Aug 16

It’s Not a Matter of If, But When

In our tumultuous scandal-riddled, societal crises-driven landscape, organizational vulnerability has never been more fragile. And the role of the CCO/CMO has never been under greater stress.

But, for those who anticipate, plan, test and re-test the societal crisis response systems, the opportunity to rise above the fray and bring clarity to the fog of war has never been more readily available.

Ah, but one needs to know where to look, determine what constitutes a brand threat, assure your response will align with the organization’s higher purpose AND then decide if, how and when to respond.

I had the amazing opportunity to co-host an IPR-sponsored webinar (playback available next week) yesterday with Linda Rutherford, SVP and Chief Communications Officer of Southwest Airlines. We were simultaneously addressing the best practices IPR and Peppercomm, my firm, had gleaned from in-depth interviews with 50 leading CCO/CMOs.

I enumerated the top-line research findings (doing my best to intersperse such late-breaking crises as):

  • The war of words between POTUS and Harley-Davidson
  • The latest revelations about Roman Catholic Church priests running amok in Pennsylvania
  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s baffling remark that, “America was never great.”

(Note: I made the editorial decision that the Donald/Omarosa nonsense didn’t warrant any more attention).

Linda went way above-and-beyond the call of duty to share the inner workings of SW’s iterative, rapid response model using such examples as the Texas Bathroom Bill to explain how each and every facet functioned.

Our central themes were two-fold:

  • The days of remaining silent as social crisis after social crisis unfolds outside your corner office are over.
  • The social issues crisis you overlook is the one that will put you on the front page of The New York Times faster than you can say Gail Collins.

To wit, we briefly addressed a recently-released list of 15 U. S. organizations with high-priced, long-term contracts with the controversial government agency I.C.E. (Think: separation of children from their parents along our country’s Southern borders).

To my knowledge, only two of the 15 have been savaged by internal constituents for “apparently” endorsing human misery. And only one has found itself a front-page story in the Times: Deloitte.

I have no idea if Thomson Reuters, Dell or the other mega players playing with I.C.E. (Or F.I.R.E., if you prefer), have issued statements clarifying why they continue their relationships but they better do so soon.

Any crisis counselor, whether old school or new, knows the best way to manage a highly politicized crisis is get out in front of it. Explain why you’re in bed with I.C.E.

Follow Deloitte’s lead in explaining that NONE of your contracts have anything whatsoever to do with separating children from parents or detaining the kids in medieval holding pens and double down on your higher purpose and guiding principles.

I hope yesterday’s webinar attendees grasped the immediacy of the situation and the need to overhaul whatever crisis plan their global agency may have created back in 2003. Those work plans are about as relevant as a Blackberry in today’s workplace.

If I need to scare you even more, consider this: the mid-term elections are just a few months away. If your organization is headquartered in a state holding Congressional elections, you better be prepared for employees (and, perhaps, board members) to insist your CEO speak up on everything from gun control and tariff wars to Russian hacking and NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem.

And, if you should happen to find yourself on the receiving end of a vicious attack by President Trump, you better have already decided whether to respond, if an employee and dealer-only e-mail a la Harley’s strategy is sufficient as well as how your multiple constituent audiences will respond.

It seems to me the days of sticking one’s head in the sand are gone with the wind (and trust me, when the wind hits your company, it will probably carry the wallop of a Force 5 Hurricane).

So, get thee prepared. Now!

Aug 13

Virginia Dandridge Stevenson

I loved Dandy Stevenson. And I deeply regret never having told her so while she was alive.

Dandy had been my executive assistant for 15 years, before being forced to retire and eventually succumbing to lung cancer this weekend.

But she was far, far more than my executive assistant.

Dandy was my biggest cheerleader. She was more excited than me when Mcgraw-Hill published my first (and only) book in 2003. And she would whoop it up with her North Carolinian shouts whenever I would win some type of recognition from one of the awards programs (or be named to a prestigious board).

But she wasn’t just there in the good times. Dandy would also bend over backwards to prop me up after an evil client had just fired us or a key employee walked out the door. “They’ll find out they made a mistake and come crawling back,” she’d predict. And she was right on more than one occasion.

Dandy not only felt like a member of the Peppercomm family; she felt like a member of the Cody family as well. She would never, ever hesitate to help my 97-year-old dad (who always referred to her as his “passion flower”). Dandy just adored him. For me, it was a don’t ask/don’t tell. And she would help Angie, Chris and Cat in a New York minute as well.

She grieved with me when I lost my mom as well as Mick, the best dog I ever had. And she rejoiced with me when Crain’s New York Business named Peppercomm the single best workplace in New York.

Dandy, along with Sir Clayton Fletcher, Maggie O’Neill, Deb Brown, Jackie Kolek, Ann Barlow and, perhaps, this blogger were instrumental in creating a workplace that Crain’s judges rated the very best among some 933 other NYC businesses. That remains the most important award my firm has won in its 23-year history.

If you stumble across the Crain’s article, you’ll see Dandy’s face smiling back at you. In fact, I can see her smiling back from the screen of my iPhone as I’m writing this.

Three final memories before I let my fellow Peppercommers share a few thoughts:

1.) Dandy took my Repman blog far more seriously than I did. And I cannot tell you how many heated arguments we had debating whether I had once again stepped over the line. I always respected Dandy’s intellect and sensitivities and, almost always, let her carry the day and spike the offending or self-aggrandizing blog.

2.) Dandy prided herself on being the note-taker for our twice-a-month staff meetings. And I must tell you, her reports were as unique as the woman herself. They were equal parts hysterical, insightful and, at times, baffling. But, boy, did Dandy love it when I would send her an e-mail afterwards telling her how beautifully she’d captured the spirit of the meeting.

3.) Dandy was tough as nails and beat the bejesus out of any incompetent, uncaring or abusive customer service representative. I often had to run over to her desk and ask her to lower her voice when she was in the midst of eviscerating some unsuspecting United Airlines ticket agent (I think Dandy hated United even more than me). Dandy feared no man (or woman). But she loved Mr. Coffee, her cat.

And now my colleagues will weigh-in:

“The world truly lost its sparkle yesterday.  Dandy was a light like no other, and the light that helped Peppercomm shine for so many years. She brought her own brand of NY sassiness coupled with southern charm and motherly care to Peppercomm’s offices each and every day.  She cared immensely, laughed wholeheartedly and embraced life in a way that I only hope I can.  The last time I saw Dandy we had a few too many lunchtime sparkling roses toasting memories, gossiping a bit and focusing on a commitment to life well lived.  Dandy told me to always take chances, don’t put things off until tomorrow and don’t ever settle.  The spirit she gave to Peppercomm and the impact she left with me will certainly live on.  I just hope I can pull it all off half as well as she did.”Maggie O’Neill, partner and managing director 

“It could be easy to forget that under Dandy’s impish demeanor lay a razor-sharp wit, one that we would get an occasional glimpse of when she wrote up the ‘minutes’ of our staff meetings. I think it was fair to say that we looked forward to her write-up more than the meetings themselves, much as we love to gather as a team. This wit, in turn, was only outdone by a remarkable level of thoughtfulness and empathy when you were hurting. When my dad was sick and then passed away at the end of last year, she couldn’t have been kinder, even though she was dealing with her own illness at the time. I’ll miss her more than I can say.”Ann Barlow, partner and managing director

“Dandy was truly one-of-a-kind and will be greatly missed.  No matter what you had going on in your life, how busy you were or how stressed you might be, the sight of Dandy would always bring a smile to your face.  Her pink raincoat, her orange shoes, her fluorescent green blouse, she was truly always the bright spot of the day.  I will miss her ripping her glasses off her face to give you the best expression of shock, glee or joy.  She was a physical comedian who did fantastic impressions (a certain gazelle will always be my favorite).  Dandy embodied the true spirit of Peppercomm by not only working hard, but playing harder.  She was more than a colleague, she was family.  Even when her own health was deteriorating, she never failed to ask after your parents, spouse, children or pets.  She will live on in our hearts and we’ll be telling stories of the Danderoo for generations of Peppercommers to come.” Jacqueline Kolek, partner and managing director 

“There are so many beautiful and warm and wonderful things to say about Dandy. But one that I’ll always cherish is how she always genuinely cared so much about others and put others first. I will miss her dearly.”Deborah Brown, partner and managing director 

“I am not sure words will ever be able to capture the woman that Dandy Stevenson was to all of us. A pillar of the Peppercomm family. She cared about us fiercely and loved us individually. A woman who embraced and welcomed me from day one and kept me laughing each subsequent day. She kept us in line when needed but also egged us on and joined in on our fun. I will always remember her helping a few of us prank Steve by filling his closet with plastic ball-pit balls while he was in London so he would return to an unexpected shower when reaching in for a rain jacket. She was the absolute life of the party who lived her best life and it was a honor not only working beside her, but getting to know her. She will be greatly missed, but a piece of her lives on with each of us Peppercommers. We are better for having known her.” – Samantha Bruno, former manager of client relationships 

“She was always the most thoughtful person! No matter what was going on with her, she took the time to ask what’s new in your world. Every time I ever spoke to her, I knew she was really listening. She loved to laugh and I loved to make her laugh, too. R.I.P.”Clayton Fletcher, Comedian 

Aug 01

You’re Fired!

I’m impressed by the actions of Fallon, Olson Engage and Initiative to step up, stand out and fire their client Papa John’s in the aftermath of the N-word controversy.

Skeptics could argue that, by firing Papa John’s, each agency will now attract new, and more reputable, clients as a result. One could also surmise such a move will motivate existing employees to stay put while attracting recruits with a desire to work for an agency with ethics.

Perhaps.

But I can tell you as an owner of a 22-year-old firm, it’s very tough to walk away from guaranteed billings. Very tough indeed.

Setting aside higher purpose for a moment, the owners of Fallon, Olson Engage and Initiative also have a payroll to meet. And, that’s when an entrepreneur has to stop and think about the implications of firing a quasi blue-chip client like Papa John’s.

Sure, your Millennials will love telling their peers you did the right thing, and they work for an agency that places ethics above profits. And, in your mind, you HAVE done the right thing.

But then your CFO strolls into your office and says, “I truly respect your decision to deep-six Papa John’s, but it’s put us in a real bind. We either reconsider or reduce our workforce by 10 percent or put an indefinite freeze on raises and bonuses.”

And that, my friend, is why it’s so lonely at the top.

I’ve fired quite a few clients during my tenure as Peppercomm’s CEO. But, none were a result of what I’d call a societal crisis a la Papa John’s N word debacle.

I’ve deep-sixed clients because:

– They were beyond abusive to our account teams (I’d rather keep good people than uncouth clients).

– They poached a key employee without first extending the courtesy of asking my permission (a clear breach of ANY client-agency letter of agreement).

– They were actively interviewing other agencies while we were under contract and none the wiser to their Machiavellian machinations.

– They demanded too much for too little.

Having the spine to fire a client sends a strong message to one’s employees and reinforces the organization’s higher purpose. But, it’s a decision that carries serious financial implications as well (which I doubt the average account manager appreciates).

Firing Papa John’s would have been a no-brainer for me (regardless of the billings).

It’s the gray areas that keep turning what little hair I have left even grayer.