Feb 22

Does the D in Digital Stand for Dying?

I’ve read quite a few recent articles in the advertising and marketing trade press suggesting the halo surrounding the magical word “digital” is not only fading, but actually becoming a bit of an albatross.

According to this article in Marketing Week, more and more marketers are disbanding their separate digital departments and teams and folding them into the larger marcom group. Why? Because, just as was the case with social media, digital is no longer perceived as a standalone “thing.” It’s now seen as simply one more channel in the never-ending battle to engage with stakeholder audiences in a holistic way.

And, as the article points out, we all live in a digital world. So let’s move on and get back to calling ourselves marketers and not digital specialists or influencer specialists or CSR specialists, etc. We’re marketers, pure and simple.

This development comes as no surprise to me because, like so many previous cutting-edge products or service offerings, our industry witnessed a Gold Rush mentality on the part of many firms to immediately reposition themselves as being digitally driven. I like to survey the battlefield before deploying my resources. At Peppercomm, we’ve fully embraced digital, but have never elevated it to a pedestal higher than our other integrated offerings.

In retrospect, I think it was the right move because, as Marketing Week columnist Tom Goodwin said, “…using the word digital in the near future will come across as slightly batty.” And, as Mark Ritson, the author of this particular MW column, wrote, “As we speak, most senior marketers are making their power play and ensuring that the head of digital is being shifted horizontally towards the nearest window while they unite the two teams under their direct leadership.” Ouch! Caveat digital specialist.

Based upon this very real trend, it’s only a matter of time before the “digitally driven” moniker becomes a red flag to any corporation looking to engage a fully integrated agency. It’ll be similar to those firms who, in the aftermath of the dotcom bubble bursting, rapidly repositioned themselves as anything but dotcom specialists. I should know since I led Peppercomm’s repositioning.

While I certainly don’t claim to be a futurist, I sensed the digital metamorphosis would peak at some point in the future and be seen for what it is and what it isn’t (while simultaneously hearing digital specialists proclaim the death of public relations).

As the Marketing Week column confirms, we’re entering a new phase of marketing communications in which an old-school Wall Street Journal feature story is just as important as understanding the user experience and properly coding a new website.

The bottom line for me is this: the stakeholder audience will always determine which channel(s) a brand and its agency should use to engage with it and, ideally, convince that audience to consider the brand’s product or service.

So, digital, it was nice to know you. And social media, it’s been a real treat to partner with you through the years. Now let’s wake up before it’s too late and realize that a fully integrated in-house department or partner agency is the business model (and positioning) of the future. Oh, and by the way, thanks to the non-stop, 24×7 crisis world in which we live, public relations has never been more important. Any reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated

Aug 05

A journalism degree is far superior

News-Reporter This may upset more than one PR professional, academic or student, but I believe a journalism degree trumps one in PR when it comes to succeeding in my industry.

The thought occurred to me after reading a blog by Debra Caruso, a former journalist who now runs her own PR firm.

Caruso lists the following reasons why journalism majors and former journalists make the best PR pros:

  • They have a nose for news.
  • They craft press releases and other copy that is more clear, compelling and accurate.
  • They understand a journalist's life, know when to pitch or not pitch and will score more placements as a result.
  • Former journalists know how to follow a reporter, understand her needs and can help her put together a piece to sell to the editor.

That's good stuff. But, there's far more to it than that. I majored in journalism and had the good fortune to work as a newsclerk at The New York Times, a reporter at WGCH in Greenwich, Ct., and as a newswriter at CBS Radio in Boston. The jobs were part of my five-year co-op curriculum at Northeastern University.

So, at the tender age of 19, I rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest journalists of their generation at the Times. At 20 years of age, I was a sports and news personality who was on-the-air five times a day and hosted an hour-long monthly talk show. And, at the relatively advanced age of 21, I was writing copy for breaking news stories that was then read live by top CBS anchors.

I lived, ate and breathed journalism 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I understood what made news and what didn't. I mastered the art of meeting constant deadlines. And I was provided an invaluable sneak peek into a newsroom's quirks, eccentricities and demands.

So, when I washed up on the shores of Hill & Knowlton as a 22-year-old junior account executive, I knew exactly how to pitch stories and deliver results.

Today's PR graduates do just fine when they hit the agency or corporate worlds. But, there's no substitute for majoring in journalism or working in a newsroom. Both provide an intrinsic understanding of news and newspeople that no PR undergraduate or graduate degree can match.

A journalism pedigree also assures fewer typos, better writing and less reliance on mass e-mails to pitch a story. And, trust me, that's something every senior manager in a PR firm can appreciate.

Mar 16

The tiger in your mind is more ferocious than the tiger in the jungle

When asked, most humans will admit to being more scared of public speaking than dying. (According to a study conducted by National Public Radio, 43% of Americans say their greatest fear in life is public speaking.  In fact people who responded to the survey said they fear public speaking more than death. )
StepupIt's the fear of the unknown that scares most of us, and the anticipation of speaking in front of a group triggers our age-old fight or flight response (a fact I think the Buddhist expression in the headline captures beautifully).

I saw this very basic human emotion demonstrated yet again Monday night when I led a 'Humor in the Workplace' seminar at the Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University. At first, the 17 students were petrified to hear that, after some coaching, they'd be expected to stand in front of the class and 'be funny.' But, each did. And, each student was, in fact, funny.

Recognizing that overcoming the fear of public speaking is a key component in our employees' professional development, we've incorporated stand-up comedy workshops in our training and have seen remarkable results. In addition to making our employees feel more secure about addressing a large group, stand-up comedy training has produced a host of intangible side benefits: enhanced morale, team building and a subtle, but very real reinforcement of our workplace culture: We take our work seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously at all.

I'm amazed that more organizations haven't embraced humor as a recruiting and retention tool. With the economy improving and headhunters once again cold-calling employees with offers, one would think more firms would wake up to the importance of humor to culture (and, in turn, the importance of an open and fun environment in recruiting talent). Yet, as this PR Week feature indicates, most firms are, instead, relying on technology, contests and other gimmicky tactics to woo talent.

I'm not suggesting that humor in the workplace is a be-all and end-all. Money matters. So do perks and an opportunity to work in many different areas of an organization.

But, with everything else being equal, employees will choose a warm and engaging employer. Why? Because people want to work with other people who make them laugh.

So here's a note to all the headhunters and in-house recruiters at the large organizations: think about incorporating humor workshops alongside matching 401k programs, massages, meditation rooms, contests, Twitter feeds and other ploys. Every human being needs help dealing with the tiger of the mind. And, every organization can play a role in helping employees tame the beast. Those that do will find themselves further up the food chain in the never-ending quest to be king of the workplace jungle.

Mar 15

America needs a man like Chris Atkins

Chris-atkins-star-suckersjpg-8d9bd8d259178b30_mediumLeave it to a bulldog, investigative journalist from the U.K. named Chris Atkins to tell us what we  already knew: the quality of mainstream journalism is in decline.

Recently, in an attempt to show how lackadaisical the British media has become, Atkins created three completely fake products. He then placed himself in the role of a product publicist, pitched the press and, voila, the hits started coming faster than one can say Meet the Beatles.

I like seeing the media being taken down a notch or two, especially when it’s done by one of their own. I’ve attended far too many PRSA and PR Week panels in which pompous, self-congratulatory ‘journos’ complain about the unprofessionalism of PR people. And, I’ve cringed whenever some highfalutin editor ‘outs’ publicists who bug him with one too many pitches.

If nothing else, the Atkins piece shows how easily duped the Fourth Estate can be. They, like us, are human. But, journalists never, ever forgive public relations professionals for our mistakes. So, should we cut them some slack for these transgressions? I’d be interested in hearing your POV.

Feb 02

The shoemaker’s children

Conventional wisdom holds that, like the shoemaker who is so busy making shoes for others that Barefoot-shoes he neglects his own kids, advertising and PR agencies don’t do a good job of promoting themselves. That’s simply not the case.

More and more advertising agencies are taking publicity seriously. (Note: They have to. Their traditional business model is imploding as you read this.) And, some public relations firms have absolutely mastered the art of self-promotion.

Our agency publicity team has absolutely excelled at the task, as witnessed by this just-released Dow Jones analysis. As you’ll see, Peppercom ranks fifth among all midsized agencies for most publicity garnered during the year 2010. And, that’s a good thing. A very good thing. It means we’re breaking through the clutter and connecting with the world of prospective and current clients in terms of sharing our point of view on matters of importance. But, in surveying both the midsized and large-sized agencies on the list, I can also state that not all the publicity generated by these firms has been positive.

Take Hill & Knowlton, for example. As I wrote in a previous blog, H&K has suffered a series of high-level executive and client defections. Both have produced enormous negative news and speculation. Another large agency, Cohn & Wolfe, received a ton of negative publicity for publicly airing a feud it was having with one of its best known clients. In fact, CEO Donna Imperato’s barbed statement about her erstwhile client was selected by PR Week as ‘the most memorable’ of 2010. That’s one PR Week award no agency wants to win.

Other firms made the list simply because they specialize in providing counsel to publicly-traded companies that are in the midst of a merger or acquisition. The firm’s name appears automatically in just about any business coverage of the event, so their publicity is a foregone conclusion.

I’m proud of our team’s achievement and hope we can move up the Dow Jones ranks in 2011. My only caveat, though, is the publicity we generate about ourselves should be of the positive variety. I’d rather be like the shoemaker’s child than caught up in the harsh glare of the media’s spotlight. That’s the wrong type of agency publicity.

I’d list Peppercom in that group. From day one, I’ve insisted we set aside time for a team of employees to promote Peppercom’s thought leadership as well as general news and announcements. In fact, we strive to produce far more of the former than the latter, believing clients and prospects judge us on our ability to craft thought-provoking original material covering issues of concern to them.
Sep 30

A dicey proposition at best

I don't know Cohn & Wolfe CEO Donna Imperato, but I sure admire her moxie. Unlike most agency Donna-Imperato executives who've just lost a significant piece of client business, Imperato told PR Week exactly what was on her mind (insert link).

So, instead of the typical, “We're very proud of our work and wish the client well,” Imperato let loose with both barrels after the Hilton HHonors guest-loyalty program put their 20-year relationship up for bid. Imperato said CW not only refused to participate (which makes sense since incumbents almost never win), but also threw in a few very pointed barbs at the erstwhile client.

According to PRWeek, Imperato alleged the strategic platform CW presented in a previous review is now the basis for the client's "Go Hilton. Stay Everywhere." global advertising campaign. She also said the agency switcheroo had been caused by “international management shakeups, a layoff of half the workforce and significant internal changes at Hilton.” Wow. Talk about airing dirty laundry.

A Hilton spokesman fought back. He said CW's sister agency Y&R had created the campaign and that it had already been in place when Imperato's team made its presentation. He also deflected Imperato's claim about downsizing, stating, “To say that we laid off half our employees is not accurate.”

PRWeek noted that, despite the HHonors awards program loss,  CW remains AOR for Hilton's Doubletree and Hampton brands.

I really admire Donna's chutzpah for calling out a misbehaving client. More agency leaders need to do so, so that media such as PRWeek get the message that all client-side executives aren't saints (as they're typically depicted in the publication's various cover stories).

That said, I'll bet Imperato's in a little bit of hot water within WPP, the holding company that owns CW and Y&R (along with 3,000 other agencies). In one fell swoop, she undermined her own firm's long-term opportunities with the two remaining Hilton brands while also shining an unwanted spotlight on Y&Rs work for the client (i.e. who really created the campaign? Y&R or CW?).

Holding companies do not like internecine warfare. And, as a WPP alum, I'm guessing this article is causing quite a bit of angst at the moment.

Donna's words were a dicey, if brave, proposition. I admire her transparency and wish her and CW the best in salvaging what must now be a very difficult client relationship.

Aug 09

When your CEO isn’t New York Times worthy

Remember the Seinfeld episode in which Elaine Bennis, running low on contraceptive devices,
Nytimes1 had to decide which boyfriends were and weren't sponge worthy?

The episode came to mind recently when we were fired by a client CEO whose story, despite our very best efforts, was found by reporters at the 'old, gray lady' not to be New York Times worthy.

Never mind that we had scored tons of superb placements in outlets such as Fast Company, general business press, vertical industry and trades. The narcissistic CEO felt his epic tale should be splashed across the front pages of the 'print' edition of The Times. Aside from feeding his Mt. Everest-sized ego, the Times hit was uber critical to the CEO because the other power players in his social circle also routinely appeared in the paper. So, he HAD to be there or else.

Unfortunately, the Times editorial staff disagreed (no matter how many angles we tried). And, since we failed to produce the seminal Times hit, we were summarily discharged.

The CEOs self-aggrandizing misbehavior reminded me of the stereotypical typical dotcom founder who, armed with a freshly-minted Stanford MBA, a me-too business model and millions of dollars in venture capital seed money insisted his mug be front and center on the cover of BusinessWeek. His CMO henchwoman (they were almost always henchwomen, BTW) would nod her head vigorously and add, "How could they not put Halsey on the cover?" Well, nine times out of 10, the professional journalists laughed off the pitch as not being cover worthy and the henchwoman would discard us like yesterday's newspaper.

All of which reminds me of a superb observation the legendary Manhattan PR wizard Howard Rubenstein shared with a PRSA audience many years back. When a prospect or client CEO demanded to be on the front page of The New York Times or the cover of Fortune, Rubenstein said he'd let out an exasperated sigh, lean over, pull open his desk drawer and produce a toy gun. “You want to be on the cover of Forbes? Fine. Go murder someone and I'll get you on the cover of Forbes.” I think that sums it up beautifully.

Stanley Bing's book "Crazy Bosses" contains a hilarious chapter about the care and feeding of self-absorbed, narcissistic maniacs who believe the sun rises and sets with their every move. My only addition to Bing's pearls of wisdom would be to determine expectations BEFORE a relationship begins. If you run into the next George Steinbrenner who needs his ego stoked with one front page feature after another (and you believe the actual news value akin to what Lindsay Lohan was served for breakfast in the L.A. County jail, walk away). Tell the prospect he or she isn't client worthy.

Aug 06

Two Centuries of Brand Building Pays Off

Today's guest post is by London Peppercommer Carl Foster.

Times2 The balance sheet of most major newspapers looks something like this: 

CirculationDown
Advertising RevenueDown
Editorial StaffDown
OutlookBleak

The most radical move to counter this downward spiral has come from one of the world’s oldest newspapers, The Times (Incorrectly referred to by many as The Times Of London or The London Times). Last month The Times put all its content behind a pay wall – the first major, non-financial daily newspaper to do this. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the outcome of this experiment will determine the future of the newspaper industry.

Subscription to thetimes.co.uk costs £1 for a 24 hour pass or £2 for a one week pass. (The daily print issue costs £1.) In the weeks leading up to the introduction of the pay wall, when visitors were asked to register to view articles, traffic fell 58 per cent. The paper’s share of UK news traffic, from sites like Google News, fell from 4.37 per cent to 1.83 per cent.

Losing almost two thirds of your customers overnight is enough to panic any business owner, but  is it really that bad? I don’t think so. First of all, have you lost 58 per cent of your customers or just 58 percent of your footfall coming through the shop door? How many people clicked through from Google News not caring if they read a story in The Times, The Daily Telegraph or, the 800 lb gorilla in the room, the publicly funded BBC? The fact that people should be focusing on (and the newspaper industry rejoicing at) is that 42 per cent of people chose to pay for their news from The Times. That is the kind of brand loyalty that 225 years of publishing gets you.

The other positive is that the people paying to access The Times’ content are a much more lucrative demographic than the froth that washes up on the site from a news aggregator. People see more value in things that they consider worth paying for, and that goes for consumers and advertisers. This is completely the opposite strategy to that taken by another stalwart of the British newspaper industry, the Evening Standard. As I blogged about last year, after more than 150 years, the Standard became a free newspaper. Yes, the readership grew significantly, but the brand, and the value of its content was reduced, irrevocably, in my opinion.

I am heartily encouraged by the apparent success at The Times and what it means for mainstream publishing. Yes, citizen journalism is important, and in situations like the Iran elections it can be invaluable. But don’t discount the big media groups. There are times when only the resources of a major newspaper can tell a story adequately. Two examples of this are the recent leak of the Afghanistan files to Wikileaks, which in turn passed them to The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel. The other is the British Parliamentary expenses scandal, when thousands of pages were passed to The Daily Telegraph, which ensured the story was analyzed and told properly and responsibly.

There is much ill will directed at Rupert Murdoch, but as owner of The Times his brave experiment will hopefully prove to be the turning point for a troubled, yet vitally important industry.

May 03

It wasn’t our accident


Mar 3 BP CEO Tony Heyward has been beautifully trained to handle the mainstream U.S. media questions in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill.

He begins each interview by thanking the anchors 'for the opportunity,' then makes it quite clear that, while the oil spill wasn't BP's fault, the clean-up is the corporation's responsibility.

He deflected questions wondering why BP so badly miscalculated the initial amount of damage by likening the repair work to 'performing open heart surgery 5,000 feet below the water' (that phrase has some PR person's fingerprints all over it). Finally, when given the chance, he waxes poetic about the 'armada' of ships and 'fleet' of planes BP has harnessed to 'contain' the spill.

From a PR standpoint, BP is making the best of a horrific situation that, excuse me, they caused. Their only mistake is blaming the oil rig owners for the spill (pointing the finger at others never works in these situations, but lawyers insist upon it in order to limit future civil and criminal lawsuits).

All in all, though, Heyward did a nice job staying on message and conveying BP's key message points. When I see a CEO under duress, I always chuckle and think about Brad Irwin, the president of North American operations for Cadbury-Schweppes. Check out this video. The guy was so well trained (or, so poorly trained, depending upon one's P.O.V.) that he was unable to think on his feet and answer any other, industry-specific questions. In the end, he comes cross as a buffoon whose only answer to macro questions is to hawk his new sugarless gum.

A CEO like Heyward can calm fears and inspire confidence in the midst of chaos. An executive such as Irwin can create a mini-crisis by being inflexible, incompetent and inept.

So, here's hoping BP can get the spill contained sooner rather than later (and that Cadbury's in-house PR team and agency partners will study Mr. Heyward's performance). In fact, they should chew on it awhile before they place another high-ranking official on network television.

Sep 14

Here, there and everywhere

He's here. He's there. He's everywhere.

He, of course, is President Barack Obama. And I, for one, am suffering from Chronic Obama Fatigue Syndrome (C.O.F.S.). Hey, the acronym could be used in his Health Care pitch!

I am sick of seeing this man I admire EVERYWHERE I turn.

September 14 My personal breaking point came Saturday morning with the arrival of the October issue of Men's Health, which is typically adorned with some 20-something hunk's abs of steel. Not this time, though. This time, despite non-stop, wall-to-wall, post-Health Care Speech coverage, who do I see staring back at me from the cover? Barry!!!!!!!

Help! I can't get away. In fact, I feel positively stuck inside a Twilight Zone episode. No matter where I go or where I look, THE ONE is there! Be gone, Barry! Be gone!

Don't get me wrong. I'm into photo ops as much as the next PR guy. So, I naturally cut Barry some slack when he was 'caught' draining three's on the roundball court. And I looked the other way when he drained a pint or two in the Rose Garden with the prof and the policeman. But, ever since his inauguration, it seems that Obama has personified the word 'ubiquitous.'

The man is badly overexposed. Whoever is responsible for managing the Obama brand has done a god-awful job. And, if I'm starting to burn out on Barry so, too, are other erstwhile supporters. While that may not immediately bode ill for '44,' it could wreak havoc on his party in the upcoming midterms.

From an image and reputation standpoint, Obama did everything right in his run for the White House and everything wrong since. In fact, I do believe he's become the Narcissus of politics.

Barry obviously digs being on all 500 cable channels simultaneously, appearing at town hall meetings in hamlets so small ever the locals can't pronounce the name and appearing on the cover of inappropriate national magazines.

W. hibernated his way through eight years in the Oval Office. Perhaps, in response, Obama has decided to rock star his way though his first nine months. I sure hope his ego has been sated though, because if he doesn't stand down soon, he'll be standing down permanently come 2012.

I've contracted a nasty case of C.O.F.S. I know I can recover if given a chance, but I'm less than sanguine that Barry & His Beltway Boys will give me the opportunity.