Aug 16

It’s Not a Matter of If, But When

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s is a best practice that each, and every, listener could use to model their own organizational plans.

Our central themes were two-fold:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, get thee prepared. Now!

Aug 01

You’re Fired!

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

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

Perhaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve deep-sixed clients because:

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

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

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

– They demanded too much for too little.

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

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

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

Jul 19

A culture of courage?

Thanks to the Papa John/Laundry Service imbroglio, the marketing world at large can be excused for missing a major societal crisis that recently engulfed Deloitte, the Big Four accounting firm.

In a nutshell, some 750 employees signed a petition calling for the firm to end its multiple consulting contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At the same time, a group of 100 or more employees protested outside Deloitte’s Manhattan headquarters holding up placards that read, “Shame, Shame. Shame.” And “Families Belong Together.

The petition, as well as an e-mail, were sent directly to Deloitte’s CEO, Cathy Engelbert. In addition to demanding Deloitte sever all ties with ICE, employees insisted the firm take a public stance against the Trump Administration’s  policy that resulted in migrant children being separated from their parents.

Engelbert responded with her own e-mail, saying she “appreciated” the employees’ concerns and added, “We often talk about fostering courageous conversations. That is what our culture of courage is all about.”

But, Deloitte did NOT sever its contractual arrangements with ICE. The leader of the firm’s governance practice informed employees (in yet another e-mail) that Deloitte had been working with immigration and border agencies for many years and said their work did not “directly or indirectly support the separation of families.” What , exactly, does that mean????

One other note: Deliotte’s contracts with ICE include one for administrative and data records management support services for the division dealing with detention and removal of unauthorized immigrants. It was signed in 2015 and is worth as much as $5.3 million, according to The New York Times.

To sum up, the firm decided:

  • To address a massive issue with e-mails.
  • To continue to work with ICE.
  • To hope employees would be satisfied with their non-response and refusal to stand up to the Trump Administration.

In my mind, Deloitte’s actions were the exact opposite of what a firm guided by a higher purpose should do.

  • First, and foremost, the communications team should have identified any, and all, potentially toxic client relationships such as ICE, anticipated employee pushback and developed a communications strategy months before the anti-ICE petition and picketing became front-page news.
  • Second, the CEO should have held an all-hands meeting that was video conferenced around the world to ALL employees. An e-mail simply doesn’t cut it and, if anything, reinforces how detached Engelbart is from the feelings of the rank-and-file.
  • Third, the firm should have initiated an internal audit of its relationship with ICE and made smart, values-driven decisions rather than continuing to invoice ICE and hope employees get back to their day jobs.

I’m not privy to the C-Suite thinking at Deloitte, but their actions and reactions tell me two things:

  • The firm lacks a higher purpose. Vision and values are fine. But, employees need to understand why the firm exists and why they should be passionate about showing up for work every day. The higher purpose would have guided their words and actions vis-à-vis ICE.
  • The courage of culture is akin to the lion in The Wizard of Oz. It lacks courage.
Jul 16

Blessed be the fruit – as long as it doesn’t toast rape

Today’s guest blog is authored by Scottie Ellis, who doubles as a superstar and our lone employee in Louisville, Kentucky. Like many of you, Scottie is an avid fan of The Handmaid’s Tale and, like many of you, was beyond insulted at what might have been the worst brand extension idea in many a moon.

Here’s her take on the wine that died on the vine…..

Developing a line of ‘seductive’ wines based off of women stripped of their rights and freedom, who are enslaved for rape and reproduction? All in the name of commodity.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are likely aware of Hulu’s Golden Globe winning series The Handmaid’s Tale, based off of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel. The story has found new life, not only thanks to the show led by Elizabeth Moss, but also, unfortunately, due to our current political state. Audiences have found themselves relating to the story of a futuristic totalitarian state (The Republic of Gilead), which has overthrown the United States government and stripped women completely of their rights thanks to the Trump-era rhetoric, which has become the new norm.

The story takes an extreme stance by designating some women as ‘Handmaids,’ forced to live with a family and reproduce on their behalf due to the family’s inability.  To be more frank, the women are raped on a regular basis, and then forced to give up their children to their rapist and his wife. To further degrade the women, the leaders also strip them of their identities through mandatory uniforms and new names.

Horrified at the thought of wine being developed around these characters? Well prepare to need a glass of something strong as you read the disturbing product description:

“Completely stripped of her rights and freedom, Offred must rely on the one weapon she has left to stay in control — her feminine wiles. This French Pinot Noir is similarly seductive, its dark berry fruit and cassis aromatics so beguiling it seems almost forbidden to taste. But it’s useless to resist the wine’s smooth and appealingly earthy profile, so you may as well give in.”

Not only does this copy transform rape into marketing, it also sexualizes and promotes tactics rape survivors often must use to get through their experience alive – and how they must process following their attack. The final statement reads, “you may as well give in?” Well, as a woman, that reads as I have no say or rights when it comes to my body – one of the things I fear most.

Dramatic? Noting that Trump, our president, who has sexually harassed women with no consequences, is working to take away our access to birth control and our right of choice, I see my rights dwindling before my eyes. For women, ‘under his eye’ is becoming more realistic day by day.

Should I drink to that? I’d rather be ordered to the Colonies.

Jul 11

It’s the audience, stupid

Unless you’ve been otherwise engaged during the past 48 hours, you’d know the public relations world is up in arms about Steven Pearlstein’s lambasting of our noble profession.

The Washington Post’s business and economics columnist’s piece of July castigates “flacks” for ducking his calls, forcing him to send his inquiry to “…an e-mail drop box” or asking him to leave “…..a message with a ‘media hotline’ that invariably is unmanned 24/7.”

Pearlstein seems to think this sort of behavior is standard operating procedure. It’s not.

But to prove his supposition, Pearlstein conducted a search of the rival New York Times’ Business Section and listed the names of 16 companies that either declined to comment or “were rude enough to never respond to a reporter’s questions.”

I can’t speak for those 16 companies or the fine folks at Clorox, whose PR representative took a special beating for telling Pearlstein the company’s executives were too busy to answer his questions. That’s unacceptable behavior. Full stop.

At Peppercomm, our media relations professionals are carefully trained in the art and science of interacting with the media.

They NEVER duck a reporter’s calls. Nor will they allow a client to provide a “no comment” response to a reporter’s question. The reason is two-fold:

– A no comment sends the wrong message to a reporter and her readers. In fact, it elicits a Pavlovian response. To wit: What are they hiding?

– A no comment also prevents the organization from providing their side of the story to be reported. As we tell every client, “If you don’t control your narrative, somebody else will.”

Pearlstein rightly points out that corporations have a love affair with owned and paid media. Why? Because it enables them to micro target and personalize the information or entertainment they are providing to their multiple audiences.

And the multiple audiences part of the equation is what Pearlstein has clearly overlooked.

Our clients need to connect with a wide range of audiences from both a psychographic and demographic standpoint.

So if we’re trying to increase consideration of a European luxury car brand among well-heeled Millennials, we most surely wouldn’t approach The Washington Post.

Instead, we’d take a deep analytic dive in order to learn how, and from whom, those Millennials consume information and form their opinions. In some instances, it’s a series of key influencers in the area of design, music and fashion. In others, it might be a series of offbeat concert appearances by a fast-rising pop star.

Micro targeting and personalized messaging is the currency of the day, Mr. Pearlstein. So allow me to personalize the rest of this blog.

There’s a very good chance your calls and e-mails are being ignored because the PR powers that be decided The Post simply isn’t being read by their stakeholders (not that I’m excusing the PR types’ boorish, unresponsive behavior).

You CAN rest assured, though, that The WashPo, New York Times, CNBC, NPR and other traditional outlets remain absolutely critical to reaching business audiences, highly educated Boomers and the Beltway intelligentsia, among others.

And you can also take comfort in knowing that, at least in Peppercomm’s case, we will not only return your call or e-mail, we will also NEVER contact you unless we’ve first read your column, fully understand the topics and subjects that pique your interest AND suggest how and why our client’s message would be of interest to your readers.

So rather than castigating flacks (a deplorable slur, btw) Mr. Pearlstein, you should wake up to the realities of the year 2018.

The Washington Post remains incredibly important to those publicists attempting to pinpoint the newspaper’s unique reader profile.

But if I want to reach a single mother holding down two jobs while raising three small children, I wouldn’t give The Post a second thought. And, Mr. Pearlstein, you can quote me on that.

Jul 09

McKinsey & The Mob

How’s that for a headline? Did it stop you in your tracks? Good. That’s the job of any writer, no matter how mediocre.

Now, allow me to explain why I linked these strange bedfellows in the same headline.

Kevin Sneader, the “newly appointed” CEO of McKinsey, the most respected, management consulting firm in  the world, will be in Johannesburg, South Africa, today to apologize for his outfit’s shameful behavior.

You can read the gist of it in the embedded link but, in essence, McKinsey knowingly got in bed with unscrupulous characters who had direct ties to the country’s corrupt government and bled the South African coffers dry with obscenely high fees.

Why did McKinsey knowingly hike its fees to stratospheric levels?

The semi-apologetic CEO explained it away as a relatively new office management wanting to establish a thriving practice in the shortest amount of time. So I guess their thinking was: Let’s bill the hell out of the South Africans. They’ll never know, and we’ll earn huge bonuses from the guys back in the home office.

Now, back to Sneader, who was named CEO in February and is FINALLY getting around to apologizing today, July 9. Talk about a day late and a dollar short. This is more akin to 150 days late and about $50 million short.

So where’s the connection between McKinsey & the Mob? It’s fundamental (minus the fun):

1) McKinsey saw corrupt South African pigeons as being ripe for the plucking (that’s La Cosa Nostra-speak, btw). So in the EXACT same way the Mob offers “protection services” for small merchants and shakes them down for exorbitant fees, McKinsey bled South Africa dry.

2) The New York Times ran a lengthy expose on McKinsey’s wrongdoings last week. Trust me, the two things McKinsey and the Mob do NOT want is high-profile publicity that will damage their business models.

So in McKinsey’s case, the heads of the South African office were fired (although the firm continues to deny any illegal deeds), the CEO issues his apology today and will no doubt speak broadly about new policies and procedures put in place to assure no such price-gouging EVER occurs again (and then hope the whole sordid affair will disappear in another news cycle or two).

The Mob, meanwhile, takes a number of slightly different approaches to solve their high-level and, unwanted, publicity problems: They whack the egomaniacal dons a la Bugsy Siegel, Carlos Gambino, Sam Giancana and Carmine Galante.

Whatever option they choose, McKinsey & the Mob always ensure they quickly recede back into the shadowy, murky worlds of high finance and racketeering (which some might say are one and the the same) and immediately revert to rewarding their highest earners (thereby setting the stage for a future crisis or the rise of another flamboyant publicity hound).

I don’t expect The Mob to know any better. They’ve been born and bred into a world of violence.

But if I were McKinsey’s chief human resources officer, I’d worry about the loss of key partners. And if I were McKinsey’s chief communications officer, I never would have allowed my CEO to wait for a major Times expose before apologizing. Finally, if I were Kevin Sneader, I’d be paying personal visits to the firm’s largest clients to ensure them this sort of behavior will never happen again on his watch.

 

Jun 27

The prototypical CEO of the Future

Delta CEO Ed Bastian is a man I would follow into battle. Why? Because he has the courage of his convictions.

He stands up, speaks out and says what’s needed to be said in the aftermath of one of our all-too-frequent societal crises.

And, as he told Fortune CEO Daily, he does so WITHOUT his board’s prior approval. I’d like to believe that if Ernest Hemingway were alive today he’d define Bastian’s decisiveness as “grace under pressure.”

To jog the uninformed reader’s memory, I will remind you that Bastian’s comments came after he had discontinued passenger discounts to NRA members in the aftermath of the horrible Parkland, Florida, Middle School mass shooting.

When the fine folks who comprise the Georgia State Legislature heard about Bastian’s decision, they immediately threatened to yank a $40 million tax break for the Atlanta-headquartered airline. Bastian immediately responded with the now memorable words, “Delta’s values are not for sale.” That’s positively Nathan Hale-like.

And, I’d like to believe Bastion isn’t a lone wolf; rather, I believe he’s the prototypical CEO of the future.

That’s because he is one of an increasing number of CEOs who have discovered a spine and a voice in these divisive times of ours.

So, when the president responds to the shooting by saying, “We’ve got to do something” then chides GOP Congressional members for being afraid of the NRA, but immediately changes the subject and moves on to something new, we’re left with business and industry executives to fill the leadership vacuum (and remind us of the moral and ethical code upon which this country was built). And, that’s just what Bastian did.

Others have as well. But, many more need to lose the “This, too, shall pass” mentality. Because it won’t.

And, their silence will most assuredly come back to haunt them with Millennial customers and employees who are increasingly demanding employers not only state their higher purpose for existing, but are led by CEOs willing to put a stake in the ground.

These are perilous times for our democracy, and every American worker deserves the right to know exactly what type of organization they’ve joined. Delta’s employees sure do. Do yours?

Jun 20

The bigger they are, the harder they fall

Did you ever think you’d live to see the day that General Electric, one of the icons of American business and industry, was dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average?

And to add insult to injury the corporation, founded by Thomas Edison, has been replaced by something called Walgreens Boots Alliance. Holy embarrassment, Batman!

I’m especially flabbergasted by this since my firm and I once had quite the relationship with GE.

It all began when Valerie Di Maria, the current owner of the 10 Company and, way back when, the CCO of GE Capital, called me to ask if an itsy, bitsy start-up PR firm called Peppercomm would be interested in pitching what was then known as GE Financial (it was later spun-off as Genworth).

Needless to say, I was thrilled by the opportunity. That’s when Peter Harris, then a Peppercomm partner and, today, the CEO of The Harris Agency and I went to work.

We spent countless hours coming up with a campaign theme to launch what GE Financial hoped would become an agnostic website that would provide oodles of financial and insurance information to the average consumer.

We nailed it by inventing the slogan, “Liberation through education.”

The tagline positioned the soon-to-be-site as a hub of knowledge that would enable educated consumers to make wiser financial investments.

Pete and I (and a few other Peppercommers) hosted the pitch at our offices, transforming the conference room into a classroom.

We won it.

That’s when Jackie Kolek, then a rising star and now president of our Financial Services group, took over the account and engineered the wildly successful, award-winning launch of the Center for Financial Learning.

Our success with GE Financial led us to Beth Comstock, then CMO of GE, who asked us to pitch the corporation’s new “Imagination at work” campaign.

I won’t bore you with all of the details, but I had one of our minions dress up as Thomas Edison, interrupt the new business presentation we were delivering and announce that he, Edison, would be running for president on the new Imagination Party ticket (we had an entire program to support the ersatz Edison’s run for the White House).

Beth hired us on the spot.

And, we spent many years publicizing GE CEO Jeff Immelt’s efforts to reinvent the multinational powerhouse from the old, but wildly successful, conglomerate to a lean, mean innovator.

Immelt failed.

And, as the BBC article states, his successor has been unable to rally the company. As a result, the stock price has plunged to new lows and GE has been dropped from the Dow Index. It’s truly epoch-making (as my old Sony client loved to say).

Looking back, I am proud to say I was right in the midst of the fray as Immelt did his best (and we did ours as well) to steer what would eventually become the RMS Titanic of Corporate America away from the iceberg that was dead ahead.

Jun 18

Grand Theft: Ideas

I’m involved in a rather heated exchange right now on a LinkedIn discussion group.

The donnybrook began when the CMO of a company that already had agency representation, and was about to do a “brand refresh,” asked for any, and all, creative ideas.

The responses were VERY telling:

  • Two people immediately pitched the woman’s business.
  • Several asked for additional information in order to provide more informed ideas.
  • I was one of several people to push back and say, “Sorry, I’ve had more than enough negative experiences with ‘prospective clients’ who pick your brain, pay you zilch and then later either fall off the radar screen completely or send a vague note informing participants in the dog & pony show that the search has been put on hold.”

The CMO in question is indicative of the rapidly increasing number of prospects who see nothing wrong with asking for ideas to launch an entire creative campaign and then taking the ideas and implementing them themselves. It’s the type of story that responsible PR trade publications should be telling, but aren’t.

We do our very best to avoid fishing expeditions but, sometimes, the prospect’s assurances to the contrary seduce us into investing time and money in creating a speculative campaign.

The most egregious recent example occurred when a prospect who said she “absolutely wanted to work with Peppercomm,” insisted two of our employees give up their weekend to attend an industry conference. The prospect insisted it would enable us to write a far more strategic plan.

I was beyond skeptical and asked the prospect to cover one-half of the out-of-pocket expenses. Rejected. That should have told me right then and there that these people were playing us like a fiddle.

Instead, I allowed our executives to attend the event, ate the OOPs, submitted a proposal and, guess what? Everything was put on hold. We’ll receive a response to our inquiries for an update with something like this, “You are still top of mind. We hope to make a decision soon.”

Right. And, Donald Trump will begin treating our allies as friends and authoritarian regimes as enemies.

Since the trade publications conveniently overlook these ongoing assaults on agencies (hey, the serial prospect might buy ads, send in pricey awards submissions and buy tables at their events, so why rock the boat?), I think we should press the PR Council and other trade organizations to strongly advocate against what I would call “Grand Theft: Ideas.”

There ought to be a law.

May 30

Lowering the Barr

Today’s guest post is brought to you by Deb Brown, Partner and Managing Director at Peppercomm.  

Kudos to ABC and Disney for taking a courageous stand against the star and executive producer of its highest rated show “Roseanne,” canceling the series due to an outrageous racist tweet from Roseanne Barr yesterday. The highly insensitive tweet was an attack on Valerie Jarrett, a former senior advisor to President Barack Obama.

Although Barr apologized, others involved in the show and ABC still did the right thing and distanced themselves from Barr, underscoring that apologies are just not enough. Some words have serious consequences and hollow apologies just don’t cut it. ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungy was quoted as saying, “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”

Inconsistent with our values. Four powerful words that speak volumes.

Recently, Peppercomm and the Institute for Public Relations interviewed 50 different CCOs/CMOs to ask them about the new normal we now live in, the frequent societal crises they now face, and whether or not they have a purpose that guides them in making tough decisions, such as taking a stand for or against an issue. The study, which is the third in the series, is called Taking a Stand: How CMOs and CCOs are Redefining Their Roles in Today’s Highly Charged Social, Cultural and Political Climate,” and is being released today. And born from the study is a new service offering from Peppercomm that helps corporations prepare for and handle a societal crisis as well as develop its purpose, if needed.

Roseanne became her own societal crisis, lowering the Barr even further on horrific tweets. ABC and Disney, on the other hand, are the latest corporations that continue to raise the bar on doing the right thing, speaking up and taking a stand.