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.”


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.

Jan 16

It’s a close shave

No matter how one analyzes Gillette’s controversial new campaign “Is this the best a man can get?” it’s fraught with uncertainties. And it most certainly has further divided an already divided country.

Truly the best a man can get?

First, though, a tip of the hat (or razor) to Gillette’s management for having the courage to double down on its purpose and values. But have they? Or is the campaign a mere ploy or stunt as some detractors claim whose only goal is to drive sales?

I think there are several factors to weigh when analyzing the Gillette campaign:

1) Is alienating a significant percentage of the male shaving market worth the risk of taking a stand and saying the right thing? We asked that very question of 50 CCOs and CMOs we interviewed in a joint research study with the Institute for Public Relations.

One CCO, who managed a global manufacturing company’s marketing spend, echoed the comments of most when he stated, “No matter what you say you WILL alienate a percentage of your stakeholders. I’d much prefer to go on record and double down on our purpose in the wake of a societal crisis than remain silent.”

2) Consistency: Nike’s outstanding campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick won countless awards and witnessed a serious uptick in sales. But, as bold as it was, Nike’s campaign was consistent with its track record (pun intended) of partnering with controversial, outspoken athletes. As a result, the campaign was authentic to the core. Gillette has no such track record and, as the WashPo article indicates, has long profiled macho men in previous campaigns. So, there’s no sense of continuity in my mind. The campaign was a complete 180 for the brand. I think that’s why, when the dust settles, Nike’s post-Kaepernick sales increase will far surpass that of Gillette’s.

3) There but for the grace of god go I. Suppose, just suppose, that Gillette management should be accused of a #MeToo scandal of their own?

That scenario played out in the months following BP’s launch of its “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, extolling their multiple contributions to the environment. Sure enough, a few months later, BP found itself at the epicenter of the Gulf oil spill disaster (and became the butt of endless late night talk show host jokes).

When they said, “think outside the barrel,” I don’t think they meant the Gulf Coast.

I do hope that, in Gillette’s case, HR has done its due diligence to ensure there aren’t any 15 or 20-year-old harassment claims against the current executive team. If such an event were to unfold, it would be beyond catastrophic and underscores the risks a brand takes when it creates it own societal crisis by taking a stand on a societal crisis.

We live in a brave new world littered with myriad societal minefields ranging from illegal immigration and mass school shootings to environmental roll-backs and, yes, #MeToo scandals.

Taking a stand in the immediate aftermath of a societal crisis is the right thing for a purpose-driven organization to do.

It remains to be seen if Gillette’s gamble to create a crisis within a crisis will play out the way they hope.



May 07

An Apple I-Pad Experience can be destroyed by a Microsoft Zune-type behavior

Thanks to Carl "Union Jack" Foster for the idea and headline.

Ever have a horrible experience with a superior brand? It's one thing to have that experience as a consumer; it's quite another to have it as a public relations counselor to a world-class corporation. 

17vgqwWe've had the privilege of representing many Fortune 500 corporations over the years, and most have employed superb, in-house corporate communications executives. But, the exceptions have forever influenced their employers' image and reputation in my mind.

For example:

– Our direct report at a global organization easily qualified as one of the most reprehensible clients in agency history. In addition to picking her nose in front of the team and emitting various noises from multiple orifices, she devised nicknames for our account executives. 'So, where are hairy knuckles and chesty today?' she'd ask one of our team members. She was derisive, corrosive and offensive.

– Our direct report at one of Silicon Valley's true legends loved to bully and belittle our team. He'd use such epithets as 'stupid', 'moronic' and 'idiotic' to describe our strategic recommendations. Then, when I'd confront him and ask that he cease and desist, he'd plead ignorance. 'Me?' I'd never say anything like that, 'In fact, my wife would kill me if I ever used those words with our kids.'

– More recently, the head of two separate business units within one well-known company, hired us to represent both entities. After six months, she decided to end one relationship, and shift the business to a smaller firm. That was fine with us, since our direct report gave more mixed messages than a presidential candidate. But, then the senior executive hinted that she'd end the other relationship if we didn't agree to eat some of the unpaid fees of the former. Needless to say, any feelings of pride associated with representing the well-known brand disappeared faster than a New York Mets winning streak.

Nowadays, I cringe whenever I hear the names of these three august organizations. And, it's because each had an Apple i-Pad type image that was tarnished by a Microsoft Zune-type employee's behavior.

While a boorish PR director, CMO or business manager's actions usually won't adversely impact the image and reputation of a great corporation, they will produce a ripple effect.

The first executive, for example, now runs a West Coast PR firm. I don't know much about that organization but, by simply naming her the top dog, the firm's ownership is telling me that results trump people. Sadly, it also confirms legendary Brooklyn Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher's statement that 'Nice guys finish last.'

It's a shame to see bad people drag down good organizations. It's even worse to see these same thugs re-surface and continue to do wrong at new venues. There ought to be a law.

Feb 06

Yeah, so, um, we’re gonna go ahead and spend your fee on cyber security instead


Office space

Remember Bill Lumbergh, the out-of-touch, acronym-spewing manager in the classic movie, Office Space? Brilliantly portrayed by Gary Cole, Lumbergh would either preface or respond to any positive suggestion by saying, ‘Yeah, um, so, we’re not going to do that.’ And, as every Repman reader knows, corporate America is chock full of Lumbergh-types, both male and female. And, they account for the massive inertia that hamstrings many of America’s best-known organizations.


We recently sustained a head-on collision with a Lumbergh who toiled in the middle management ranks of a client organization.

We’d been working with the client for some time and, if I do say so myself, producing Silver Anvil Award-winning work. But then, one day out of the clear blue, Lumbergh called our day-to-day account manager and said, ‘Yeah, so, um, we’re gonna go ahead and spend your fee on a cyber security upgrade instead.’ Say what? A cyber security upgrade instead of continuing a breakthrough image and awareness campaign? Talk about institutional creep.

We’ve fired, and been fired by, clients for myriad reasons over a 16-year period, but this was a first. I’ve met C-suite executives who don’t understand the strategic importance of public relations and chosen, instead to invest in a sales force expansion or build an in-house corporate communications function. But, I’ve never, ever, seen the plug pulled on communications and diverted to technology.

The decision was so unexpected and positively primordial in its thinking that even this garrulous blogger was left speechless for a time. But, I’ve rebounded and, instead, now see this as a cautionary tale for any Arthur W. Page, Council of PR Firms or PRSA Counselors Academy member who remains convinced that PR has earned a permanent ‘seat at the table’ and no longer need to justify our strategic role.

There are still plenty of Bill Lumbergh-types controlling the budgets of Fortune 500 corporations and ‘Yeah, so, um, if you think PR is bullet-proof then, so, um, yeah, we’re just gonna go ahead and spend those fees on a landscaping upgrade instead.’


Nov 11

Red roses for a blue lady

Pepe-le-pewI’m not sure why I’m on Mike Carlton’s e-mail distribution list, but I’m glad I am.

Mike’s a Chagrin Falls, Ohio-based, advertising agency consultant who produces a periodic e-mail newsletter and video. (Note to Mike: if I were you, I’d urge the city fathers to change the name of your headquarters town. With a name like Chagrin Falls, I’ll bet the hamlet doesn’t attract too many businesses (or stand-up comedians for that matter).

But, I digress. Mike recently interviewed a number of high-ranking Fortune 500 chief marketing officers to determine their specific pain points and summarized his findings in a white paper and video. I was expecting the usual feedback, including high turnover on the part of the agency’s team, not understanding the business of the client’s business, excessively high bills, etc. Instead, Mike reported the number one issue keeping CMOS up at night is ‘…being taken for granted by their agencies.’  That’s a staggering thought in today’s oh-so-weak economic landscape.

Mike says CMOs, just like significant others, need to be shown you still care about them year after year. They don’t want to feel taken for granted. Can’t say as I blame them.

Now, Mike’s top finding may seem like a no-brainer to you, but I:

a.)    Immediately sent the video to our management team, urging them to view it and asking them to ask themselves if they were, indeed, surrounding our clients of long-standing with ‘love’
b.)    Had a serious déjà vu moment about the time when, truth be told, I was guilty of taking a client of long-standing for granted.

Several years back, the top PR executive at one of our larger clients asked for a dinner meeting. I was only too happy to oblige, being the gregarious, fun-loving, client-friendly guy I am. At the dinner, though, the client told me she wasn’t feeling enough ‘love’ from Peppercom. She said our team was solid, but purely tactical in its thinking. She said she expected more high-level thinking from me in particular. I was fine with that and promised to send her weekly thoughts on strategy, etc. But, then, she floored me by confiding that the CEO of a very large, and very well known, competitor was not only sending her a bouquet of red roses each and every week; he was also enclosing a card with his ‘idea of the week for his very special friend.’

I was simultaneously repulsed and amazed; repulsed by the schlocky, used-car salesman approach of a guy I thought was one of our industry’s thought leaders; amazed that he would be so overt in his attempt to steal away our client.

I told the team about the red roses for a blue lady strategy our competitor was taking and vowed to match him idea for idea. But, sending clients a bouquet of red, white or yellow roses simply isn’t my thing. So, sure enough, in about a month or so, the account was put up for review. We were invited to defend the business. But, in our heart of hearts, we knew we didn’t stand a chance wooing back a woman whose heart had been stolen away by someone else. And, we were right.

It was a painful lesson. And, while I don’t stoop to sending red roses to blue ladies (or men, for that matter), I do reach out periodically to prospects with thoughts and ideas. And, I made sure everyone on my senior management team viewed Mike’s video. We’re even making it a point of discussion at an upcoming meeting. It’s a great reminder that, as Mick Jagger sang in ‘Stealing My Heart,’ love is like a thief. So, too, is business; especially when a blue lady is sitting in the decision-making chair.


Oct 20

Humor is a strategic business weapon

I was shocked, but not surprised, to read a recent CommPRO guest blog authored by Robert Geline of 144 Media entitled, 'When, if ever, is the right time to use humor in a presentation?'

Slide1The author said he thinks it's “…O.K. to go for a laugh, but the joke or story you're telling must have a direct connection to the major point you are making. Even if the material is relevant to the content of your talk, you are still taking a potentially unacceptable risk.” To which I replay, 'Balderdash!'

In fact, Geline's antiquated, stultifying POV is precisely WHY so many business presentations are as dull as dishwater.

To support his 'funny as a crutch' viewpoint, Geline cited the case study of a cardiologist who addressed a group of peers and used a highly inappropriate joke that bombed and undermined his credibility. Fair enough. It is absolutely critical to understand one's audience before injecting humor but, when properly applied, it's a game changer.

Here's a case in point: I just shared an Inc. Magazine panel with two other successful entrepreneurs. We were speaking in front of 75 or so other entrepreneurs and asked to address the subject: Creating a great workplace culture.

Not surprisingly, the other panelists cited the usual perks such as spot bonuses, extra days off and holiday parties. I spoke about similar topics, but also admitted I'd shamelessly stolen a great idea from Google called Dream Day. Not only did the audience appreciate my honesty and laugh at what Geline may call a joke, but they began listening much more intently to what I had to share.

Later on, one panelist boasted that he plied his troops with liquor each and every week. That, he said, sure seemed to improve their morale.

Because I embrace humor and use it as a strategic business weapon, I immediately escalated the conversation. I interjected, “You think that's cutting-edge? We've converted our kitchen to a crystal meth lab. You wouldn't believe the increased productivity.” After a second or two, the audience roared its approval.

So, Mr. Geline, guess which of the three panelists was besieged by audience members afterwards? The question’s rhetorical of course, but my use of humor made me seem more genuine and approachable to audience members. And, that’s a huge advantage in business.

I'm glad there are so many marketing and PR executives like Robert Geline who take themselves and their work far too seriously. It makes it that much easier for cool, casual and collegial firms such as mine to build rapport (and win business).

Geline is right about one thing, though. It is fundamental to first understand the audience and, second, to 'read' their non-verbals the way a comedian or actor trained in improvisation would. I'd never use the crystal meth line in a meeting of, say, CFOs, CMOs or even cardiologists. But, it was spot-on for the high-flying, take no prisoners mentality of the average entrepreneur. And, how did I know that, Mr. Geline? Because I understood my audience.

So, have you heard the joke about the marketer who took himself too seriously? He cried all the way to the bank.

Jul 11

Beating them to the punch

Ogilvy PR just fired the California High-Speed Rail Authority. In so doing, the firm walked away  from a four-and-a-half year, $9mm contract.

I-dontaaa Ogilvy fired the client after hearing through the grapevine that some CHSRA officials weren't pleased with the work and planned to terminate the agency relationship.

  This is big news for two reasons:

A) Ogilvy PR walked away from a huge budget. Regardless of the rumors being circulated, it takes serious guts to walk away from something that big without first putting up a fight.

B) The Daily Dog reported the news. PR trades cover 'reverse firings' less often than Fox runs positive pieces about the Obama Administration.

So, three cheers for Ogilvy PR and The Daily Dog.

Agencies seldom find about impending terminations in advance. But it does happen. I'll never forget the time it happened to me.

We were representing a tech company at the height of the dotcom craze. As was usually the case at the time, the client paid us a serious monthly retainer, expected 24×7 access to our team, routinely mistreated them and began complaining about poor results about three days into the relationship.

Since that sort of client behavior was de rigueur in those crazy, hazy days, I didn't think much of it. We were growing at a 100 percent clip annually, so we just assumed such behavior came with the turf.

That was, until, I interviewed a prospective employee. At that point, talent was so scarce most agencies were hiring pretty much anyone who could walk and chew gum at the same time. This particular guy could. So, as I was wrapping up the interview, I told him he'd be working on the brand new, high maintenance, dotcom account. “Oh, I know them well. We just pitched them,” he said in response.

I smiled. “Yeah,” I said, “They told us we'd beaten four or five very good firms.” He shook his head. “No. I mean we JUST pitched them earlier this week.”

After my anger had subsided and I verified the facts, I called the client. As was her wont, she began the call with a complaint, “Oh, hi, Steve. You know, you guys never sent yesterday's end-of-day report. That's unacceptable.” I cut her off at the pass. “Diane,” I asked, “Are you interviewing other agencies?” Dead silence.

She finally coughed and said, “Ah, yes.” She tried to continue, but I cut her off again. “Then, this relationship is over. You're fired. I'll e-mail the termination notice this afternoon.”

Man, that felt good. And, I hope the fine folks at Ogilvy PR are feeling good right now despite the loss in fees. I respect agencies that walk away from badly behaving clients. And, employees respect managers with the chutzpah to do the right thing. Now, all we need is the trade press to provide some crack investigative reporting like The Daily Dog just did.

May 25

Advertising’s early warning system

WynfordVaughn-ThomasbbAdweek is to ad agencies what radar was to the Royal Air Force in September, 1940: an early  warning system.

Adweek, and its peers, Advertising Age and The Delaney Report, never hesitate to warn agencies about badly behaving clients. Consider Adweek's April 25th column entitled, 'Is Heineken the Worst Client Ever?'

According to Adweek, nine agencies have represented the beer brand in just six years! Talk about a revolving door. And, get this, the $60 million account is once again up for review, and Publicis and Wieden are pitching it. Why are they wasting their time?

Adweek did some digging to better understand Heineken's heinous habits and cited churn in the leadership ranks (four CEOs and four CMOs since 2005). Yup. That'll do it. The new sheriff almost always boots out the incumbent, regardless of how good the team or how effective the work. That happened to us no fewer than three times in 2008 and '09. New sheriff. New agency. Sure as rain.

Now, as part of our due diligence in new business, we warily check the prospect's churn record. If it's anything like Heineken's, we run away faster than you can say pop top bottle.

Frequent agency churn not only damages the firms, it hurts the client's marketing efforts. As Ken Robinson of search consultancy Ark Advisors says of Heineken, “…how can you possibly put together a cohesive positioning when they switch agencies so often?” Amen, brother.

All of which prompts a question from this blogger: how comes PR trade journals don't provide a similar watchdog service? How come they can't (or won't) 'out' serial prospects as their advertising brethren do?

The client coverage I read in the PR trades is limited to:

– Case studies
– Personnel announcements
– Updates on the latest crisis du jour and accompanying statement (“Pigglesworth & Swine take these allegations very seriously,” said Jane Hare, VP of corporate communications)
– A fawning profile of the VP, Corporate Communications (“His peers at Toxic Chemical say Jim Electron is strategic, creative and positively unflappable; rare qualities indeed in a Fortune 500 executive.”)

PR trades could do a tremendous service to their tens of thousands of agency readers by tipping us off to a serial prospect on the prowl (akin to British radar's alerting the R.A.F. of yet another Luftwaffe sortie).

Radar saved Britain. The ad trades are aiding ad agencies. So, how come the PR journals aren't stepping up to the plate? If they did, I'd be the first to step forward, quote Churchill and proclaim, “This was their finest hour.”

May 20

You better hope he wins

080211_MrRude With Judgment Day now less than 36 hours away, I thought I'd come clean and relate THE most egregious example of client abuse in my firm's 16-year-history.

The incident occurred quite some time ago at a long-forgotten PR Week awards banquet. We had 'bought' a table that was shared by a few clients and their respective Peppercom account managers. One of the clients happened to be our largest billing account and all three of the top three corporate communications honchos were in attendance.

The trio reveled in their power and expected us to be dutifully reverential in their presence. Two of them were actually decent human beings. But, the third, who served as the senior person's henchwoman, was an absolute horror show. She'd routinely yell, scream and demean (and was later unanimously inducted into our client hall of shame).

Anyway, fast forward to the PR Week dinner. We had nominated the most senior client for the prestigious PR professional of the year award and, mercifully, he'd been named one of four finalists. As a side note, Peppercom itself was nominated for several awards that night, including best midsized agency of the year.

As the dinner ended and the awards presentation began, the henchwoman waited for the top dog to make a quick trip to use the facilities. As soon as he was gone, the henchwoman leaned across the table, looked me in the eyes and hissed, 'You better hope he wins.' She wasn't kidding. My life flashed before my eyes. I looked at my colleagues, who responded with looks of shock and horror. How could we possibly control the judges' decision? And, would we really lose the business if the top dog wasn't named PR professional of the year? (which, based upon the subordinate's behavior, was rather ironic).

The big moment finally came and, sure enough, our client did win the award. Everyone smiled and hugged, and the team breathed a huge collective sigh of relief. Then came the kicker. The categories in which we, Peppercom, had been nominated were still to come. But, the client trio grabbed their award, sipped the final dregs of their wine and said, 'Thanks for treating tonight, but we've got to run.'

I still recall one of our 'lesser' clients leaning over to me and whispering, 'That may be the rudest professional behavior I've ever witnessed.'

Needless to say, the PR professional of the year and his entourage are history, and we've moved on to represent bigger, better and much nicer clients.

But, Judgment Day has a way of dredging up past slights, real or imagined. And, this one was very real and very painful. If there is a god and tomorrow is judgment day, I do hope He was watching those industry awards. If so, there will most assuredly be no rapture for the PR professional of the year or his henchwoman. In fact, I have a parting message for the latter: 'You better hope He doesn't come.'

Apr 20

You are what your customers say you are

Richard Edelman’s recent blog on the changing nature of public relations and whether we should  embrace the broader term of ‘communications’ to describe our services misses the mark in my humble opinion. The ‘PR vs. media relations vs. marketing communications vs. integrated marketing’ debate has been raging as long as I’ve been in the profession. And, after all these years, it’s just as meaningless as ever.

AndertoonsWith all due respect, Mr. Edelman’s point-by-point rationale for why we agencies should cling to the term public relations to describe ourselves reflects top-down, inside-out thinking. It really doesn’t matter how we define our solution set. The only thing that matters is how clients and prospective clients define it. 

Clients and prospects are less concerned about choosing an advertising, public relations, digital or direct firm than they are in understanding how best to engage in conversations with an ever-changing, incredibly demanding stakeholder base. They want partners who understand the 5Ws of those conversations and who will not only help guide them through a best practices approach for engaging in them but, critically, how to create messages that will then be placed in motion by stakeholders.

To provide a different perspective on the same subject, the following companies can launch all the integrated marketing campaigns they like, and I’ll still think of them the way I choose. To wit:
-    McDonald’s may be distancing themselves from their iconic Ronald McDonald character and introducing healthy alternatives to their menu, but I’ll always see them as a chief enabler of America’s obesity epidemic.
-    Starbucks may provide world-class training for their baristas, select blends from exotic locales and provide uber cool venues, but I’ll always think of them as the guys who sell high-priced, bitter-tasting coffee.
-    Comcast may laud its ‘comcastic’ service in TV spots, but I’ll continue to think ill of them each and every month when they ‘inadvertently’ disable my on-demand service.

Edelman can keep calling itself a PR firm. And, others can call themselves what they choose. I just want clients and prospective clients calling Peppercom when they need a strategic partner that understands how and where constituent audiences are engaging in meaningful conversations. That’s the true bottom line of the name game.