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And to add insult to injury the corporation, founded by Thomas Edison, has been replaced by something called Walgreens Boots Alliance.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

May 29

Gun Control Will Have No Effect Whatsoever on the Monthly Melee of Mass School Shootings

Before the NRA offers to sponsor my website and paramilitary types everywhere submit their resumes to Peppercomm, allow me to clarify the headline:

Those are the words of Malcolm Gladwell, not mine.

I adore Gladwell’s books, columns and podcasts (Note to reader: If Gladwell’s name is foreign to you, get thee to a library, Amazon.com or ANY other source of news and information you prefer ASAP, and read his collected works. The social consciousness you save may be your own).

Mass school shootings are arguably THE most volatile societal crisis subject facing chief communications officers of Fortune 500 companies today.

Widely acknowledged to the be the ethical, and moral, compass of the organization, the CCO nonetheless treads a minefield-laden battleground.

Does she insist her CEO stand smart and speak up for gun control or, weighing the negative reactions of critical stakeholders, does she limit the CEO’s reaction to employees only?

I will refrain from discussing this, and other,  conundrums facing the CCO until our co-branded research report with the Institute of Public Relations is released tomorrow, but I DO urge you to listen to Gladwell’s take.

He’ll explain why stronger gun controls will unquestionably save tens of thousands of lives, but won’t have ANY impact whatsoever on those adolescents who choose to kill their fellow students.

He not only explains why, but offers the solution to deterring angry young men from fulfilling their fantasies of wiping out their peers (if not the entire high school itself).

I’m done.

Now, it’s your job to find 10 minutes in your 24×7 lives to listen to a new, and intriguing, point of view.

May 24

Are You Ready for Some Football (Controversy)?

 

Today’s guest blog is authored by Steve Goodwin, a principal at Brand Foundations, a strategic branding & purpose partner of Peppercomm’s. As you’ll read, the National Football League once again finds itself knee deep in controversy. Enjoy…..

The NBA and NHL playoffs are nearing their final rounds. The MLB All-Star break is within view. Yet even though team training camps won’t open for another couple of months, the National Football League is grabbing headlines. And one of the league’s fiercest rivalries promises to make the upcoming season anything but predictable… for corporate America.

Redskins/Cowboys? Raiders/Chiefs? Packers/Bears? Nope. Fiercer than those legendary matchups. We’re talking owners vs. players.

This week, NFL owners unanimously approved a new policy that requires players and team personnel to stand for the national anthem if they’re on the field while it’s being played. Players will have the right to remain in the locker room. Significant fines can be levied against teams for noncompliance.

Within nanoseconds of that announcement, the NFL Players Association took a contrary stand, promising to fight the ruling – on which they maintain they weren’t consulted – “to the end.”

And moments after that, NY Jets owner Chris Johnson issued a statement saying that he would pay for any fines incurred by his team’s players… a thumb in the eye of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (and of a certain inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).

So the stage – perhaps “trap” is a better word – is set for mega-controversy. Two obvious questions loom:

  1. Will companies with NFL players under endorsement contracts face collateral brand damage if those players opt to defy league rules and take a knee?
  1. Given the copious racial overtones as this issue has played out very publicly over the past two years, will companies who count “diversity” and “inclusiveness” among their deeply held values still feel comfortable with their NFL sponserships the first time a player or team is penalized?

Those are among the sort of questions and potentially incendiary issues that are increasingly forcing big businesses to assess their sponsorship, partnership and other corporate relationships. How thin is the line some companies will need to tread this NFL season? Think about your favorite running back tip-toeing the sideline to stay inbounds.

May 21

Spot On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 09

Bad Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 25

Bananas Found to Have Caused The Bubonic Plague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apr 17

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

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

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

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

And, here’s the personal flashback it triggered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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