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And to add insult to injury the corporation, founded by Thomas Edison, has been replaced by something called Walgreens Boots Alliance.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 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 28

A Night at the Museum…

Taylor Shawver and Shannon Thornton, two of Peppercomm’s sure fire leaders of tomorrow, took time out of their busy schedules to pen a guest blog about what the PR workplace experience of the past was like for three pioneering women. A big thank you to Shelley Spector and The Museum of Public Relations for hosting an event that highlighted female pioneers and enlightened the likes of Shannon, Taylor and so many other young PR practitioners…….

To help celebrate Women’s History Month, Peppercomm had the honor of being a sponsor for the second annual PR Women Who Changed History™ event hosted by The Museum of Public Relations.

The event, which occurred on March 1st featured a riveting discussion among three of history’s most important PR pioneers–Barbara Hunter, Muriel Fox, and Saralie Slonsky. The trailblazers put us in their virtual time machine and provided a fascinating glimpse into what life was like in the Mad Men days of the industry versus how life is for women in PR today.

In the 1940s, for example, Muriel Fox applied for a writing job at the legendary Carl Byoir & Associates but was told, “Women aren’t writers here, they’re secretaries.”

Her rejection only fueled her perseverance. She kept after Byoir and was finally hired. Once firmly ensconced, she rose quickly through the ranks, becoming Byoir’s first woman vice president in the early 60’s.

Fox’s story was inspirational, but also one we struggled with in fully comprehending. After all, we work in a female-dominated office, so it’s hard to believe there was ever a time a woman would be told they’re not writers.

Barbara Hunter is another pioneering woman tore down the stereotypes and became the first woman in the United States to run a public relations agency.

In addition to explaining how she established her start-up, this entrepreneur even focused on how she would dress back in the day:  “When I went to work, I would put on my hat, often with a veil, my white gloves, and my high heeled shoes and go into the subway to go to work,” she said. She also remembered how few women there were in the field during this time. Hunter recalled attending PRSA luncheons in which 95 percent or more of the tables were filled by men.

Today nearly three-quarters of all PR pros are women. At universities, the percentage of female public relations majors is even higher. The change is both exhilarating and unsettling. It’s exciting to realize how far we’ve come, but it is also incomprehensible to hear how we could have been so marginalized in the first place. Clearly, as was the case for female executives in all industries 60 years ago, women were simply not perceived as managerial worthy.

Last, and certainly not least, Saralie Slonsky shared her tales from the past. Slonsky has spent close to 30 years as a public relations/communications executive at two of the leading global agencies, Burson-Marsteller and Cohn & Wolfe (which merged several week ago). As she rose through the ranks, Slonsky honed her skills and developed a specialty in women’s health practice. In fact, she helped launch the first menopause education campaign in the early 1980’s, and worked with the team that partnered with Cancer Care to establish the first National Breast Cancer Awareness Week. Talk about pioneering!

The Museum of Public Relations experience not only opened our eyes to how much has been done by so few, but energized us to pick up the torch and keep moving women’s rights forward in the workplace. As Saralie put it, “What you know and how you do it is what matters now.”

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Mar 27

Sometimes smarter is better than lighter (or stupidity)

Just when I thought yet another tone-deaf advertising agency creative or in-house marketing executive couldn’t possibly produce yet another insensitive, racially-charged TV spot, along comes Heineken to prove me wrong.

If you haven’t seen “Lighter is better” and, odds are you won’t since Heineken yanked it off the air almost immediately, take a gander: Heineken pulls ‘Sometimes lighter is better’ ad after racism claims

Now, take a guess who was morally outraged by the commercial? Bingo! People of color.

Why? Well, because the white bartender in the spot takes careful aim and hurtles a Heineken bottle of beer underneath, around and past bar patrons of color before it reaches its final destination: the hand of an attractive light skinned woman.

These are the types of unexplainable and egregious gaffes that, in 30 seconds, can undo years of community goodwill, corporate social responsibility AND the morale of an entire workforce. Then of course, there will be boycotts from patrons of liquor stores and food markets who will no longer buy Heineken beer at all.

God knows what the eventual impact from a financial and reputational standpoint will be, but I’m betting the internal marketing team was either put on 30-days notice or asked to leave the building faster than a speeding bottle of Heineken.

As far as the ad agency creatives, all I can say is, “Let’s lift a bottle of beer (other than Heineken) in their memory.” The next gig for the entire team will probably be washing dishes in the bar where the commercial was filmed.

Btw, on a related note, I will be joined by JP Laqueur of Brand Foundations on a PRSA webinar at 3pm today to discuss the new types of societal crises facing corporate America (as well as self-inflicted wounds such as Heineken’s).

Here’s the link to today’s webinar: http://apps.prsa.org/Learning/Calendar/display/9155/Reputation_Management_in_a_Polarized_Age#.WrpLY4jwaUn

Dec 19

First we take Manhattan, then we take Dublin

We recently had the opportunity to play host to a colleague from the Emerald Island: Alan Keane. Alan toils away for Plunkett PR, a superb Dublin-based PR firm. 

Since it was his first opportunity to observe American in the midst of becoming great again, I asked Alan to share his observations. Here goes (and Erin Go Brah to you as well)…..

So, Steve has asked to write a guest post on what I learned from my week in New York.

Happy to oblige Steve, and thanks for the opportunity.

The best pizza in the city can be got at Artichoke Basille’s in the East Village, the best dive bar is Desmond’s at 433 Park Avenue, Chelsea Market offers great lunch options, Shake Shack has the best burg…

(Steve: “Uh… Alan… I meant what you learnt about the differences and similarities between PR in New York and Ireland…”

My bad Steve. The above still stands though. Come at me @AlanKeane23 if you disagree.

Ok, let’s get serious.

I came to New York to meet a selection of the best and brightest in New York PR and gain some valuable insights into how the creative industry works in the Big Apple. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest.

Ireland has a lot going for it creatively. It’s the land of saints and scholars after all, and, to propagate another stereotype, we have the gift of the gab. Irish people could sell sand in the desert, and this is reflected in the talents of our brightest creative minds.

New York however, operates on another level. Outside of the professional realm, Manhattan is so full to the brim of people from every walk of life that to stand out you need to do something very special. Otherwise you just blend into the crowd. Hence the style smorgasbord that is any given street. You could spend the whole day people watching in New York (not in a creepy, Robin Williams in One Hour Photo kind of way either.)

That translates into the creative arena, as New Yorkers are bombarded from every angle with advertisements, content and products. To stand out you have to do something truly special. It’s a potent environment in which to push the boundaries of creativity and from the brief time I spent with the team at Peppercomm it’s an exciting place to be.

Every day is a different challenge in the realms of the creative and communication industries, and it was interesting to note the similarities between Ireland and New York in that regard. Pushing commercial clients to a sceptical and understaffed media, the time and resource black hole that is responding RFPs, and constantly changing parameters of what is demanded from public relations service providers are just some of the issues facing PR practitioners both sides of the Atlantic.

Stateside media relations was something I was really interested in learning more about during my visit. Ireland is such a parochial place, that you tend to be able to keep track of and develop excellent professional relationships with the media if you’re on your game at all. With such a large spread of media in New York and beyond for communications professionals to wrest with, I was curious as to how media relations could be fostered.

It was something I asked of everyone I met in the industry, and the results are in. The answer is (drum roll please), hard work and a human touch. Something as simple as knowing a particular journalist’s likes and dislikes when it comes to communications (phone or email, for example) can make all the difference. Simple, yes, but when you have countless journalists to keep track of, that’s where the hard work comes in.

Finally, on a personal note, I’d just like to say that although Ireland is known as the land of a thousand welcomes, (Cead Mile Failte is a greeting in Irish that literally translates to “a thousand welcomes”) New Yorkers give us a run for our money. The misconception that New York is an unfriendly and cold city seems unfair to me, as everyone I met during my time there went out of their way to be of assistance and make me feel welcome. Thank you to everyone in Peppercomm, particularly Steve, Deb and all the team who made time to talk to me and discuss the industry. Thanks also to the impressive Rob Longert of Day One and Bill Daddi of Daddi Brand Communications whose insights gave me plenty of food for thought returning home.

Happy Holidays folks.

Nov 16

The Data Science Behind the Dating Scene

Today’s guest blog was authored by Jason Baik, Senior Manager on the Analytics team at Peppercomm…

Most people associate “analytics” with simple tables and graphs without really understanding the true power of data. I’m here to break that stereotype.

Before I get into the details, a bit of background is required. My name is Jason, a professional analyst and a true data advocate; I analyze everything from conducting non-hierarchical clustering for my fantasy football drafting to predictive price modeling for my bitcoin gambling. You name it and I probably have a personal spreadsheet of it.

When I was freshly single in the summer of 2016, I decided to follow in the footsteps of journalist Amy Webb and put my love of analytics behind my pursuit of love: data behind my dating life. I started by crafting profiles across various dating apps and meticulously tracked everything, from opening lines and response times to respondent ethnicities and hobbies. I was ready to prove that love was a quantifiable game…

By the twelfth day, I was frustrated by my lack of progress. My response rates were improving but my problem lied in the candidates themselves… the first few dates had been entertaining but no one stood out enough for a second meet. Even worse, there was no apparent correlation between any of my variables and my enjoyment of an experience. As day fifteen rolled around, I decided to add a qualitative layer to the mix. I calculated personality scores based on profile keywords and developed an attraction index. My daily response rate stayed about the same but my enjoyment of the dates soared!

I wanted more. During month two, I decided to increase the stakes by adding what I’ll coin as my radical honesty test. I would ask a series of ‘controversial’ questions throughout the course of conversation and gauge response lag, initial eye movements, and facial reactions. Some of my questions included: 1) number of ex-boyfriends, 2) reasons for termination of latest relationship, 3) current salary level, 4) political views, and 5) criminal history. I hardly cared about the answers as I only met the women who passed my screening process – I already knew they were decent human beings. I was more intrigued by how each would respond in an unorthodox situation.

On the one hand, I got to meet some genuinely amazing women. I soon discovered, though, that regardless of most people’s claims to appreciate ‘honesty’ not many people truly did… or at least not in the way I defined it. Even these highly curated individuals became awkward or disinterested as I asked my questions and some of them blatantly lied. To my dismay, my radical honesty test remained pass-proof…

Lucky for me, my story doesn’t end there. Six months into my amorous adventure, as I was on the cusp of giving up on ‘happily ever after’, I met the most wonderful woman… ironically, outside of online dating. I was at a board game night with high school buddies when a friend of a friend appeared on a whim based on a last-minute invite. To disillusion the romantics, this woman and I barely spoke during game night… but coincidental parking led to the exchanging of numbers and an eventual first date.

During my first meeting with – from here on out, I’ll call her Grace… and I say that facetiously because that’s her actual name – I decided to enact my honesty test but with a twist. Instead of asking my typical questions, I decided to up the ante and start with my own confessions. Unfortunately for me, what started as an attempt to spice up my experiment ended with me telling Grace literally every secret that I housed: every library book I had failed to return on time, every plastic can I had failed to recycle… it was all laid out for her on our (I will stress again) first date.

She, in turn, laughed at most of what I said… and calmly elaborated on her own shameful history. That was ten blissful months ago.

I understand, first hand, that in a world where the client deadlines get cut as often as the budgets, analytics will forever be seen as a mere dashboard or an Excel template. With that said, my best contribution to this wonderful field comes in the form of a friendly reminder: some of life’s greatest answers are derived using analyses. The next time you’re going about your daily routine, even if you aren’t an “analyst”, try putting some data behind a situation. While I can’t promise you a Nobel Prize-winning revelation every time… once in a while you may, like me, make a life-changing discovery.

***

More about Jason:

Jason is a Senior Manager on the Analytics team where he leverages data to solve client problems. Prior to joining Peppercomm, Jason worked at several digital advertising agencies and crafted measurement strategies spanning social, programmatic, search, email, and mobile campaigns. Jason is originally from Princeton, New Jersey and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from Northwestern University.

Find Jason on LinkedIn here.