May 24

Are You Ready for Some Football (Controversy)?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 21

Spot On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 09

Bad Advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 07

The Sounds of Silence

I must say I was surprised, and disappointed, to read that Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted felt a bit aggravated last week when asked to comment on Pop Star Kanye West’s highly controversial comments about slavery.

To refresh your memory, West Tweeted the following, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years…for 400 years…. that sounds like a choice.”

It was at that moment the Adidas CEO had a very clear choice as to whether to stand up, speak out and, if not condemn West’s comments, to at least say they didn’t reflect the views or corporate purpose of his company.

Instead, he sounded quite miffed when was quoted as having said: “I’m not going to comment on every comment he (meaning West) or somebody else makes.”

Well, in Kanye’s case, he is most certainly NOT just somebody else when it comes to Adidas. He is both a paid designer and brand ambassador.

Rorsted’s non-comment was, in fact, a very strong comment. It told me, and millions of others, that an incendiary, racist statement made by a representative of his company is acceptable. And, that’s unacceptable.

I don’t wear Adidas sneakers, so I can’t boycott the brand, but I’d be willing to bet my treasured Asics running shoes that many people have or will boycott Adidas as much for West’s hateful statement as for Rorsted’s tacit endorsement (that’s how I read silence). Consumers are currently signing a petition for Adidas to drop the rapper.

Long ago and far away, then-BP CEO Tony Hayward was absolutely eviscerated by media everywhere when, after visiting the site of the massive oil spill his company had caused in the Gulf of Mexico, Hayward said, “I’d like my life back.”

Brutal comment. Just brutal. And the subsequent outrage would end up costing the BP CEO his job.

I doubt Rorsted will lose his job, but his refusal to comment in a time of crisis will most assuredly cost him sales and employees, while stepping all over the brand’s image and reputation.

To paraphrase Thomas Paine, “These are the days that try men’s (and women’s) souls.” These are also the days when it’s no longer acceptable for CEOs to remain silent.

Shame on you, Mr. Rorsted, for not standing up and doing the right thing. It may not end your career, but it will forever tarnish it.

Note: I will be addressing societal crises, fake news and the pressing need for CEOs everywhere to stand up, speak out and double down on their organization’s corporate purpose at the PRSA Counselors Academy’s Spring Conference later today.

Silence is no longer golden, especially in the aftermath of a societal crisis such as a mass shooting, a controversial piece of legislation such as tariffs or an incendiary statement uttered by a high-profile figure.

Silence is shameful.

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

Mar 22

Even in the Age of AI, Just Tell Me a Story

Ann Barlow, Peppercomm’s West Coast President, penned this guest blog.  It reinforces the need for great storytelling and explains why smart marketers at the recent SXSW are wising-up to the limitations (and excessive costs) of technology, digital and enterprise solutions while doubling down on crisp, clear and compelling content….

Elon Musk told a riveted SXSW audience last week that we should be more afraid of artificial intelligence than of nuclear weapons. I have a healthy respect for the threat that unchecked machine learning capabilities in particular could pose, but at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, mostly I just lament the loss of human interaction that technology has brought about. That’s why I was heartened by one of the other themes that surfaced from this year’s trend-forecasting extravaganza.

As TechRepublic reported in a piece called SXSW 2018: The 5 Business Takeaways that Mattered, the 5th takeaway says that the human connection and the tales we tell still matter most.

Here’s what Brian Wallace of NewSourcing, reporting for TR says:

Small and focused content is more powerful than stuff that’s over the top, and it’s thanks in part to the shift toward human connections. Human storytellers make a greater impact than celebrity spokespeople or ad campaigns, and that was completely evident during the Experiential Storytelling track. Small is the new big. In fact, this seismic shift toward the human element of storytellers and stronger personal connections highlights the fact that the technology that has long dominated the conversation is there to serve the humans, not the other way around.

Don’t you love, “Small is the new big”? We are utterly surrounded, engulfed and consumed by technology. In our marketing world, more and more emphasis is placed on the tools that tell us about our audiences and what they want to hear from us. So much so that one school of thought suggests we no longer need to create campaigns – just state the facts. These tools are incredibly helpful, but are they enough to make a real human connection?

Last month, scientists announced that a series of cave paintings in Spain may be by far the oldest ever – perhaps 65,000 years old – which means that man’s desire for creative expression and storytelling actually predates homo sapiens. I imagine our antediluvian kin sharing their days and their dreams with their brethren, capturing their lives in images to share with future generations.

All these millennia later, the set of tools we use to express ourselves has vastly grown in number and sophistication.  But the stories we weave — about ourselves, our experiences, our stuff – will always take precedence over technology. As the TechRepublic article author says, technology is still here to serve us, not the other way around. So however sophisticated our tools to reach our audiences become, to make a real human connection, just tell me a story.

Mar 21

Drink innovators: bold play or just plain gross?

Today’s guest blog was co-authored by two rising stars at Peppercomm, Courtney Moed and Heather Valle, who not only know everything about PR, but can discuss product innovation from a Millennial’s POV. What better way to ride out a Nor’Easter?

Even if you live under a rock, I’m sure you’ve heard about the Unicorn Frappuccino at Starbucks. The trendy, colorful drink took Instagram by storm with over 151,000 posts under the hashtag #unicornfrappuccino. Starbucks saw what a success the unicorn trend was becoming and jumped on the opportunity to turn the frapp into a real product offering with a registered trademark.

While other brands are following the trends, Starbucks is a leader in turning trends into profits. Coffee purveyors and other non-food brands should take note of Starbucks secret to success – well one of them. Sometimes you need to go a little off brand to capture some media buzz.

Check out these brands that are thirsty for some good ole’ creativity:

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While the turquoise and purple concoction is seemingly off brand from Starbucks’s usual crisp, sophisticated look, it’s a way to capture attention away from competing brands. Love or hate the flavor, consumers are abuzz about the chain until their next holiday cup debacle. Similar with Pickle Juice Slushes and Buffalo Lattes, there might be a select few who actually enjoy these, but they are really buzz beverages. Today’s consumer craves experiences and shareable moments. Younger demographics want boomerang spit-takes trying the latest, weirdest flavor, rather than pictures of them sipping basic black coffee.

How can your brand compete with these trendy (and potentially tasty) drinks?

  • Listen to your audience to hear what they’re saying. Find out what’s working for their appetite and what’s missing from your menu.
  • Use FOMO to your advantage. With limited-time offered drinks, customers will feel a sense of urgency to get to the store, so they don’t miss out.
  • Create a hashtag for customers to become a part of the community. Even if they can’t get to the store to purchase the drink themselves, they can social media stalk others who have.
  • Act fast! If it seems Starbucks is five steps ahead, be six steps ahead. Don’t go recreating a crystal ball frapp. Look into your crystal ball to anticipate the next trend and be first to market.
Mar 19

Yesterday’s Mistakes can be Today’s Opportunities

We’re in the final stages of completing an exhaustive, co-branded research report in tandem with The Institute for Public Relations.

The purpose is to more fully understand how CCOs across myriad industries are coping with crisis preparedness and response in this new era of Trump Tweets, Fake News and seemingly innocuous actions finding their way on the front pages of media properties near and far (Think: Snapshat’s ill-conceived pot shot at Rihanna).

I admit though that, aside from #MeToo incidents, I hadn’t given much thought to past organizational mistakes, transgressions and outrages as opportunities to not only right wrongs but double down on an organization’s Purpose and Values.

My enlightenment is due in large part to my longtime friend and associate, Chris Tennyson, who just added a rearview mirror to my fully-equipped crisis HUMVEE.

In his soon to be published book, Tennyson takes a page out of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” writing style of simultaneously placing Billy Pilgrim, the lead character, in the past, present and future.  He does so by citing three superb examples of different organizations who suddenly woke up, realized mistakes made by previous generations and earned well-deserved accolades for fixing what had been broken (and making themselves seem more empathetic and forward-looking than ever).

Here are the examples. Each contains a link that provides additional insight:
1.) Brown-Forman: The company embraced the work of an author/researcher who, on her own, dug into the company archives to discover that a former slave named Dearest Green played a lead role in developing one of B-F’s signature whisky brands.history. Check out the CEO’s comment in the article link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/15/dining/jack-daniels-whiskey-slave-nearest-green.html 

2.) National Geographic: The iconic travel/adventure journal asked a University of Virginia professor (an expert on Africa and photography) to assess the magazine’s historic coverage of people of color. The report was dismal, if not downright demoralizing.

Rather than bury the past, though, the magazine’s current editor-in-chief dealt with the issue in a totally authentic and transparent way.

NG’s headline read, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

3.) The New York Times included a special section in last Sunday’s edition featuring newly written obituaries of women who deserved recognition at the time of their deaths (but had been overlooked by the Times obit deskmen of the day).

Now, compare the three examples above with the recent track record of Oscar Munoz & United Airlines. By the time he steps down, Munoz will have enough egregious mistakes to write an airline industry version of War and Peace.

As for me, I plan to highlight a few other choice tidbits from the Tennyson manuscript in the days and weeks to come (because they’re that good). And, hey, if someone accuses me of plagiarism, I will simply admit fault and leverage the opportunity to re-position myself as a stand-up guy who is willing to make good on my egregious mistakes of yesteryear.

Mar 14

United Airlines Continues to Be Dogged by Self-Inflicted Image Problems. But Do We Care?

Today’s guest blog was penned by Peppercomm’s Ann Barlow who weighs in a yet another atrocious crisis courtesy of the airline with the least friendly skies imaginable….

On Tuesday, we learned about the poor dog that died onboard one United flight when it was consigned to the overhead bin, and then the next day about another that went to Japan instead of Kansas (anyone could make that mistake). Like many of you, we at Peppercomm shook our heads at the level of callousness that CEO Oscar Munoz seems content to foster, and wondered at the tatters that United’s reputation has been left in following yet another set of senseless actions.

Then my colleague Matt Purdue asked the question: Does it really matter? He pointed out that United’s stock has not suffered despite all of the well-publicized treatment the airline has visited on its paying passengers. And, maybe worse, when we spot a $30 savings on Kayak with United over another carrier, how many of us blithely put our principles aside to save a few bucks?

The notion that bad behavior comes with no consequences horrifies me. Are we really in an age where we are so weary of, so numbed by, people treating one another with such contempt or compromising any ethics in the name of financial gain, that we shake our heads and move on? My colleagues and friends talk about feeling angry but frustrated by a sense of powerless to do anything. Understandable to be sure. For me, it’s more that stories of scandals and misconduct are coming at us so rapidly that it’s hard to remember who’s done what, when.

But I have hope. At Peppercomm, we’ve actually created an updated version of our crisis program because like never before, employees are calling on their company leadership to take a stand on the day’s most important issues. No longer are they content to let their employers remain neutral on things like DACA and #MeToo and gun control and the environment. And no longer are they willing to stand by and watch their leadership consistently put profit above principles. Like never before, companies will need to operate with purpose and walk away from actions and policies that don’t fit that purpose.

Matt is probably right in the short term. But based on what we are seeing, not only at Peppercomm but on social media and on our streets, as weary and busy as people are, we are only willing to take so much.

Mr. Munoz, perhaps you’re safe for now. But sooner or later, your employees and your customers are going to say: enough.