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And to add insult to injury the corporation, founded by Thomas Edison, has been replaced by something called Walgreens Boots Alliance.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

Mar 13

Fear Sells (Or Does It?)

As someone whose firm has represented countless insurance companies over the years, I’ve noticed a cyclical nature to the marketing themes and lemmings-like mentality of the field.

In recent times, for example, it’s been hard to find a single insurer that hasn’t employed comedy, a humorous situation or an actual character a la Allstate’s Mayhem to depict how truly dangerous, and fleeting, our lives are (but, in a laugh out loud funny kind of way).

Recently, though, Principal Insurance decided to change the rules and began playing the doom-and-gloom card. This one-minute video is a typical example.

There’s no question that fear is a powerful motivator. But, there’s a fine line to tread between scaring someone half to death and providing sound financial planning advice.

I think Principal stepped over the line in this particular spot. I’d be hard pressed to suggest any additional optics, music or non-verbals to convey a more depressing family crisis.

I wonder if playing on fear in a world ruled by fear is a smart and sound strategy?

During the Depression, for example, the downtrodden poured into movie theatres to escape the grim reality of their lives. And Hollywood provided them with a respite, however brief.

I’d argue that marketers of all stripes have the same responsibility today. I’m not suggesting they market their wares by employing slapstick comedy, but I do think the entire country needs a healthy dose of fun and entertaining content. And Principal’s medicine is the wrong tonic for the wrong audience at the wrong point in time.

Nov 07

The clock is ticking

Check out this fascinating Advertising Age interview of Facebook marketing guru Andrew Keller. While Keller expounds on any number of topics in the piece, he hones in specifically on the rise of the term “six seconds” in advertising.

While the Facebook executive, and his fellow advertisers, are fixated on six seconds, research shows the average human actually has an attention span of eight whole seconds. That’s one second less than a goldfish.

But, the six (or eight) second discussion should extend far beyond Keller’s focus on digital advertising and videos.

Split second responses are table stakes in ALL forms of communications today.

In the new normal of Trump Tweets, fake news and Kevin Spacey/Harvey Weinstein-type transgressions, individuals and organizations have about eight seconds to gather their thoughts and determine:

  • What will they say?
  • Will they say anything at all?
  • What criteria determine whether a response is warranted?
  • Who should make the statement?
  • What channel would make the most sense?

Here are two very quick cases in point. One is a worst practice; the other a best:

  • UnderArmour completely blew the NFL player-kneeling controversy by first Tweeting the firm’s commitment to diversity & inclusiveness. Then, when right-wing customers expressed their disapproval, UnderArmour Tweeted a revised comment that included “..and show respect for our flag.” In doing so, UnderArmour created a whole new news cycle that, ironically, unified outraged right and left-wing followers who agreed on one thing: the brand was speaking out of both sides of its mouth.
  • @POTUS recently attacked General Motors in one of his 3am Tweets. Rather than respond with a Tweet correcting the president’s erroneous charges, Ray Dey, GM’s CCO decided, instead, to share the facts with trusted beat reporters who routinely covered the car company. Once their articles were published, Trump didn’t have a leg to stand on and quickly moved on to attack someone else.

The point is this: While no brand should be expected to respond in eight seconds or less, every organization should prepare now for what cannot be anticipated, and create new protocols for the new normal.

Getting back to digital advertising and marketing content of all types and forms, I completely agree with Keller. Organizations have six (or eight, depending upon the target audience’s attention span) seconds to engage, connect and begin the process of consideration. The day of long-form storytelling is dead.

Split second communications is the currency of the realm, now and for the future.

Oct 26

Talk about a wunderkind

Note to readers: This is the second, and final, blog reviewing Harold Burson’s new book, “The Business of Persuasion” (available through Rosetta Books)….

But, after reading what Burson-Marsteller Founder Harold Burson had achieved at the same age, I must say I was beyond humbled (a unique experience to be sure).

Consider the following (taken directly from his autobiography):

  •  He became a stringer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal as a sophomore in high school.
  •  He filed reports on University of Mississippi football for the Commercial Appeal while a college sophomore.
  •  While still in college, he provided public relations counsel to D.H. Ferguson, which was helping to build the atomic bomb.
  •  After WW II began, he filed nightly written reports for all U.S. officers serving in Europe.
  •  At the age of 24, he covered the Nuremberg trials for the American News Network.

His accomplishments are mind-numbing to say the least, but Burson provides key advice for any high school or college student hoping to achieve at least a modicum of his success:

First, he proffers these tips for succeeding in PR:

  •  Content is still king. Train yourself to be a good writer, avail yourself of writing labs and tutors, seek feedback on your writing and your future will be assured.
  • As the volume of texting grows, the quality of writing declines. Do yourself a favor and take as many writing courses as you can cram into your schedule.

He next provides advice for succeeding early in life:

  • Volunteer to do the jobs no one else wants to, and to the extent possible, inform people of the importance of your service to the company.
  • Take calculated risks early in your career, risks that will hasten your trek to the objective you have set for yourself.
  • Suggest new ways of approaching problems as ideas come to you. Just because more experienced people reject them outright does not mean they are bad ideas. They may be ahead of their time or lead to alternative and timelier ideas.

Finally, Burson’s takeaways from his career in the military include:

  •  Those who have the willingness and the discipline to do the grunt work will work their way up in business.
  •  Prepare yourself to adapt to ever-changing situations such as different bosses, unusual assignments or difficult colleagues.
  •  Some assignments call for a high degree of integrity. What you say and do will either earn you the trust of others or lose it.

Stay tuned for part three tomorrow and, oh, btw Mr. Burson: Where were you when I was 24?

Oct 25

Sports as a Part of our Society: Chat with Dr. Baseball (Part 2)

Game 1 of the World Series is in the books, and Dr. Baseball’s prediction is already looking bleak! Check out Part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Wayne McDonnell, Academic Chair of Sports Management at NYU – where we talk about diversity issues in baseball and sports amid the backdrop of the NFL National Anthem controversy. Plus we talk MLB in South Beach, hitting against the defensive shift, and of course, Steve has to find a way to drop in a Mets question…

Oct 24

Sports as a Part of our Society: Chat with Dr. Baseball (Part 1)

Nothing uplifts a town like their local sports team performing well on the field. We’re seeing that with MLB’s Houston Astros as they face off against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. How can this help the city heal after suffering a devastating hurricane this past summer? Dr. Wayne McDonnell, Academic Chair of Sports Management at NYU is back in the house and drops knowledge on how sports is woven into the fabric of our society, as well as how data is playing a much larger role in the game today.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part 2 of our conversation!

Oct 23

Do you know the names of your industry’s founding fathers?

Could you imagine anyone who works in aviation not knowing the pioneering roles of Orville and Wilbur Wright? Same question holds true for the oil & gas sector. Could anyone not know the name and accomplishments of John D. Rockefeller?

But, when I’ve guest lectured at countless college and university PR classes over the years and asked about our field’s pioneers, the average student is hard pressed to name anyone aside from Edward Bernays.

That’s a shame since the invaluable contributions of pioneers ranging from Ivy Lee and Arthur W. Page to John W. Hill and Al Golin have gone largely unnoticed and unappreciated by the current and future generation of practitioners.

Happily, one of our founding fathers is very much alive and well and, at the robust age of 96, still shows up for work every day at his eponymous agency.

I’m speaking about Harold Burson, who has just published his autobiography: “The Business of Persuasion.”

Mr. Burson’s magnus opus is published by RosettaBooks. You can contact production@rosettabooks.com to order a copy(ies).

I’m not in the business of promoting books written by competitive agency owners, but The Business of Persuasion is not merely the tale of a true visionary, but an insider’s guidebook that comes replete with invaluable takeaways at the end of each chapter.

I intend to write two other blogs about the book this week. The first will summarize how the young Harold Burson created his own “brand” while still in high school and continually leap-frogged far older, more experienced professionals to achieve remarkable success at the tender age of 24.

The second blog will address the man’s vision and accomplishments over the decades, and explain in greater detail why PR Week described Harold Burson as, “….The 20th century’s most influential PR figure.”

Now that you know who he is, I urge you to buy the book and analyze Mr. Burson’s journey to greatness. I can’t think of a more relevant guide for Millennials and Generation Z types struggling to figure out how to differentiate themselves and create their own paths to success.