May 21

Spot On

Richard Edelman’s Linkedin essay posits powerful and accurate views on the rapidly emerging role of the chief communications officer AND her/his PR counselors in this new, dark era of school shootings, a president who changes his mind more often than the wind shifts direction in Chicago and the disturbing rise of fake news or, False News, as we board members of The Institute for Public Relations (IPR) prefer to call it.

Peppercomm and the IPR are about to release the results of our third, in-depth series of interviews with 25 Fortune 500 CCOs and a smattering of senior marketing executives who direct crisis response for their organizations.

The vast majority have already created, or are in the process of developing brand new “societal” crisis plans that anticipate future events, develop responses pre-approved by the CEO, CHRO and CLO, and scenario plan the expectations and reactions of a public comment from their CEO by everyone from an activist board member and colossal customer to employees and local communities in which the organization maintains a presence.

The corporate communications function is uniquely qualified (and prepared) to guide the C-Suite through the uncharted waters of a highly-divisive, and hugely uncertain, global environment.

It’s no longer acceptable for CEO’s to mimic an ostrich, listen to a lawyer’s advice or hope that, this, too, shall pass. Just ask Kasper Rorsted, the CEO of Adidas, who badly bungled his responses to Kanye West’s lamentable statements about slavery.

I have huge admiration for our peers in digital, data analytics, advertising and other marketing disciples but we, in PR, have ALWAYS fulfilled the role of the corporation’s conscience.

And, the need for smart, carefully-crafted, ethically and morally responsible commentary has never been more important. No offense intended, but marketing types simply don’t possess the DNA to lead the charge.

It’s a great time to be a strategic PR counselor. And, here’s my version of a Richard Edelman plug: Keep your eyes peeled for sneak previews of our CCO research in the days to come.

May 09

Bad Advice

I just returned from the superb PRSA Counselors Academy’s Spring Conference, a MUST attend for ANY PR entrepreneur.

I had the privilege to address the 200 or so attendees on the subject of Fake News which, as my three faithful Repman readers will recall, I addressed in a previous blog.

Anyway, one of the attendees provided the single worst piece of advice re: responding to a Trump attack Tweet I’ve yet to hear.

An obvious POTUS supporter, this particular counselor had the following advice for ANY corporation that finds itself on the receiving end of a mean-spirited, factually incorrect Trump Tweet:

“Love him or hate him, he’s the president. And, what’s the one thing he adores more than anything else? A person or organization that praises one of his initiatives. So, forget about the attack and, instead, find something your organization is doing that aligns with Trump’s agenda and Tweet about that. Guarantee he will love it, re-Tweet it and you’ll gain millions of new followers.”

Wow. That is so far beyond wrong that it redefines the word.

The right way to respond to a Trump attack (which we verified with 25 CCOs in our soon-to-be-released, co-branded research report with IPR) is to gather the facts, reach out to a trusted reporter and allow him or her to publish a balanced article.

That’s exactly what Nordstrom’s did when Trump attacked them for dumping Ivanka’s fashion line.

Nordstrom’s shared their business policy with a trusted reporter who said, in effect, that Nordstrom’s had the right to discontinue any underperforming SKU. And Ivanka’s sales were dismal (despite KellyAnne Conway’s attempt to endorse them on Fox & Friends).

Any corporation that has created its higher purpose should use that purpose to guide its response to any sort of Trump attack or societal crisis.

You should NOT attempt to find something you’re doing that Trump will like. You should follow the lead of Ed Bastian, Delta’s CEO who, in the aftermath of the Parkland High School shootings, severed all ties with the NRA.

When the state of Georgia took away a significant sales tax exemption from Delta, its CEO stood his ground. In a memo to employees, he wrote the now famous rallying cry for taking a stand: Our values are not for sale.

That, my friends, is how best-in-class organizations respond to a Trump attack or societal crisis. They use their corporate purpose as the North Star and leverage it to guide their messaging.

May 07

The Sounds of Silence

I must say I was surprised, and disappointed, to read that Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted felt a bit aggravated last week when asked to comment on Pop Star Kanye West’s highly controversial comments about slavery.

To refresh your memory, West Tweeted the following, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years…for 400 years…. that sounds like a choice.”

It was at that moment the Adidas CEO had a very clear choice as to whether to stand up, speak out and, if not condemn West’s comments, to at least say they didn’t reflect the views or corporate purpose of his company.

Instead, he sounded quite miffed when was quoted as having said: “I’m not going to comment on every comment he (meaning West) or somebody else makes.”

Well, in Kanye’s case, he is most certainly NOT just somebody else when it comes to Adidas. He is both a paid designer and brand ambassador.

Rorsted’s non-comment was, in fact, a very strong comment. It told me, and millions of others, that an incendiary, racist statement made by a representative of his company is acceptable. And, that’s unacceptable.

I don’t wear Adidas sneakers, so I can’t boycott the brand, but I’d be willing to bet my treasured Asics running shoes that many people have or will boycott Adidas as much for West’s hateful statement as for Rorsted’s tacit endorsement (that’s how I read silence). Consumers are currently signing a petition for Adidas to drop the rapper.

Long ago and far away, then-BP CEO Tony Hayward was absolutely eviscerated by media everywhere when, after visiting the site of the massive oil spill his company had caused in the Gulf of Mexico, Hayward said, “I’d like my life back.”

Brutal comment. Just brutal. And the subsequent outrage would end up costing the BP CEO his job.

I doubt Rorsted will lose his job, but his refusal to comment in a time of crisis will most assuredly cost him sales and employees, while stepping all over the brand’s image and reputation.

To paraphrase Thomas Paine, “These are the days that try men’s (and women’s) souls.” These are also the days when it’s no longer acceptable for CEOs to remain silent.

Shame on you, Mr. Rorsted, for not standing up and doing the right thing. It may not end your career, but it will forever tarnish it.

Note: I will be addressing societal crises, fake news and the pressing need for CEOs everywhere to stand up, speak out and double down on their organization’s corporate purpose at the PRSA Counselors Academy’s Spring Conference later today.

Silence is no longer golden, especially in the aftermath of a societal crisis such as a mass shooting, a controversial piece of legislation such as tariffs or an incendiary statement uttered by a high-profile figure.

Silence is shameful.

Apr 30

If you like me, you’ll be more willing to believe my outright lie just might happen at some point in the future

A fascinating new study undertaken by an associate professor of organizational behavior at the London Business School has shed new light on why the Trump base simply doesn’t care about his documented lying.

Regardless of your political views, it’s a fascinating, new look at the fake news being disseminated by the West Wing.

In short, the research shows that, for example, Trump’s inauguration did NOT come remotely close to attracting the largest crowd ever. Regardless, the base  were more than content to believe KellyAnne Conway’s comment that it WOULD have been the best attended inauguration if inclement weather hadn’t interfered.

That’s balderdash but, in the minds of the base, it COULD be true. As a result, they give The White House a pass on what Ms. Conway likes to call “alternative facts.”

Check out the article. It explains the phenomenon in far greater detail and makes for a fascinating read: read here.

Two other quick plugs: one for me and one for the Museum of Public Relations:

1.) I have the honor of participating in a panel at the upcoming PRSA Counselors Academy’s Spring Conference. The subject: “Best practices for dealing with fake news.”

2.) Separately, the Museum of Public Relations will be hosting a very interesting discussion on the same subject, entitled: “Truth Decay.”

A distinguished panel that includes two of my BFFs, Pat Ford of Burson Cohn & Wolfe and Tina McCorkindale, president of the Institute for Public Relations, will be addressing the findings of a new report issued by the RAND Corporation.

I will attend and I hope you do as well. As far as my remarks at the Spring Conference, I’m hopeful the attendees will believe what I have to say if for no other reason than they like me. 😎

Apr 25

Bananas Found to Have Caused The Bubonic Plague

I’ll bet that headline stopped you in the midst of your cereal of granola, soy milk and sliced bananas.

It’s completely false, of course, but I predict we’ll be reading a similar headline after the deep-pocketed sports drink industry has had an opportunity to digest a new finding from researchers at the North Carolina Research Center Campus of Appalachian State University in Kannapolis (how’s that for a mouthful? What’s the school nickname? The Polysyllabic Panthers?).

Anyway, school researchers conducted a series of exhaustive studies (are there any other kind?) of cyclists to determine if water, sports drinks or good, old bananas provided the most benefits for athletes after they completed their routes.

The studies were funded by Dole Bananas who naturally, claimed they had had no involvement in “the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.” Sure. And, I never pick up a stray dollar bill when I see one on a street corner.

Anyway, here’s the link to the entire column.

I’ve always been a big fan of bananas after scaling a mountain, completing a century bike ride or putting in an intense hour of heavy weights and floor exercises. They taste great and you can literally feel Your exhausted body slowly reactivate. The sports drinks, on the other hand, taste like slightly better versions of Mountain Dew. And, as you know, they’re chock full of artificial sugars, flavorings and chemicals.

The only downside to the all-natural banana is they may cause bloating which, researchers from the unpronounceable school observed, “…..might dampen some athletes’ enthusiasm.” True, but the same can be said of the Boston Marathon’s infamous Heartbreak Hill.

The beauty of studies that single out multi-billion dollar industries such as sports drinks is they elicit an immediate, pit bull response that mocks the original research, underscores the countless benefits of the products under attack and absolutely pillory the credibility of the original research.

Hence my prediction that GatorAde and the rest will soon be issuing a press release announcing new research (from, hopefully, a more easy to speak and read university, that shouts):

“Bananas Found to Have Been Cause of the Bubonic Plague.’”

Apr 17

Neither Jail Time, Stiff Fines Nor a One-Way Ticket to Mars will Stop Silicon Valley Leakers from Leaking

Ever read something and experience an immediate flashback to another period in your life? No? Well, I just did.

And this is the article that triggered my business version of PTSD. It’s a piece from CNN.com reporting that Apple’s senior management has threatened dire consequences to ANY employee who is caught leaking internal information.

Unfortunately the threatening memo was, well, leaked to CNN.

And, here’s the personal flashback it triggered.

Along with my Peppercomm peers, I enjoyed a front-row seat as the newly-minted CEO of the now moribund Yahoo addressed a worldwide audience of employees. She was there to deliver her state-of-the-company address.

By way of quick background, Yahoo had been plagued by internal civil wars that were being played out daily in Silicon Valley rags thanks to, you guessed it, workers leaking sensitive information.

Back to the CEO and her inaugural address. After acknowledging the thunderous applause from hopeful employees who were desperately praying this latest CEO could right the good ship Yahoo and return the tech dinosaur to its glory days, she barked out the following message:

“Let me begin by addressing the leaks. The leaks will stop immediately. Do you know why? Because if I ever catch one of you leaking a confidential memo to Kara Swisher or any other reporter, I will personally drop-kick your sorry ass to Mars! Got it?”

She then proceeded to share her strategic vision for fixing the foundering has-been and then invited questions from the audience.

A meek, mild engineering type stood and asked, “Since some of us like me have cultivated relationships with reporters who cover the highly technical aspects of our products, is it still OK if I speak with those types of reporters?”

If looks could kill, that poor engineer would be pushing up daisies as we speak.

She glared at the unassuming engineer and screamed, “Are you a complete moron? Were you not listening to what I just said? Leak one word or one sentence and you will be a dead man walking. Got it?”

Based upon the deafening silence, the whole room (and worldwide viewing audience) GOT it.

Alas, the leaks continued. She was fired after less than a year and replaced by the equally inept Marissa Meyer, whose first official act was to terminate thousands of Yahoo flex-time workers while building a state-of-the-art child care center adjacent to her office at corporate headquarters. In other words, she could bring her kiddies to work (but the moms, dads, caregivers who tried doing the same from their homes and apartments were given the heave-ho). Very deft touch, no?

I am in no way equating Apple’s future with the demise of Yahoo, but I will say that when management feels the need to threaten leakers with jail time, a company’s best years may very well be in the past.

Apr 09

This red, red robin isn’t bob bobbing along

I’m not a fan of self-help gurus.

Their modus operandi mirrors the value proposition firms such as Bain, Booz-Allen have peddled for years: They study your problem, tell you what you already know and then charge you a few millions dollars to implement the changes they recommend.

Tony Robbins is the best-known self-help guru. He excels at superimposing a feel-good spin on conventional wisdom and then charging you beaucoup bucks for what you already know you need to do to improve your lot in life. Nice gig, no? Not always.

Recently, Tony blew it big time by NOT listening to a major issue keeping his female flock up at night: the #MeToo movement.

Instead of demanding immediate across-the-board changes Robbins, instead, chastised women for “victimizing” the issue in order to generate publicity and scoop up some quick dollars.

He was wrong. Dead wrong. But, Tony wouldn’t back down.

Just watch this video of a recent Robbins’ rally and watch him use anyone/anything else he could conjure up to defend his misguided thoughts.

As is his wont, Robbins dominated the exchange with the woman in the video who called him out for misunderstanding and undermining #MeToo.

Instead of empathizing with her, he instead obfuscated the discussion, used the loyal audience to support whatever he just said and absolutely REFUSED to apologize for his original comments.

Americans are trying to cope with the seismic issues facing them in a world gone wild. And, sadly, many turn to self-help gurus like Robbins for guidance and reassurance that everything will be just fine.

I’m fine with anyone who derives some sort of confidence and self-assurance from guys like Robbins. But, a guru has to admit fault when a guru is dead wrong. And, Robbins didn’t.

Afterword: I’ve been paying close attention to Robbins in particular for the past year or so because we hired a consultant who not only based his counsel on RobbinsSpeak, but would inadvertently e-mail us advice that still contained the guru’s name on the bottom of the consultant’s “work assignments.” Nothing like ripping off a rip-off artist.

Needless to say, our consultant’s advice routinely missed the mark. But, hey, he was just pulling a Robbins on Robbins (re-circulating recirculated ideas).

Legitimate self-help gurus can provide invaluable counsel. But, those who dismiss a powerful, and legitimate, trend risk alienating their fan following in the blink of an eye. And those who, like our now long-gone consultant, who rip-off content from others deserve a special place in hell.

Come to think of it, listening to self-help Tony Robbins lectures for eternity would certainly qualify as hell in my book.

Mar 28

A Night at the Museum…

Taylor Shawver and Shannon Thornton, two of Peppercomm’s sure fire leaders of tomorrow, took time out of their busy schedules to pen a guest blog about what the PR workplace experience of the past was like for three pioneering women. A big thank you to Shelley Spector and The Museum of Public Relations for hosting an event that highlighted female pioneers and enlightened the likes of Shannon, Taylor and so many other young PR practitioners…….

To help celebrate Women’s History Month, Peppercomm had the honor of being a sponsor for the second annual PR Women Who Changed History™ event hosted by The Museum of Public Relations.

The event, which occurred on March 1st featured a riveting discussion among three of history’s most important PR pioneers–Barbara Hunter, Muriel Fox, and Saralie Slonsky. The trailblazers put us in their virtual time machine and provided a fascinating glimpse into what life was like in the Mad Men days of the industry versus how life is for women in PR today.

In the 1940s, for example, Muriel Fox applied for a writing job at the legendary Carl Byoir & Associates but was told, “Women aren’t writers here, they’re secretaries.”

Her rejection only fueled her perseverance. She kept after Byoir and was finally hired. Once firmly ensconced, she rose quickly through the ranks, becoming Byoir’s first woman vice president in the early 60’s.

Fox’s story was inspirational, but also one we struggled with in fully comprehending. After all, we work in a female-dominated office, so it’s hard to believe there was ever a time a woman would be told they’re not writers.

Barbara Hunter is another pioneering woman tore down the stereotypes and became the first woman in the United States to run a public relations agency.

In addition to explaining how she established her start-up, this entrepreneur even focused on how she would dress back in the day:  “When I went to work, I would put on my hat, often with a veil, my white gloves, and my high heeled shoes and go into the subway to go to work,” she said. She also remembered how few women there were in the field during this time. Hunter recalled attending PRSA luncheons in which 95 percent or more of the tables were filled by men.

Today nearly three-quarters of all PR pros are women. At universities, the percentage of female public relations majors is even higher. The change is both exhilarating and unsettling. It’s exciting to realize how far we’ve come, but it is also incomprehensible to hear how we could have been so marginalized in the first place. Clearly, as was the case for female executives in all industries 60 years ago, women were simply not perceived as managerial worthy.

Last, and certainly not least, Saralie Slonsky shared her tales from the past. Slonsky has spent close to 30 years as a public relations/communications executive at two of the leading global agencies, Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe (which merged several week ago). As she rose through the ranks, Slonsky honed her skills and developed a specialty in women’s health practice. In fact, she helped launch the first menopause education campaign in the early 1980’s, and worked with the team that partnered with Cancer Care to establish the first National Breast Cancer Awareness Week. Talk about pioneering!

The Museum of Public Relations experience not only opened our eyes to how much has been done by so few, but energized us to pick up the torch and keep moving women’s rights forward in the workplace. As Saralie put it, “What you know and how you do it is what matters now.”

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Mar 27

Sometimes smarter is better than lighter (or stupidity)

Just when I thought yet another tone-deaf advertising agency creative or in-house marketing executive couldn’t possibly produce yet another insensitive, racially-charged TV spot, along comes Heineken to prove me wrong.

If you haven’t seen “Lighter is better” and, odds are you won’t since Heineken yanked it off the air almost immediately, take a gander: Heineken pulls ‘Sometimes lighter is better’ ad after racism claims

Now, take a guess who was morally outraged by the commercial? Bingo! People of color.

Why? Well, because the white bartender in the spot takes careful aim and hurtles a Heineken bottle of beer underneath, around and past bar patrons of color before it reaches its final destination: the hand of an attractive light skinned woman.

These are the types of unexplainable and egregious gaffes that, in 30 seconds, can undo years of community goodwill, corporate social responsibility AND the morale of an entire workforce. Then of course, there will be boycotts from patrons of liquor stores and food markets who will no longer buy Heineken beer at all.

God knows what the eventual impact from a financial and reputational standpoint will be, but I’m betting the internal marketing team was either put on 30-days notice or asked to leave the building faster than a speeding bottle of Heineken.

As far as the ad agency creatives, all I can say is, “Let’s lift a bottle of beer (other than Heineken) in their memory.” The next gig for the entire team will probably be washing dishes in the bar where the commercial was filmed.

Btw, on a related note, I will be joined by JP Laqueur of Brand Foundations on a PRSA webinar at 3pm today to discuss the new types of societal crises facing corporate America (as well as self-inflicted wounds such as Heineken’s).

Here’s the link to today’s webinar: http://apps.prsa.org/Learning/Calendar/display/9155/Reputation_Management_in_a_Polarized_Age#.WrpLY4jwaUn

Mar 22

Even in the Age of AI, Just Tell Me a Story

Ann Barlow, Peppercomm’s West Coast President, penned this guest blog.  It reinforces the need for great storytelling and explains why smart marketers at the recent SXSW are wising-up to the limitations (and excessive costs) of technology, digital and enterprise solutions while doubling down on crisp, clear and compelling content….

Elon Musk told a riveted SXSW audience last week that we should be more afraid of artificial intelligence than of nuclear weapons. I have a healthy respect for the threat that unchecked machine learning capabilities in particular could pose, but at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, mostly I just lament the loss of human interaction that technology has brought about. That’s why I was heartened by one of the other themes that surfaced from this year’s trend-forecasting extravaganza.

As TechRepublic reported in a piece called SXSW 2018: The 5 Business Takeaways that Mattered, the 5th takeaway says that the human connection and the tales we tell still matter most.

Here’s what Brian Wallace of NewSourcing, reporting for TR says:

Small and focused content is more powerful than stuff that’s over the top, and it’s thanks in part to the shift toward human connections. Human storytellers make a greater impact than celebrity spokespeople or ad campaigns, and that was completely evident during the Experiential Storytelling track. Small is the new big. In fact, this seismic shift toward the human element of storytellers and stronger personal connections highlights the fact that the technology that has long dominated the conversation is there to serve the humans, not the other way around.

Don’t you love, “Small is the new big”? We are utterly surrounded, engulfed and consumed by technology. In our marketing world, more and more emphasis is placed on the tools that tell us about our audiences and what they want to hear from us. So much so that one school of thought suggests we no longer need to create campaigns – just state the facts. These tools are incredibly helpful, but are they enough to make a real human connection?

Last month, scientists announced that a series of cave paintings in Spain may be by far the oldest ever – perhaps 65,000 years old – which means that man’s desire for creative expression and storytelling actually predates homo sapiens. I imagine our antediluvian kin sharing their days and their dreams with their brethren, capturing their lives in images to share with future generations.

All these millennia later, the set of tools we use to express ourselves has vastly grown in number and sophistication.  But the stories we weave — about ourselves, our experiences, our stuff – will always take precedence over technology. As the TechRepublic article author says, technology is still here to serve us, not the other way around. So however sophisticated our tools to reach our audiences become, to make a real human connection, just tell me a story.