Jun 24

Buy! No, Sell! Wait…Buy…er, Sell…Sell it All!

Today's guest post is by long-time stock market watcher and long distance cyclist, Peppercommer Matt Purdue.

Teen-burgalar-heats-baby-bottle-250In public relations, the first rule is simple: the more you know about your client's business, the more valuable you will be to your client. So what are they concerned about? Right now, almost every business if freaking out at least a bit over what's happening in the world's financial markets.

The stock markets are hopping around like a kangaroo with ADHD, and no one seems certain where they're headed next: up (bull) or down (bear).

So what's going on out there? Let's discuss.

Assumption #1: if demand increases for a finite thing, the price of that thing will rise. Well, everyone knows the world economy has been having a hard time getting back on its feet since the global meltdown that began in 2006. So to help the economy, the US Federal Reserve (the Fed) has essentially been printing money to buy bonds — $85 billion worth of bonds each month. The Fed is thus creating artificial demand, which keeps the prices of bonds and other assets such as stocks rising (see Assumption #1).

And rising asset prices are supposed to make the companies and investors that own these assets more confident. Ideally, this will spur them to spend money, hire more workers, produce more widgets, build more buildings and, thus, boost the world economy.

Well, the Fed can't keep buying bonds forever. At some point, the baby has to give up the bottle and hit the sippy cup. Someday, the Fed will decrease and stop its bond-buying program. The BIG question is when. When will the Fed dial down demand? And when it does, will asset prices fall…and destroy confidence?

This week, the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke, suggested that the Fed could slow its bond buying binge later this year and end it in the middle of next year — if the economy continues to improve. After Big Ben's press conference, the markets reacted…er, overreacted. Mommy told the baby that someday she will have to give up the bottle and use the sippy cup…and now the baby is going apesh*t, throwing its toys and screaming its bloody head off.

In the U.S., the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 500 points last Wednesday and Thursday. Stocks around the world also pummeled. So what's next? It's hard to guess. As I write this on Monday morning, the Dow is down another 1.5%. If I were a betting man, I'd wager on more volatility in global markets until investors have a better idea of which way the wind is blowing.

Jun 20

If it feels good in your stomach, just jump

20120418-195649Advertising Age's interview with the legendary Shelly Lazarus is a MUST read for any aspiring marketeer, industry veteran or someone who is simply lost at sea.

Lazarus, who is currently chairwoman emeritus at Ogilvy & Mather, confesses she had no idea what to do with her life after attaining her master's degree.

Shelly wound up in advertising because she “…had nothing to do on a Saturday morning in New York.” So, she accompanied a friend to an Advertising Women of New York seminar for college students, and “…was mesmerized.”

But, after getting her MBA, she took the first job offer that came along: a gig at Clairol, simply because she “…liked the people there.”

It wasn't until a headhunter called and persuaded her to take a copywriting job at O&M (which was looking for a copywriter with hair care experience) that Shelly struck gold.

She says of Ogilvy, “I went over there and kind of fell in love and never left.”

Lazarus says she found a place where she loved what she was doing every day.  

Shelly advises young people (or those at sea) not to stress about not having a career plan. “The advice I give is you have to recognize an opportunity, and then if it feels right, if it feels good in your stomach, just jump. Chances are, it'll be right,” she said.

Amen, I say.

Like Shelly, I had no career plan when I graduated from Northeastern University with a B.A. in journalism. Two years of relevant work experience in the newsrooms of The New York Times, CBS Newsradio and WGCH Radio in Greenwich had taught me two things: I loved news and newswriting, but hated the cynical, back-stabbing culture of the newsroom.

So, I asked Bill Kurtz, my N.U. professor, for advice. “Have you thought of PR?” he asked. “What's that?” I responded (at the time, N.U. didn't offer a single course in the field).

Long story made short, Kurtz advised me to read back issues of O'Dwyer's Newsletter, compose a cover letter and start reaching out to PR firms.

Like Shelly Lazarus, I struck gold at Hill and Knowlton. Like Shelly, I went over there and kind of fell in love (but, I didn't stay). What did stay, though, was my love of public relations.

It took Shelly Lazarus a while to find her passion. Ditto for me. And, ditto for many of you.

So, take it from arguably the most successful woman in advertising history: you WILL find your passion. Just listen to your gut. If it feels good, jump!

Jun 19

FYI to My Fellow Millennials: Print is cool

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Catharine Cody.

Detssssssail_21507127I’m kind of an odd duck for my generation.  My clock radio (which is older than I am and inherited from my parents' guest bedroom) wakes me up every morning to Soterios Johnson on NPR’s Morning Edition.  While I’m sipping my coffee and deciding what to wear, I’m learning about President Obama’s G8 Summit and the NSA PRISM controversy. 

Along those same lines, when the Kindle and Nook started to gain popularity a few years back, I did not jump on board.  Books are even available on iPhones now, but my e-newsstand is blissfully empty.  I refuse to buy into that trend. So, when I decided to buy a year’s subscription to TIME magazine, people were a little surprised I opted for the print copy and not the iPad app. 

The thing is, I like the feel of paper in my hands.  I don’t care that the iPad apps are interactive, or that you can easily look up words you don’t know on Kindles and Nooks simply by double tapping on them.  I’m old school.  If I don’t know what a word means I (GASP) look it up in a dictionary.  An ACTUAL dictionary, not dictionary.com.  Call me crazy, but I sometimes even try to figure out what an unfamiliar word means by using context clues. 

When I go on vacation, I pack a few books (hard and softcover) to read.  When I’m reading the morning’s headlines, I’m reading the print New York Times, AM New York and NY Metro.  I like getting ink stains on my fingers.  In fact, every ink-stained finger is a black badge of honor. 

So, when I saw the cover of TIME Magazine a few weeks ago about the Millennial Generation, I absolutely HAD to buy it.  And guess what? I read the entire issue cover to cover.  The magazine has amazing graphics to illustrate their stories. As a former graphics production assistant for MSNBC, I understand that these graphics are used to make the content really come to life.  The next week’s edition of TIME Magazine about China looked just as cool- so I bought that, too.  And then I decided, I might as well just bite the bullet and buy a year’s subscription to the publication.  Now, for a meager $23/year, I will have every issue of TIME delivered right to my doorstep. Winning!

Not only do I feel really cool among my peers who also commute each day by reading TIME Magazine, but I’m also able to bring new ideas to the table at work.  Last week’s issue had an article about classroom technology and a new platform that’s making it easier for kids to have one-on-one training instead of a “one size fits all” approach.  One of my clients is trying to break into the education technology industry.  Not only was I able to flag this article for my client, but my team members at work were impressed that I even thought to bring it up. 

Handheld e-readers may be easier to handle while commuting, and less cumbersome, but come on- it’s a joke.  One of the best, and most cathartic, parts about reading something is that you are able to see how far you’ve gone and how much you have left.  How am I supposed to highlight an interesting part of an article in TIME on an iPad?  How am I supposed to take notes or mark literary references in books without a pen? 

So, the next time you think that all millennials are ruining America with their new-fangled technology and “Devil may care attitude,” think of me, the girl who’d rather stay in bed and read than go out and drink on a Friday night.  I swear it’s JUST as cool.

Jun 18

Baseball’s in a pickle

BoredBaseball_Tim Shaffer_postDid you know there are fewer black Major League Baseball players than at any time since 1959?

Did you also know that Major League attendance is down three percent this season, and taking a double digit dip in such major markets as New York and Los Angeles? Or, that the Miami Marlins attract so few fans that the team has actually roped off the upper deck?

Talk about Sounds of Silence.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has appointed a commission to determine why the sport's percentage of black players is fading faster than the legendary Satchel Paige's curve ball. I have my hunches, but will wait for the official report before weighing in.

As for the attendance decline, I think it's been prompted by a combination of factors:

– Horrific Spring weather
– Obscene ticket prices
– The aftermath of the steroid scandal (a.k.a. 'A-Rod fatigue’)
– Outrageous player salaries
– The dearth of black role models

Then, too, there's the very real fact that baseball is, at times, an agonizingly slow sport. In a society's that constantly racing along at a 24×7 clip, it's becoming increasingly tough to wait for a pitcher to shake off a catcher's sign, wind-up and toss a ball that's then fouled off in the fourth inning of a meaningless game between two losing teams in mid-June.

I witnessed baseball's precipitous decline a few weeks back when I attended a Subway Series game at Yankees Stadium. The stands were only half-full. Sure, the Bombers fielded a team of no-names but c'mon, this was the Subway Series! I can remember scalpers fetching $500 per ticket when the cross-town series debuted in the mid-1990s. Now, you can't give away tickets.

This June also happens to mark the 125th anniversary of baseball's seminal poem, 'Casey at the Bat', by Ernest L. Thayer.

Written at a time when the national pastime was first flexing its muscles and becoming THE sport of THE up-and-coming nation, Casey has been told in countless formats and paintings, including books, theatre, movies, and yes, Virginia, even an opera!

I'm not sure the analogy holds true with the poem's Mudville Nine, but it seems to me that Major League Baseball is waiting for its Casey to step up to the plate and save the day.

Alas, there is no single solution to fan apathy, high ticket prices, overpaid and pampered players and a game that's slower than the pour on a Heinz's ketchup bottle.

As a long-suffering Mets fan who's yet to watch one game of the hapless franchise's season so far, I'm pulling for MLB to rally in the bottom of the ninth and fix what's broken. But, Bud Selig's certainly no Mighty Casey, and even the latter struck out when the chips were down.

Jun 17

The Oscars of PR

Prsa_354I'd be remiss on this Father's Day Monday if I didn't give a major shout-out to my third child, Peppercomm, for winning two Silver Anvils last Thursday.

The PRSA's Silver Anvil is the public relations industry's answers to Hollywood's Oscar. And, while we also have our versions of the Golden Globe, Tony and others, the Anvil reigns unchallenged as THE most sought-after trophy.

In fact, it's not a stretch to say Peppercomm owes some of its success to the Anvil.

Back in 1997, we were still a small, virtually unknown start-up with one or two blue chip clients and many, many more tiny ones. One of the latter, however, a dotcom known as Money Talks, enabled us to shine.

We had two terrific clients by the names of Larry Thomas and Julie Farin, who let us do amazingly creative things to break through the Wild West-like clutter that existed back then and establish the personal finance website as a trusted source of advice.

We were rewarded for our efforts by winning the very first Silver Anvil in the 'Internet PR' category.

The Anvil win established Peppercomm as a credible player and, of equal importance, attracted a veritable horde of cash-rich dotcoms wanting us to do for them what we'd just done for Money Talks.

Thanks to that long-ago Anvil win, we were also able to attract the likes of Steelcase, Aon and General Electric, all of whom yearned to partner with a savvy 'click-and-mortar' public relations firm. And, thanks to Steelcase, GE and a few other ‘real' businesses, we were able to survive the dotcom bust a few years later. 

So, I'd like to thank the PRSA judges, our agency teams who brought home the awards and, of course, all the folks behind the scenes who made winning these prestigious awards possible.

Winning two Silver Anvils makes this father one very proud poppa.

Jun 14

The battered brand of Katie

Bear with me for a minute, but Katie Couric reminds me of Civil War Hero Robert E. Lee.

Celeb_stories_that_used_to_matter_640_76I'll tell you why.

I'm reading a page-turner of a book about the battle of Gettysburg entitled 'Gettysburg The Last Invasion'.

The book was released in time to mark the 150th anniversary of the North American continent's bloodiest battle ever.

In reading the tome, I was struck by the numerous image and reputation parallels between the legendary Rebel leader and the one-time media darling. To wit:

– As Lee's three corps crossed the Rappahannock River, headed north into Maryland and entered Pennsylvania, they seemed absolutely invincible. Indeed, Lee was convinced one more Confederate victory would force Lincoln to sue for peace. And, he had every reason to believe he would win. In two fierce years of engagements with the North, his army entered Gettysburg undefeated (Antietam was considered a stalemate).

Likewise, from the time she joined The Today Show as an oh-so-cute, oh-so-perky co-host to first, Bryant Gumbel, and later, Matt Lauer, Katie became an unstoppable force. She was almost immediately crowned the queen of the morning talk show circuit, and reigned unchallenged for years.

– Lee then committed a series of unexpected blunders during the course of the three-day battle at Gettysburg, culminating in the complete disaster that was Pickett's Charge.

Katie made the unbelievable blunder of thinking she somehow possessed the journalistic chops to sit in the same CBS Evening News seat that had been occupied by the likes of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather.

In my opinion, her sole accomplishment as CBS News anchor occurred when she eviscerated the brain-dead Sarah Palin just before the 2008 election, 'So, you can't name a single book or newspaper that you've read?' asked a befuddled Katie. 'My people give me things. I don't recall their titles,' responded the thoughtful Alaskan soccer mom.

The CBS Evening News became Katie's Gettysburg. She was soundly defeated. Viewers quickly saw through the thin veneer, realized the woman lacked the necessary gravitas and began channel surfing. I actually predicted at the time that Katie would end up as an afternoon talk show host of the Oprah variety. And, she did.

And, now, just like Lee in the years after Gettysburg, Katie is losing again and again.

According to a New York Post article, Katie's show may not even make it to a third season (insert link). The reasons why include a lack of direction and strategy, "…staff weirdness' (that can't be good) and "…no one making decisions."  And, as is true of Katie herself, one critic said her show was "struggling…to find a balance between fluff and news."

Industry watchers are speculating that Katie might join CNN, which would be ironic since Sarah Palin has just joined Fox News. Maybe the two could re-engage in mortal combat as a far fluffier, more banal version of the Bill O'Reilly – Jon Stewart wars?

Katie's brand is battered and bloodied because she lost sight of her strengths and tried to be someone she wasn't. And, thanks to the passage of time, she simply can't get away with just her cuteness anymore. That may seem chauvinistic, but I'd say the same of any male personality who suddenly tried to convince the world he was a serious journalist. One doesn't become an accepted member of the Fourth Estate just because one begins wearing eyeglasses.

The story of Katie is far from over. But, sadly, I see her ending up as Lee did at Appomattox: surrounded by younger, better-equipped foes with more ammunition. Katie is a one-trick pony. And, neither Katie nor the South will ever rise again.

Jun 13

“Spam handling” the new pan handling?

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Dandy Stevenson.

The following event announcement landed on my Facebook page yesterday:

A friend’s adult son is apparently going after his third advanced degree in music composition, and I, along with 1,112 of his other closest friends, have been invited to help pay his way. I hardly know where to start with this one, but that as an educated adult he has no compunction to begging is as good a place as any. I mean, this is not to help his favorite charity.

Wait a minute. Maybe he IS his own favorite charity. Is he such an artist that a mainstream job is too dangerous? If he was a waiter, some aggrieved customer might stab his magic fingers with a fork.

Besides, if he has a data base of 1,000+ friends, and if each person gives just five dollars then he’s got a tax-free five thou easy as pie. Much easier than breaking a sweat or waking up at 7am, right?  As he says on his fundraising page, “The life of a composer can be overwhelming at times.” (One can only imagine.)

And by donating I am “helping to shape the path of an artist.” 

His virtual tin cup is part of GoFundMe (“The easy way to raise money online.”) And he is just one of thousands who have set up sites to pay for such things as a honeymoon (“We’re thinking of sailing in the Caribbean!”) a dirt bike (”…cuz, honestly, that's about all I want.) or bankroll a Miss Teen USA hopeful (“Singing lessons are expensive!”).

Of course there are the heart-tugging pleas from cancer patients and those who lost homes to natural disasters. Maybe. This mainstream solicitation portal dilutes everything to the point that you wonder just how many doe-eyed children are really sick. Or it could be just sick parents trying to make an easy buck.

Ever since the United Way scandal (Millennials: look it up) charities have suffered mightily. And today, while things are better, thanks to such watchdog organizations as Charity Navigator, non-profits still have an uphill battle for the public’s dwindling discretionary dollars. And vehicles such as GoFundMe aren’t helping.

Jun 12

When in doubt, fire the PR guy

Fireddd It comes as no surprise that, in the aftermath of what most considered a balanced article about the Oakland Raiders in Sports Illustrated, team owner Mark Davis fired the team's public relations director.

According to reports in The San Francisco Chronicle, Davis didn't like the way S.I. '…painted him or the job done by his father, late owner Al Davis, in the previous 10 years.' So, PR Director Zak Gilbert was cut from the squad.

The move actually makes sense since:

– Like many other CEOs, Davis is reluctant to shoulder the blame for his personal mistakes (Think: Messrs. Dimon, Kozlowski, Lay and Skilling as a starting point).

– Like many other CEOs, Davis really doesn't understand the role of strategic public relations or the concept of a free press (Think: “C'mon, Steve, you must have something on this reporter. Call in a chit, and get him to write a puff piece.”).

– When it is thought of at all by many CEOs, PR is seen as either stunts or crisis messaging. Period.

– Finally, when the going gets tough, the PR and human resources functions are almost always the first to go.

The Raiders story reminds me of two, similar personal experiences. One is recent; the other occurred during the War of the Roses:

– Not too long ago, a major retailer told us that, despite demonstrable success in turning around their image and reputation on social media channels, our budget was being re-allocated to fund an upgrade in the organization's IT infrastructure. Oh. Well, that sure demonstrated the CEO's respect for PR, didn't it?

– Long ago and far away (and while at H&K), we represented a global consulting firm who paid us a large retainer AND spent $1mm in print advertising in The Wall Street Journal (a not inconsiderable sum for a professional services firm in those days). Well, we pitched the Journal on a feature and, lo and behold, scored a front page story. But, alas, the piece was well-researched and balanced and, as a result, contained both positive and negative quotes about the CEO and his organization.

The CEO's first call was to me. He screamed at me and said if I didn't get a full retraction he'd fire us. When I told him a full retraction would never, ever occur, he promptly fired H&K (and me). He then proceeded to yank his advertising from the Journal (and Forbes Magazine, for good measure).

Needless to say, the Journal, Forbes and H&K are still very much alive, if not well. Meanwhile, the consulting firm has stayed under the radar ever since.

As I've noted in previous blogs, PR can help build credibility and enhance consideration, but if the basic business model is flawed (Read: the Raiders and the consulting firm), nothing will help.

That said, firing the PR guy always makes the CEO feel good. And, that's the bottom-line.

So, how about you? Have any good 'Fire the PR guy' stories worth sharing? I promise we won't cancel your subscription.

Jun 11

You don’t know @#$% from Shinola

Today’s guest post is by Peppercomm’s Director, Media and Editorial Strategy, Matt Purdue who, I’m pleased to report, does know sh*t from shinola.

What happens when your company’s most important brand messages don’t match with the experience you offer your target customers? You end up with disappointed and frustrated prospects, that’s what.

Case in point: I’m a bit of a watch nerd. I see a watch as more than a timekeeper. I see it as an accoutrement (five points for using that word) that makes a statement about the guy who’s wearing it. That’s why I was so excited when a company called Shinola recently came on the scene.  I won’t bore you with their background – you can Google it. But, in a nutshell, Shinola makes sharp-looking watches that are hand-assembled right here in the U.S. of A. – in Detroit of all places.

On June 6, I received the email below from Shinola. After quickly selling out their first run, Shinola was offering a second run…a “second chapter,” as they cleverly wrote.  The watches were purportedly rolling off the assembly line. And if I reserved by June 12, I was guaranteed to have a watch in time for a Father’s Day gift to myself.
About three hours after I received the email, I clicked over to Shinola’s website. Every single watch was sold out. Confused, I called Shinola. A very pleasant woman answered the phone. She confirmed that, yes indeed, the watches sold out within two hours. As my colleague Sam Ford so astutely put it: “That was a really short second chapter.”

I read the company’s email messaging back to her. I told her that images of watches rolling off an assembly line didn’t match the reality: that Shinola made so few watches that they were gone in two hours. I asked her why Shinola would promise Father’s Day delivery for all orders placed by June 12, when they must have had a sense that there’d be no watches remaining on June 12.

She apologized profusely, but didn’t have any satisfactory answers as to why Shinola implied they were making watches galore, when they obviously assembled a relatively small batch. I suggested to the woman that all Shinola had to do was simply tell the truth: that the first batch sold out quickly, so customers had better act fast to avoid being disappointed. We went on to have a long discussion about other alternatives: for example, hold five daily flash sales, selling 20% of the batch each day until they are all sold, etc., etc. But, in the end, it was all talk.

In fact, as I write this, Shinola is still running ads with this messaging: “Your dad can't pass down his American-made wristwatch if you never buy it for him. Father's Day collection from Shinola.” Well, sorry, dads. You’ll just have to wait for the next batch…because there aren’t any watches left. Maybe you’ll have one for Labor Day?

Every executive today is busier than ever, and doesn’t need any more headaches. So why do companies inflict this pain on themselves? When it comes to customer messaging, you should not have these problems. The best customer messaging aligns the brand promise with the customer experience. When it comes to writing and distributing your brand messages, there’s simply no excuse for overpromising and underdelivering.

Jun 10

More like one minute to midnight

Evil-clown-mcdonalds-30871145-320-304In a desperate ploy to turn around its worst quarterly sales report in more than a decade, McDonald's is finally taking off the gloves and going all out to fatten up consumers around the world.

Starting immediately, diners can order pancakes or hash browns to go with their Happy Meal 24 hours a day! The fast food behemoth’s so-called ‘After Midnight’ program will enable customers to mix and match breakfast items with those from the all-day menu. So, one could go with eggs, bacon, a double cheeseburger and fries, and wash down the whole ungodly concoction with a supersized Coke. Life doesn’t get much better than that.

And, get this, McDonald’s addicts in Japan can order something called a Mega Potato. That’s a Godzilla-like serving that features an artery-clogging, heart-stopping 1,142 calories! That’s more calories than one can find in two Big Macs. Wow. Thanks, Ronald!

McDonald’s is in panic mode because Millennials are choosing other fast food options. According to industry analysts, Millennials are more price conscious than their elders AND prefer personalized, healthier chains such as Shake Shack that enable them to create, and watch, their own low-calorie meals being made right before their eyes. Based on this new trend, it seems to me McDonald’s should instead call their campaign ‘One Minute to Midnight.’

Eating (and talking) out of both sides of their mouth

I wouldn’t find the latest Mickey D offensive so offensive if the Fortune 500 mega company didn’t also wrap itself in the cloak of corporate social responsibility. So, while it touts such programs as the Ronald McDonald House which do, in fact, help prolong lives and fund cancer research, McDonald’s continues to playing a leading role in causing obesity with these After Midnight promotions. That’s corporate double-speak.

I have a stand-up comedy routine that calls for more authenticity in advertising. I joke that many organizations would, in fact, be 100 percent transparent in their advertising campaigns if they only added one word. For example:

    -In the aftermath of United’s merger with Continental airlines, they ran ads proclaiming; ‘It’s not who’s merging that counts. It’s what’s about to emerge.’ Had they only added the word chaos, United would be telling the truth.
    -New Jersey Transit’s slogan is: ‘Getting you there.’ That brand promise would be 100 percent accurate if the transportation monopoly added the word eventually.
    -McDonald’s current slogan is: ‘I’m lovin’ it!’ In light of the After Midnight program, I suggest they add two words to the tagline: to death.