May 29

The client from hell

Every agency has had its fair share of truly horrific clients. 

You know the ones I mean: the screamers, gropers, the ones who keep losing the invoice that’s already 180-days old.

And then there are those who poach your talent but never ask permission or compensate you for the loss (despite contractural wording to the contrary).

My two favorites were a retail chain that told us they were reallocating our money to expand their internal IT infrastructure, and an industry group that replaced our budget to sponsor a rock group’s tour (FYI: Our program for the concert lovers has been named a finalist for three separate major awards).

But I digress.

I have to say that after reading John Carreyrou’s spellbinding book about Theranos and founder Elizabeth Holmes, “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-Up,” I am equal parts empathetic and appalled by the actions of the lead Theranos agencies: Chiat/Day and DKC, respectively.

The legendary Chiat/Day was contacted directly by Holmes because they had represented Steve Jobs and Apple (and to say that Holmes was positively obsessed with all things Jobs-related is to say that Donald Trump occasionally compliments dictators).

Holmes hired Chiat on the spot and did her very best to lure the legendary Lee Clow (the creative genius behind Apple’s iconic 1984 campaign) out of retirement). Clow wisely demurred, but Holmes nonetheless insisted on following the exact same schedule Jobs had put in place with her Chiat team up to, and including, weekly Wednesday afternoon meetings.

Holmes retained the public relations firm DKC just prior to the oft-delayed launch of the Theranos website (whose bold claims had to be constantly dialed back as the white-hot corporation’s lawyers came to realize the start-up’s promise to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier was a complete ruse).

Indeed it’s not a stretch to say that Holmes is easily the most diabolical and disingenuous liar this side of Jeff Skilling, Dennis Kozkowski and Bernie Madoff.

I’m not an ad agency expert, so I can’t address why so many super smart Chiat/Day account team members didn’t smell a rat sooner than they did. But I MUST address the behavior of DKC and their lead account manager, Matthew Traub, as described by WSJ reporter Carreyou in his spellbinding book.

DKC had been successful in pulling the wool over fawning reporters from such mainstream publications as Fortune, Forbes, CNBC and others. But the Carreyrou was a different breed entirely. Various Theranos insiders had confided in the investigative reporter, and he was asking questions that Holmes, her pit bull-like law firm and DKC assiduously avoided.

Traub asked Carryrou to submit a list of questions, which the latter did. Carryrou also asked for an in-person meeting with Holmes at their posh, Fort Knox-like Silicon Valley headquarters.

Traub said Elizabeth’s schedule wouldn’t permit an in-person meeting, and provided brief, legal-approved responses to Carryrou’s questions.

At the same time, DKC was perfectly content to keep disseminating feel good press releases about Theranos and arranging countless other interviews. But not with Carryrou. They knew that he knew what was going on, Carryou writes.

I urge any advertising or PR professional, academic or student to read the book for further details because the various documentaries omit the Theranos/agency relationships.

Afterword: I must admit to feeling some empathy for Traub and DKC because they (and every PR firm) depend upon clients to tell the truth. But after reading this book, I’m convinced there were countless warnings that DKC (and Chiat/Day, for that matter) should have spotted and resigned the business ASAP.

It’s easy to look the other way, especially when an incredibly well-funded start-up is tossing hundreds of thousands of dollars your way.

But when does an agency say, “Enough is enough?” Because DKC didn’t until it was too late, they now find themselves forever painted as having played a small, but critical, role in perpetrating a complete hoax.

Final question: How did the PR trades miss this one?

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May 21

“You can pay me now or pay me later”

To mix metaphors, a brand’s reputation is only as strong as its weakest link. Case in point is the recent donnybrook surrounding the backlash from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s accepting donations from the infamous Sackler family

The Sackler Family owns Purdue Pharmaceuticals which manufacturers OxyContin. Just recently, the family had to pay the state of Oklahoma $270 million as part of a settlement in which they were accused of aggressively marketing the highly addictive painkiller that has laid waste to generations ranging from pre-teens to Octogenarians.

Last week’s backlash against the Met and the museum’s decision to no longer take donations from “members of the Sackler family presently associated with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin,” is indicative of the mega exposure that for-profit corporations and non-profits institutions alike now face: Have they invested in questionable business concerns or, as was the case with the Met, has an organization willingly accepted funny money from very bad people?

The only way to ensure an organization doesn’t appear on the nightly news and become the focal point of an op-ed in The New York Times is to perform an honest assessment of stakeholder relationships and business practices in the context of the values and purpose the organization claims to hold.

This is especially critical in the “Age of Purpose” which is seeing every corporation, charity, marketing agency and entity under the sun determine its higher purpose for existing. It’s one thing to announce that your organization exists to end world hunger or cure the common cold. But, it’s another issue altogether when activist employees or, in the case of the Met, loyal patrons, call you out for hypocritical business practices or a disgraceful partnership. Espousing a noble purpose that is not consistently upheld in all aspects of your organization is what is now popularly considered to be “Purpose Washing.”

It’s incumbent upon every organization, large, small or otherwise, to stress test their corporate purpose to ensure it isn’t undermined by questionable sponsorships or partnerships, board composition, or marketing programs. And I happen to know a few PR firms who excel at providing exactly that sort of service.

To delay doing so is to invite trouble. I’d equate a Purpose stress test to the slogan of the old Midas Muffler advertising campaign: “You can pay me now or pay me later.” In other words, a quick stress test today could avoid a massive crisis containment program down the road.

The choice is yours, Ms. CCO or CMO.

 

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May 16

Actions speak louder than words

Philip Morris International (PMI), which has earned a well-deserved reputation for saying one thing and doing another, is at it again. 

Close on the heels of PMI’s launch of a global marketing effort for its heated tobacco vaporizer called IQOS (or, I Quit Ordinary Smoking), the Big Tobacco brand was caught marketing its killer weed to unsuspecting young people.

Happily, an alert Reuters reporter spotted the social media transgression and called out the nefarious nicotine maker for violating its own marketing policy.

Allegedly intent on helping smokers ease their way off the killer weed through IQOS AND not marketing to younger, impressionable teens who see vaping as the cool, new thing, PMI featured 21-year-old Alina Tapilina, a Russian model/influencer, endorsing IQOS on Instagram.

Caught red-handed (or black lunged, if you prefer) PMI chose to suspend the marketing campaign and yank the IG post VERY LATE on a Friday night (hoping against hope no one would notice).

A PMI spokesperson Tweeted, “We were deeply disappointed to discover this breach and are grateful that it was brought to our attention.” Yeah, sure they were.

Make no mistake that, despite hollow promises to provide “smoke-free alternatives”, PMI delivers shareholder value by continuing to addict people worldwide.

To make matters even worse, PMI had the unmitigated gall to declare 2019 the “Year of Unsmoke” (while continuing to pay young, attractive social influencers to peddle their vape).

PMI remains a slippery, sleazy brand intent on devising new and ever more insidious ways to addict a whole new generation of smokers with its youth-oriented influencer and social media campaigns.

This most recent transgression belies PMI’s stated intent to remake a battered image and be seen as a highly moral company. In reality, it’s just the latest example of PMI saying one thing and doing another. Shame on them.

Late-breaking news: North Carolina just became the first state in the nation to sue Juul. Fingers and tobacco leaves crossed that many others will follow suit.

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May 09

Big Tobacco is Baaaaaack!

Not content with having tempted and trapped countless generations of unsuspecting high schoolers to become nicotine addicts, Big Tobacco is back in a new and insidious way.

As detailed in this superb opinion piece by legendary ad man, Alex Bogusky, Big Tobacco has jumped on the coolness of a new delivery mechanism, vaping, as a way to tempt today’s middle and high school kids.

Marketed as a tasty, fruity and fun way to enjoy tobacco, vapes have immediately became fashion statements for Kool Kids, who also see them as a new way in which to rebel against their parents and teachers.

Some schools have stepped up and “banned” vaping in classrooms. But, naturally, the kids have found a way around that rule.

They blow a day’s worth of the vaped cigarette smoke into water bottles and “sip” it down as they tread innocently from classroom to classroom.

So where were the various surgeon generals and the FDA when Big Tobacco started to badly bend the rules again? Taking a smoking break, perhaps?

Someone needs to stamp out this latest, insidious assault on our nation’s young people. And it needs to be done now, before another entire generation is addicted and skyrocketing health care costs further cripple our global competitiveness.

With Washington lawmakers deadlocked on everything under the sun, who’s left to shine the spotlight on the new scourge?

I nominate The Ad Council and suggest they dust off some of the legendary anti-smoking TV spots and print ads of the 1980’s and launch a massive education program aimed at pre-teens and teens. Make no mistake: the future health of an entire generation is at stake.

In the meantime, those of us with scruples who also happen to own marketing communications firms should just say NO if Big Tobacco comes knocking with millions of dollars for a cigarette vaping campaign. How could you possibly justify making a pact with the devil weed?”

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Apr 29

An American Original

If you missed knowing Missy Shorey, you missed out on something very special.

Missy, who passed away at the ungodly young age of 47, was an American original.

We first crossed paths when we met at a long-ago Spring Conference held by the PRSA’s Counselors Academy.

It was clear from the get-go that, while we were in the same PR world, we were worlds apart in our respective POV’s on life. But we never let it stand in the way of our becoming fast friends who routinely shared the good, the bad and the ugly of agency ownership.

I last saw Missy when we shared the stage at the 2017 Counselors Academy Spring Conference.

Our topic was something along the lines of: “How to counsel your clients in the aftermath of a Trump Tweet attack.”

Needless to say, Missy offered a suggestion that I immediately took umbrage with and countered with the counsel that I’d recommend to clients. We sparred back-and-forth for what seemed like forever and agreed to disagree.

Immediately after the panel ended, Missy ran over to me, gave me a big hug and said, “Wasn’t that a blast! Let’s grab a drink.”

Classic Missy.

Unlike so many of us, she had the rare gift of not letting political differences get in the way of cherished personal and professional friendships.

I’ve had the fortune to meet several American originals in my life in PR. Dandy Stevenson, my late personal assistant of 15 years was one. Missy Shorey was another.

The great thing about American originals is that, while they may go the way of all flesh, their memories will live forever.

I will miss you so much, Missy. But I will never forget you.

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Apr 25

There isn’t a tool or technology in the world that will ever replace great storytelling

It was just about three years ago that I listened to a digital guru (dressed in all black, of course) predict that public relations would be dead by now. He went on to state that, unless PR professionals immediately transformed themselves into digital gurus, they would either end up as Wal-Mart greeters or baristas at Starbucks.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery. PR didn’t die. In fact, it not only survived, PR thrived. Today many industry pundits and gurus see public relations as THE dominant marketing discipline.

The reason is something so obvious that it’s eluded countless, nattering nabobs of negativity such as the guru mentioned above. The most sophisticated programs, dashboards and automation are useless if they exclude the need for basic human interaction and, critically, great storytelling.

Two recent articles in the marketing and PR trade press illustrate the point.

Marketing Dive reported that Keith Weed, the long-time chief marketing officer of Unilever is retiring AND the corporation may retire the CMO title along with the high profile executive.

I’ll let you peruse the entire article, but here are some key takeaways:

  • “Recent history shows the move away from the CMO role is not beyond the pale, even for organizations that have built a reputation around the quality of their brands and advertising. Coca-Cola got rid of its CMO title in 2017.”
  • “The CMO role for many organizations does not necessarily go away, but rather, gets reshaped, with the ‘M’ sometimes losing relevance based on industry trends.”
  • “Unilever’s…course of action will almost certainly reverberate across the industry and light a fire for many marketers looking to preserve the relevance of their job.”

In other words, paid content alone, driven by digital and data, isn’t making the cash register ring fast enough. And CMO’s (and their function) are being replaced faster than White House appointees.

Now let’s pivot to a recent PR Week piece that featured the subhead, “Earned media still reigns supreme in the complex communications industry as overall revenue continues its upward trajectory.”

Here’s a link to the entire article.

Allow me to lift a few quotes:

  • “There’s no doubt earned media is at the heart of an ever increasing number of campaigns, whether they’re overseen by advertising, media, digital or PR firms.”
  • “Look at the work honored each year at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity…..most relied on earned media.”
  • “Paid should be the support element. Ogilvy PR doesn’t exist anymore, neither does MSL. It’s (just plain) Ogilvy.. They’re (the advertising & digital services) coming to us,” said Richard Edelman.

The self-proclaimed digital prophet who extolled the limitless future of data and technology completely overlooked our basic human need to tell, and listen to, interesting, educational and exciting storytelling (read: PR).

The other problem I had with the faux prognosticator sporting black shoes, pants and shirt and warning an audience of PR professionals in 2016 that they’d soon be lucky to earn a minimum wage was his recklessness. He hurt people, made them rethink the path they’d carefully chosen and has been held unaccountable for his misdeeds.

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Apr 18

Press Two for Frustration

I must admit to being torn as to which advanced technology causes me more angst: robocalls from Uzbekistan or becoming hopelessly lost in voice mail hell.

Since I was recently contacted by Clutch and asked to blog about the findings of their recent report on “phone menus”, I’ve opted to address voice mail hell.

Here’s their report.

Since the research told me what I already knew, I asked Riley Panko of Clutch what insights were gleaned from the findings.

She shared three:

1.) Keep phone menu options to three or less.

2.) Consider more creative ways to personalize phone menus without taking up a customer’s time. Kin Insurance, for example, routes an incoming call to the appropriate resource BEFORE the caller even speaks to someone. Good for you, Kin.

3.) Always include the option to speak to a living, breathing human being.

Pivoting quickly as we communication pros like to say, I wondered what the corporate purpose of the technology companies responsible for selling phone menu technology might be?

– “Making the world an even more intolerable place in which to live”

– “Further fanning the flames of an already furious consumer base”

– “Playing our bit in helping Big Pharma sell even more anti-anxiety meds”

Robo calls and getting lost in voice mail hell are just two of the more unfortunate realities of life in the year 2019.

Three cheers to Clutch for trying their best to ease our pain.

Now please press one if you’d like further information on anger management. Press two for the name and location of a stress management program near you. And don’t bother pressing three because there is no live person handling incoming calls at Repman.com.

Apr 09

Would Anyone Notice?

I have the distinct pleasure of being chairman of the Institute for Public Relations and a member of the Arthur W. Page Society.

This past week each organization convened in Manhattan for the IPR board meeting and Page Spring Conference, respectively.

The issue of the day (or week) was the purpose of purpose. Organizational purpose, that is.

I participated in three different purpose brainstorming sessions that included the best and brightest from the worlds of corporate America, academia and the agency world.

The bottom line is that purpose is still very much a work in progress.

For example, it is still seen by some Wall Street-focused CEO’s as non mission-critical (one participant referred to that baffling phenomenon as “the CEO blind spot”).

Others noted that purpose is still being confused by some CCO’s, CMO’s and CHRO’s with the corporate mission.

Most of the IPR/Page members “get” purpose. It’s intended to answer the question why:

– Why does an organization exist?

– Why do employees show up for work every day?

– Why do stakeholders engage with the entity?

Getting back to the mission vs. purpose confusion, I’d like to use Lowe’s Corporation to illustrate the difference.

The Lowe’s mission is: “Together, deliver the right home improvement products with the best service and value across every channel and community we serve.”

Having written a case study on Lowe’s for the Page Turner blog, I know the corporation’s purpose is “Helping people love the homes in which they live.”

Big difference, no? Their mission tells you what they do. But Lowe’s purpose explains why they exist.

One footnote: Our superb facilitator in the IPR brainstorm suggested every purpose exercise begin by asking one fundamental question: “Would anyone notice if our organization didn’t exist?”

Assuming the answer is affirmative, begin listing the reasons why and you will eventually uncover your purpose.

I recommend you do so at Mach Speed because, apart from the remaining CEO’s with blind spots, those who confuse mission with purpose and a few agency Luddites I can think of who still laugh it off as a fad, purpose WILL define the future success or failure of your business.

Apr 01

Sometimes bad publicity IS worse than no publicity at all

One of the more satisfying aspects of the multidimensional profession otherwise known as public relations is media training. It’s one of the few times when we exchange the seat of power with senior client executives and tell them what to do (or, shall I say, gently suggest what to do?). Media training is equal parts art and science and when practiced to perfection will end up with key client quotes and messages finding their way into articles and highlighted on cable interviews or, in rare cases, actually used as the headline by a leading business publication.

Sometimes, though, the best laid plans of mice and men (and media training) can go awry.

Case in point: The end results of the obviously botched media training of Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei by the fine folks at Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW).

As you’ll read in Clay Chandler’s column, BCW (which just unveiled its new tagline: “Moving People”) was hired to media train Huawei’s two rotating chairmen (now that sounds like a cool gig. I wonder what the non-rotating chairman does when his counterpart is rotating?).

Anyway, BCW’s job was to get these co-rotating spokespeople prepared for the U.S. media and to begin to build (or rebuild as the case may be) some rather tense barbs previously exchanged between the executives and their counterparts in the American business community. This was intended to be a friendship project.

Instead, it seems to have escalated to a modern day version of the Hatfield’s & McCoy’s.

Case in point, check out what Guo Ping, rotating chairman number one was quoted as saying,

  • “The U.S. government has a loser’s attitude. They want to smear Huawei because they can’t compete with us.”
  • Another headline read, “Huawei Executive Rips U.S. Government.”

Ouch.

Not be outdone by his rotating comrade, Eric Xu lashed out at two U. S. Congressmen as being “ignorant” and “ill-informed”. He also added, “There’s no way the U.S. can crush us. The world cannot leave us (China) because we are more advanced.”

I’m guessing those comments didn’t sit too well with Huawei’s chief communications officer. And, knowing how the food chain works in these situations, I have to believe the client is placing the blame squarely on BCW’s trainers.

Here’s what I think happened during the media training sessions: In between rotating chairs, or pens or whatever else they share, the rotating chairmen were undoubtedly paying scant attention to the valiant efforts of the BCW team, They most likely nodded, looked at their watches (or mobile devices) and left before the full session had been planned to conclude. BCW dutifully provided the executives with their message points, “staffed” the interviews and must have died a thousand deaths as the rotating chairmen laid waste to any lingering feelings of warmth between their company and this country.

I’m no geopolitical expert. But, I am a seasoned media trainer. I would not have let those two rotating chairman out of the conference room until the client CCO and we had guarantees (preferably in writing) from the gentlemen that they would avoid using words such as crush and loser in their interviews. Of course, reading between the lines, I’m sure the rotating chairman would have immediately crushed any sort of written script and went on their merry way. But, hey, nothing can save the day like a written trail of e-mails that cover the agency’s back. Nonetheless, I having to believe that BCW is moving people as a result of the high-profile gaffe.

So who’s fault is it when one of the world’s best media training organizations fails miserably to control two of the world’s most prominent telecommunications executives? I know who will most likely fire (or, crush, if you prefer) whom in this scenario. But I ask my loyal readers to weigh-in with their thoughts. What do you do with hard-headed clients who simply will not take your counsel and proceed to call their would-be friends (that would be the U.S. government) losers?

Before I leave the topic of media training, I must share a Golden Oldie with you.

One might position this as the Yin to the Ping/Xu Yang.

The clip’s been shown in many a media training session, but is well worth reviewing. In this instance, a PR firm did such a poor job of over-preparing a hapless Cadbury-Schweppes president that he robotically repeated the same thing over and over and over. And I have to believe the agency handling the media training was summarily fired that very same day.

So here are two instances in which bad publicity was indeed worse than no publicity at all.

Mar 18

How would YOU motivate Boeing’s battered, bloodied and bewildered workforce?

Following the introduction of a Next-Gen Airbus in 2010, Boeing reportedly rushed production of the 737 Max 8, a more powerful and fuel-efficient upgrade of the existing 737, without providing ANY flight simulation training to unaware pilots soon to be situated in the cockpits of the new plane. Boeing, if the implications are borne out, knowingly sent unsuspecting pilots, flight crews and passengers to their deaths.

In fact, according to this New York Times piece, flight training on the 737 Max 8 won’t even be available until 2020 at the earliest (assuming the plane is eventually cleared to fly again).

While it’s obvious why the world’s press is fixating on what Boeing knew and when they knew it, I couldn’t help but think what it must it be like to be one of the Boeing rank-and-file who, until the two recent air disasters, felt justifiably proud of their corporation’s mastery of the skies. Seeking insight, I turned the Repman flight controls over to Ann Barlow, president of Peppercomm’s West Coast office, resident employee engagement expert and, ironically, a one-time baggage handler for People’s Express.

Here’s our exchange:

1.) If you were Boeing’s chief human resources officer (CHRO), what would you being doing right now?

Let me say first that we are feeling for Boeing employees, knowing that this must be a difficult time. I also believe their CHRO is a highly experienced and accomplished professional who’s spent much of her career in aviation.

But if I were in her shoes, I would want to ensure a few things:

  • A commitment by senior leadership to be open, humble and empathetic with employees.  Legal will understandably want to tightly control what is shared, but demonstrating a reasonable amount of transparency and humility could keep talented employees from heading for the exits.
  • That managers create time and space for employees to talk with one another about what happened and how they are feeling. That means carving time out of regularly scheduled meetings, or providing extra break-times, to allow people to connect in person and via video.
  • Use more formal channels to share information and inspiration from leadership – town halls, internal social media and other platforms, plant meetings, etc.
  • That we offer employees guidance on what to say to friends and neighbors when asked about the accidents and the aircrafts’ safety.
  • Keep pulse-checking with employees to understand what they know, think and feel.

2.) How concerned would you be about retaining your current talent and, critically, continuing to attract the best and brightest engineers, designers and scientists from the top colleges and universities? What steps would you take right now to assure neither occurs?

It depends whether leaders are open and humble, especially when it comes to making necessary changes. If they aren’t, I’d be worried about turnover across the board, not just among the most elite talent. I wouldn’t relish the prospect of attracting new talent, either. And I’d know how hard it would be to motivate employees still on the job.

3) How would you arm Boeing’s employees to deal with questions from families and friends alike who ask how they could possibly work for a company that allowed a flawed jet to stay in use?

Employees probably won’t feel like wearing their Boeing-branded hoodies and caps in public. It’s only natural, however, that they get questions from their circle of friends and family. If armed with both facts and guidelines, employees can at least feel more confident answering questions. And while their job isn’t to rehabilitate the company’s image, properly equipped employees can actually help convey information and rebuild some goodwill.

There you have it. So how would you answer my three questions if you, and not Ms. Barlow, were Boeing’s CHRO?