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.



Feb 26

Purpose-based decisions

Whether you’re for or against Second Amendment rights and the role of the NRA, you must admit the number of organizations that have severed any, and all, ties with the powerful association is staggering.

While I’m not 100 percent positive, I’d be willing to bet the organizations in question were merely doubling down on their corporate purpose.

Corporate purpose has become increasingly important for organizations large and small since it serves as their North Star and guides any, and all, public stances on the mega issues of the day.

If you haven’t checked out the Arthur W. Page Society’s thinking on the critical role corporate purpose plays in determining messaging in a Trump Tweeting/Fake News world, you should. Just visit

But, I digress.

We’re in the process of interviewing 25 CCOs of Fortune 500 companies to better understand how they are handling mega societal crises such as the horrific school shooting in Broward County, Florida.

In each instance, the CCOs pointed to corporate purpose as their North Star. They, and their C-Suite peers, evaluate the severity of the crisis du jour and then, based upon its severity and relevance to the company in question, will take a strong pro or con stance based upon the wording of their corporate purpose.

Remaining silent in the wake of mass shootings, as well as issues ranging from DACA and illegal immigration to opening national parks to private industry and enabling oil companies to begin drilling just a few miles off our coastlines, is no longer an option.

Employees want to know where their company stands. Period.

I salute the organizations who have followed their North Star in disassociating themselves from the NRA, and would send the same high five to those corporations who, based upon their values, have reinforced their commitment to unfettered access to weapons of all kinds.

I may not agree with their choice, but I salute their adherence to corporate purpose.

Feb 16

Saluting ethics in an unethical world

Next Wednesday evening I’ll be attending the Arthur W. Page Center for integrity in public communications 2018 awards dinner.

In case you may be unfamiliar with the Center, it was created in 2004 and dedicated to the study and advancement of ethics and responsibility in corporate communications and other forms of communication. In the span of 14 short years the Center, which is headquartered at Penn State University, has become an international leader in research on ethics and integrity in public communication. It’s funded more than 200 scholars and awarded more than $700,000 in research.

The awards dinner was created by the Page Center Advisory Board and named in honor of Larry Foster, a renowned communicator during his time as both as journalist and PR practitioner.

This year’s honorees are:

–      Bill George, senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former CEO of Medtronic

–      John Onoda, consultant for FleishmanHillard and Gagen MacDonald

–      The late PBS Newshour host Gwen Ifil

Denise Bortree, Page Center director and associate professor of public relations/advertising at Penn State said the awards dinner is intended to showcase professionals who established their integrity through challenging times and over long careers. “We hope their good work will help us promote ethical decision-making in our field today and in the future,” she said.

Funds raised from the event support innovative research by Page Center scholars who represent universities all over the world.

If you haven’t bought a seat (or better yet, a table), I strongly suggest you do so. If there’s one thing this world could use a whole lot more of it’s ethical behavior. Hats off to the Page Center’s board for establishing the Larry Foster Awards.


Feb 06

Morality is a job for priests. Not PR Men.

Anyone who toils in public relations or one day aspires to join our field MUST make it their business to read about the rise and fall of Bell Pottinger. This superb New York Times front page article will dot the “I’s” and cross the “T’s” for you.

Long story made short, Bell Pottinger, a 30-year-old, high profile player in the U.K. PR world shuttered its doors after a series of reprehensible programs it had concocted to stir racial strife in South Africa went very, very wrong and nearly tore the country apart.

The firm, founded by Tim Bell who helped Margaret Thatcher win three go-rounds as PM, had had a long, and checkered, career of representing very evil people and institutions. To wit:

  • Former Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet.
  • Our very own Pentagon, for whom BP produced pro-US commercials that aired on Iraq TV soap operas during that never-ending war.
  • The three Gupta brothers.

The latter, who are rich beyond one’s wildest dreams, told Bell Pottinger executives they wanted the firm to enact a campaign in support of poor blacks in South Africa. Sounds innocent enough, right?

Bell Pottinger moved forward and created a “non-party political narrative around the issue of economic apartheid.” Needless to say, the word apartheid remains incendiary in a country that embraced it for centuries.

This time around, though, the victims of the economic apartheid campaign were South Africa’s white one-percenters. Thanks to BP, these totally legitimate business executives found themselves being singled out and crucified as the worst examples of what BP copywriters termed, “white monopoly capital.”

Things got so bad so quickly that the government was concerned the BP campaign could ignite a civil war.

But, Bell kept the campaign going even though, as Mr. Bell is quoted as saying, “It was altogether smelly.” Why? Because it was also immensely profitable: the Gupta boys were paying BP a cool monthly retainer of £100,000 a month.

And, at least in the beginning of the race-baiting campaign, BP had only experienced one client resignation.

Things quickly turned south when more and more radical black groups began springing up across the countryside intent on inflicting physical harm to any well-heeled white executive. Government investigations began and BP’s onerous role was made public.

Almost immediately, clients and employees began dropping like flies. The firm was barred from the U.K.’s Public Relations and Communications Association (which is the kiss of death for any firm). And, as the late political talk show host, John Mclaughlin, was fond of saying, “Buh-bye.” BP went belly-up.

Bell Pottinger’s sordid tale of self-destruction should serve as a wake-up call to any agency that agrees to represent sketchy clients and governments. The short-term windfall will never offset the long-term image and reputational damage.

Post Script: In describing Bell Pottinger’s role in the South African race-baiting campaign, Francis Ingham, Director General of the aforementioned Public Relations and Communications Association, said: “The work was on a completely new scale of awfulness. Bell Pottinger may have set back race relations in South Africa by as much as 10 years.”

How’d you like that as your legacy?

Tim Bell’s response? “Morality is a job for priests. Not PR men.”

It’s too bad PR doesn’t have a commissioner who can impose lifetime bans on people like Bell. Their very presence sullies an industry whose image is always in a quasi-shaky condition.

Feb 01

Why do smart people make dumb decisions?

I don’t know if you caught the rather tepid furor over Amazon’s decision to sell a line of products with the slogan, “Slavery Gets S**t Done.” That’s right, Amazon was selling baseball caps, T-shirts and a whole host of other products with that obscene slogan.

What puzzles me the most is this: How could a product line with such an obviously racist and offensive tagline possibly make its way up the corporate food chain at Amazon and EVER see the light of day?

I’m guessing the idea came from someone in either the in-house creative, merchandising or licensing groups. Then it would have had to make its way through the approval process that must have included a senior business unit executive and, I would hope, a trained legal counsel.

So, how could do many people be so deaf, dumb and blind? It truly defies logic.

Amazon yanked the offensive merchandise, but never apologized. Instead, they issued a terse statement that read, “The products in question are no longer available.” That’s like saying the gun that fired the bullets is no longer loaded.

With black history month kicking off Thursday, one would think a smart marketer would be extra sensitive to such a gaffe, but apparently not at Amazon.

Imagine if these other hateful, insensitive taglines were in the hopper at Amazon…would they, too, get through?

– “Bullying toughens you up. So suck it up.”

– “What’s a little nuclear war between friends?”

– “Africa is full of sh*thole countries”

Shame on Amazon and shame on the media for not giving this horrific incident more coverage. Neither got their s**t done.


Jan 23

Nice to see NBC Won’t be Taking a Knee

One story that was completely overlooked during the recently completed round of NFL playoff games was NBC’s staunch decision to spotlight kneeling by Super Bowl players of color during the playing of the national anthem.

That’s a pretty gutsy move considering any number of conservative, America First, deep-pocketed advertisers are probably deciding right now whether to yank their advertising or let it ride (or, if they don’t pull their spend, Tweet an immediate corporate response distancing themselves from NBC and the kneeling players).

Many organizations would see the kneeling question as a real conundrum:

1.) If we don’t cover kneeling players, we won’t lose millions of sponsor dollars. But will we be doing the right thing?

2.) If we do cover the kneeling, we’ll undoubtedly lose millions of dollars. But, we’ll be staying true to our values.

NBC didn’t flinch. Their Super Bowl Executive Producer, Fred Gaudelli, said, “The Super Bowl is a live event….and when you’re covering a live event, you’re covering what’s happening. So, if there are players that choose to kneel, they will be shown live.”

Holy Trump Tweet in the making, Batman!

NBC’s decision tells me two things:

1.) The organization will not be cowed by politically conservative sponsors (and, god knows what the ripple effect might be. There’s a very real possibility that some neo-conservative advertisers will threaten to yank ALL of their NBC sponsor dollars).

2.) The Matt Lauer disaster notwithstanding, it’s obvious that Gaudelli’s decision was supported by the C-Suite and driven by the organization’s corporate purpose.

In my mind, corporate purpose has evolved from a warm-and-fuzzy “nice to have” statement to becoming an organization’s North Star guiding top executives to make the right decision, double down on their core beliefs and convey clear, consistent messaging.

Afterword: Considering the fact the Super Bowl will be played in February (which also happens to be black history month), I have to believe we’ll see quite a few Super Bowl players take a knee. It’ll be interesting to see how many corporate advertisers stand tall or take a different type of knee and yank their ads.