting of our noble profession.

The Washington Post’s business and economics columnist’s piece of July castigates “flacks” for ducking his calls, forcing him to send his inquiry to “…an e-mail drop box” or asking him to leave “…..a message with a ‘media hotline’ that invariably is unmanned 24/7.”

Pearlstein seems to think this sort of behavior is standard operating procedure. It’s not.

But to prove his supposition, Pearlstein conducted a search of the rival New York Times’ Business Section and listed the names of 16 companies that either declined to comment or “were rude enough to never respond to a reporter’s questions.”

I can’t speak for those 16 companies or the fine folks at Clorox, whose PR representative took a special beating for telling Pearlstein the company’s executives were too busy to answer his questions. That’s unacceptable behavior. Full stop.

At Peppercomm, our media relations professionals are carefully trained in the art and science of interacting with the media.

They NEVER duck a reporter’s calls. Nor will they allow a client to provide a “no comment” response to a reporter’s question. The reason is two-fold:

– A no comment sends the wrong message to a reporter and her readers. In fact, it elicits a Pavlovian response. To wit: What are they hiding?

– A no comment also prevents the organization from providing their side of the story to be reported. As we tell every client, “If you don’t control your narrative, somebody else will.”

Pearlstein rightly points out that corporations have a love affair with owned and paid media. Why? Because it enables them to micro target and personalize the information or entertainment they are providing to their multiple audiences.

And the multiple audiences part of the equation is what Pearlstein has clearly overlooked.

Our clients need to connect with a wide range of audiences from both a psychographic and demographic standpoint.

So if we’re trying to increase consideration of a European luxury car brand among well-heeled Millennials, we most surely wouldn’t approach The Washington Post.

Instead, we’d take a deep analytic dive in order to learn how, and from whom, those Millennials consume information and form their opinions. In some instances, it’s a series of key influencers in the area of design, music and fashion. In others, it might be a series of offbeat concert appearances by a fast-rising pop star.

Micro targeting and personalized messaging is the currency of the day, Mr. Pearlstein. So allow me to personalize the rest of this blog.

There’s a very good chance your calls and e-mails are being ignored because the PR powers that be decided The Post simply isn’t being read by their stakeholders (not that I’m excusing the PR types’ boorish, unresponsive behavior).

You CAN rest assured, though, that The WashPo, New York Times, CNBC, NPR and other traditional outlets remain absolutely critical to reaching business audiences, highly educated Boomers and the Beltway intelligentsia, among others.

And you can also take comfort in knowing that, at least in Peppercomm’s case, we will not only return your call or e-mail, we will also NEVER contact you unless we’ve first read your column, fully understand the topics and subjects that pique your interest AND suggest how and why our client’s message would be of interest to your readers.

So rather than castigating flacks (a deplorable slur, btw) Mr. Pearlstein, you should wake up to the realities of the year 2018.

The Washington Post remains incredibly important to those publicists attempting to pinpoint the newspaper’s unique reader profile.

But if I want to reach a single mother holding down two jobs while raising three small children, I wouldn’t give The Post a second thought. And, Mr. Pearlstein, you can quote me on that.

Jul 09

McKinsey & The Mob

How’s that for a headline? Did it stop you in your tracks? Good. That’s the job of any writer, no matter how mediocre.

Now, allow me to explain why I linked these strange bedfellows in the same headline.

Kevin Sneader, the “newly appointed” CEO of McKinsey, the most respected, management consulting firm in  the world, will be in Johannesburg, South Africa, today to apologize for his outfit’s shameful behavior.

You can read the gist of it in the embedded link but, in essence, McKinsey knowingly got in bed with unscrupulous characters who had direct ties to the country’s corrupt government and bled the South African coffers dry with obscenely high fees.

Why did McKinsey knowingly hike its fees to stratospheric levels?

The semi-apologetic CEO explained it away as a relatively new office management wanting to establish a thriving practice in the shortest amount of time. So I guess their thinking was: Let’s bill the hell out of the South Africans. They’ll never know, and we’ll earn huge bonuses from the guys back in the home office.

Now, back to Sneader, who was named CEO in February and is FINALLY getting around to apologizing today, July 9. Talk about a day late and a dollar short. This is more akin to 150 days late and about $50 million short.

So where’s the connection between McKinsey & the Mob? It’s fundamental (minus the fun):

1) McKinsey saw corrupt South African pigeons as being ripe for the plucking (that’s La Cosa Nostra-speak, btw). So in the EXACT same way the Mob offers “protection services” for small merchants and shakes them down for exorbitant fees, McKinsey bled South Africa dry.

2) The New York Times ran a lengthy expose on McKinsey’s wrongdoings last week. Trust me, the two things McKinsey and the Mob do NOT want is high-profile publicity that will damage their business models.

So in McKinsey’s case, the heads of the South African office were fired (although the firm continues to deny any illegal deeds), the CEO issues his apology today and will no doubt speak broadly about new policies and procedures put in place to assure no such price-gouging EVER occurs again (and then hope the whole sordid affair will disappear in another news cycle or two).

The Mob, meanwhile, takes a number of slightly different approaches to solve their high-level and, unwanted, publicity problems: They whack the egomaniacal dons a la Bugsy Siegel, Carlos Gambino, Sam Giancana and Carmine Galante.

Whatever option they choose, McKinsey & the Mob always ensure they quickly recede back into the shadowy, murky worlds of high finance and racketeering (which some might say are one and the the same) and immediately revert to rewarding their highest earners (thereby setting the stage for a future crisis or the rise of another flamboyant publicity hound).

I don’t expect The Mob to know any better. They’ve been born and bred into a world of violence.

But if I were McKinsey’s chief human resources officer, I’d worry about the loss of key partners. And if I were McKinsey’s chief communications officer, I never would have allowed my CEO to wait for a major Times expose before apologizing. Finally, if I were Kevin Sneader, I’d be paying personal visits to the firm’s largest clients to ensure them this sort of behavior will never happen again on his watch.