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 to know where to look, determine what constitutes a brand threat, assure your response will align with the organization’s higher purpose AND then decide if, 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, SVP and 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 workings of SW’s iterative, rapid response model using such examples as the Texas Bathroom Bill to explain how each and every facet functioned.

Our central themes were two-fold:

  • The days of remaining silent as social crisis after social crisis unfolds outside your corner office are over.
  • The social issues 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 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 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.

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 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.