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: 

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.

Mar 01

Delta Does the Right Thing… for the Wrong Reason

Today’s guest blog is authored by Steve Goodwin (BrandFoundations), a longtime friend and strategic partner to Peppercomm…

No one was surprised this past weekend when air carrier Delta joined the growing list of corporations abandoning business relationships with the NRA. The move made sense in light of the white-hot debate that’s gripped the nation in the wake of the horrible and senseless massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

It seemed – at least at first blush – that Delta was taking a purpose-based stand, and that its purpose (or North Star) dictated that the company come down firmly on the opposite side of the NRA on this particular issue.

Cue the applause track for a corporation brave enough to stand on its morals, knowing full well that it’s going to take some incoming flack for doing so.

But don’t hit “play” quite yet.

You see, a closer read of the company’s statement on its decision reveals that, at the end of the day, Delta’s actions weren’t driven by something so noble as “purpose” but rather by a vanilla-esque commitment to what could best be described as “neutrality.” See what you think:

“Delta’s decision reflects the airline’s neutral status in the current national debate over gun control amid recent school shootings. Out of respect for our customers and employees on both sides, Delta has taken this action to refrain from entering this debate and focus on its business. Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment.

This is not the first time Delta has withdrawn support over a politically and emotionally charged issue. Last year, Delta withdrew its sponsorship of a theater that staged a graphic interpretation of “Julius Caesar” depicting the assassination of President Trump. Delta supports all of its customers but will not support organizations on any side of any highly charged political issue that divides our nation.”

That’s right: Delta’s version of “taking a stand” appears instead to be a thinly veiled calculation of “sitting it out.” And therein lies an ongoing threat to the company’s credibility and brand reputation.

Failing to take a stand based on an agreed-upon set of principles, tenets or desired behaviors leaves Delta walking an extremely thin line as it seeks to offend as few people as possible… which, as we all know, offends the hell out of most people. Look no further than the reaction by Georgia’s Lieutenant Governor threatening to “kill” any tax breaks for Delta in that state unless it re-ups with the NRA. He apparently missed the “on both sides” and “Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment” parts of the carefully crafted statement. (Rhetorical question: How well did that “on both sides” stance work for the President in the immediate Charlottesville aftermath?)

Delta’s lack of adherence to a defined purpose also puts the company’s leadership in the unenviable – and unsustainable –  position of having to make a series of “judgment calls” every time a new controversial issue emerges.  And in case you haven’t noticed, they’re emerging with increasing frequency and (sadly) severity.

In the J.D. Power 2017 North American Airline Satisfaction Survey, Delta ranked #2 overall. Although the company did the “right thing” in hopping off the sinking S.S. NRA, its inability to come forth with the “right reason” puts those hard-earned gains – and Delta’s brand reputation – at risk.



Feb 16

Saluting ethics in an unethical world

Next Wednesday evening I’ll be attending the Arthur W. Page Center for integrity in public communications 2018 awards dinner.

In case you may be unfamiliar with the Center, it was created in 2004 and dedicated to the study and advancement of ethics and responsibility in corporate communications and other forms of communication. In the span of 14 short years the Center, which is headquartered at Penn State University, has become an international leader in research on ethics and integrity in public communication. It’s funded more than 200 scholars and awarded more than $700,000 in research.

The awards dinner was created by the Page Center Advisory Board and named in honor of Larry Foster, a renowned communicator during his time as both as journalist and PR practitioner.

This year’s honorees are:

–      Bill George, senior fellow at Harvard Business School and former CEO of Medtronic

–      John Onoda, consultant for FleishmanHillard and Gagen MacDonald

–      The late PBS Newshour host Gwen Ifil

Denise Bortree, Page Center director and associate professor of public relations/advertising at Penn State said the awards dinner is intended to showcase professionals who established their integrity through challenging times and over long careers. “We hope their good work will help us promote ethical decision-making in our field today and in the future,” she said.

Funds raised from the event support innovative research by Page Center scholars who represent universities all over the world.

If you haven’t bought a seat (or better yet, a table), I strongly suggest you do so. If there’s one thing this world could use a whole lot more of it’s ethical behavior. Hats off to the Page Center’s board for establishing the Larry Foster Awards.


Feb 01

Why do smart people make dumb decisions?

I don’t know if you caught the rather tepid furor over Amazon’s decision to sell a line of products with the slogan, “Slavery Gets S**t Done.” That’s right, Amazon was selling baseball caps, T-shirts and a whole host of other products with that obscene slogan.

What puzzles me the most is this: How could a product line with such an obviously racist and offensive tagline possibly make its way up the corporate food chain at Amazon and EVER see the light of day?

I’m guessing the idea came from someone in either the in-house creative, merchandising or licensing groups. Then it would have had to make its way through the approval process that must have included a senior business unit executive and, I would hope, a trained legal counsel.

So, how could do many people be so deaf, dumb and blind? It truly defies logic.

Amazon yanked the offensive merchandise, but never apologized. Instead, they issued a terse statement that read, “The products in question are no longer available.” That’s like saying the gun that fired the bullets is no longer loaded.

With black history month kicking off Thursday, one would think a smart marketer would be extra sensitive to such a gaffe, but apparently not at Amazon.

Imagine if these other hateful, insensitive taglines were in the hopper at Amazon…would they, too, get through?

– “Bullying toughens you up. So suck it up.”

– “What’s a little nuclear war between friends?”

– “Africa is full of sh*thole countries”

Shame on Amazon and shame on the media for not giving this horrific incident more coverage. Neither got their s**t done.


Jan 23

Nice to see NBC Won’t be Taking a Knee

One story that was completely overlooked during the recently completed round of NFL playoff games was NBC’s staunch decision to spotlight kneeling by Super Bowl players of color during the playing of the national anthem.

That’s a pretty gutsy move considering any number of conservative, America First, deep-pocketed advertisers are probably deciding right now whether to yank their advertising or let it ride (or, if they don’t pull their spend, Tweet an immediate corporate response distancing themselves from NBC and the kneeling players).

Many organizations would see the kneeling question as a real conundrum:

1.) If we don’t cover kneeling players, we won’t lose millions of sponsor dollars. But will we be doing the right thing?

2.) If we do cover the kneeling, we’ll undoubtedly lose millions of dollars. But, we’ll be staying true to our values.

NBC didn’t flinch. Their Super Bowl Executive Producer, Fred Gaudelli, said, “The Super Bowl is a live event….and when you’re covering a live event, you’re covering what’s happening. So, if there are players that choose to kneel, they will be shown live.”

Holy Trump Tweet in the making, Batman!

NBC’s decision tells me two things:

1.) The organization will not be cowed by politically conservative sponsors (and, god knows what the ripple effect might be. There’s a very real possibility that some neo-conservative advertisers will threaten to yank ALL of their NBC sponsor dollars).

2.) The Matt Lauer disaster notwithstanding, it’s obvious that Gaudelli’s decision was supported by the C-Suite and driven by the organization’s corporate purpose.

In my mind, corporate purpose has evolved from a warm-and-fuzzy “nice to have” statement to becoming an organization’s North Star guiding top executives to make the right decision, double down on their core beliefs and convey clear, consistent messaging.

Afterword: Considering the fact the Super Bowl will be played in February (which also happens to be black history month), I have to believe we’ll see quite a few Super Bowl players take a knee. It’ll be interesting to see how many corporate advertisers stand tall or take a different type of knee and yank their ads.

Jan 18

It’s a Brave New World at the Intersection of Purpose and Profit

Peppercomm has long had the pleasure of partnering with a superb firm known as BrandFoundations. In recent years, they’ve expanded their solution set to include assisting organizations create a purpose. The following blog is guest authored by one of BF’s principals Steve Goodwin (AKA “The Other Steve”). Enjoy….

I’m hopeful that at least some Repman readers will admit to being old enough to remember the classic E.F. Hutton TV ads from the 1970s and ‘80s that always closed with the investment giant reminding us: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Flash forward to this week, and you can bet people are listening after a current investment heavyweight had something to say.

In an open letter to the CEOs of the world’s largest public companies, BlackRock founder and chief executive Laurence Fink threw down the gauntlet, informing these leaders that profits alone will no longer be enough to merit the investment firm’s support. Going forward, a company must “show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

This is, in and of itself, an absolutely head-spinning moment on Wall Street and beyond: the world’s largest institutional investor going all-in on giving back and putting purpose on a par with profits. Heavy stuff indeed.

But the bigger picture here is that BlackRock’s edict comes (not coincidentally) as executives worldwide are beginning to grapple with another alarming challenge: how to react and respond when your company finds itself swept up very publicly in any of the myriad issues swirling in the toxic brew that is today’s politically charged and divided environment. (Can you say Papa John’s?)

It’s becoming increasingly clear that this is the new normal. Companies need to thread the needle between doing well financially and doing good globally, all while worrying that a Sunday morning tweet from Mar-a-Lago could ignite a social media firestorm and bring 1,000 reporters to corporate HQ. In this era, companies need to be able to stay above the fray. They need not only to state a clear purpose, but also demonstrate that they’ve instituted the internal cultural programs to reinforce that purpose and drive it into corporate communications at all levels.

Preparation is Key When Prevention Isn’t an Option

You know how follow the leader works. Expect more investment firms to fall in line behind BlackRock. And expect more companies of every size and shape to start taking an unflinching look inward to evaluate everything from their mission, vision and value statements to their philanthropic and cultural initiatives.

Forget wondering whether or not your company will have a reputational issue. When your organization is caught in the crosshairs of a public relations spat, you need to have already evaluated and identified the best way to positively impact society. Your “North Star” of purpose – why your organization exists (beyond profits) and the big honking problem it was founded to solve – is the one place that everyone in the organization can look to for on-brand, on-message guidance and navigation.

To zero in on their purpose, most companies will be wise to avail themselves of the skills of a solid outside partner because proximity can often be distorting for internal teams who are fighting the daily battle…the forest-for-the-trees thing. And given the speed with which your organization and its leaders can find themselves called on the carpet or forced to take a stand on a thorny issue, failing to plan truly is planning to fail.

Steve Goodwin is a founding partner at BrandFoundations.

Jan 10

Now, this is what I call a corporate wellness program

Do you workout at gyms? I do. I’m obsessed with exercise (it’s my drug of choice). And, I make a point of exercising six days-a-week. Not bragging, just setting up the rest of the blog.

One of  the things that’s always bothered me, though, are the gyms that ALWAYS have their monitors tuned to Fox or CNN (have yet to train in a Rachel Maddow-friendly facility).
The above ticks me off for two reasons:

  • My gym is a refuge where I go to not only push myself to the max and, temporarily, escape the latest crisis du jour, it’s also “me” time that is fundamental to my emotional and spiritual health.
  • Despite my focus on successfully bench pressing a little more weight each week, hopping in and and out of those agility drill ladders and using a 20-pound medicine ball to play catch with my personal trainer, I inevitably am distracted by the scrolls running constantly across the bottom of each screen. It’s not a big deal but, god forbid I’m in the midst of quickly scanning the latest Trump outrage when, boom, I’m hit smack in the face by the medicine ball, turn an ankle while hopping laterally across the agility drills or lose my grip and suffer the consequences of a 180-pound barbell that comes smashing down and crushes my chest.

Well, one fitness club has finally listened to its customer base and has banned all cable TV networks from the screens in their 125-string chain of gyms.

In doing so, Life Time Fitness is accomplishing three critical image and reputation objectives:

  • Surprising and delighting clients by recognizing our need for down time from the non-stop media hysteria.
  • Ensuring clients can focus exclusively on their physical goals and lose themselves completely in their fitness session.
  • Differentiating themselves from every one of their competitors (a critical move by any business in any industry).

By going dark on cable, Time Fitness has demonstrated an enlightened approach to enhancing the customer experience. Marketers everywhere should not only be emulating TF’s segment-busting strategy, they should take a much deeper dive into the smartest ways to understand their audiences’ wants and needs.

I could continue, but I know Matt’s got an especially vicious session planned for me at noon. Today, though, I will be extra cautious not to let a cable TV scroll announcing Little Rocket Man’s latest threat distract me from enjoying a total fitness experience.


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.

Dec 05

Reports of PR’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

If I had a dollar for every time I’m asked if PR is dead, I’d be richer than the Koch brothers.

The answer is NO; not by a long shot.

Here’s why: The world changed after Donald Trump became president, Fake News infiltrated everyone’s in-box and mega societal events began happening on a daily basis.

All of a sudden, digital advertising or a new website or a customer experience audit or data crunching didn’t quite seem so urgent.

Companies found themselves front and center having to deal with either a positive or negative POTUS tweet, a policy decision such as curtailing immigration from Middle Eastern countries, mass shootings, white supremacist torch light parades, NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem and so on and so forth.

Employees expected their CEOs to address the issues and explain the company’s position. GlassDoor conducted a fascinating survey this past spring of hundreds of American workers. The results showed that staying quiet in the midst of, or in the immediate aftermath, was no longer acceptable to them. They wanted their CEOs to speak up. And they, too, wanted permission to publish their views on their private channels.

Suddenly the CCO and her top PR counselors rose to the very top of every CEO’s list.

The stakes were enormous: say the wrong thing and the company stock price might plummet. Remain neutral and sales could dip. Even saying the right thing would inevitably alienate some percentage of the company’s audience.

The very best CCOs immediately rose to the challenge and began scenario planning, evaluating their vulnerabilities as well as anticipating what their CEO’s response should be. They also took the lead in deciding which “channel” was the most appropriate venue to air their POV. Many chose Twitter. Others went to trusted beat reporters to correct erroneous charges.

The CCO also became THE steward of the C-Suite, making sure that immediate post-crisis messaging was aligned with their peers in HR, sales, investor relations and other disciplines. And they worked diligently with their in-house counsel to create “generic” responses to multiple potential vulnerabilities and had them approved in advance. That enabled the CCO to immediately craft the CEO’s statement and not worry about the legal implications.

I have enormous respect for our marketing peers and, with the walls crashing down all around us, fully embrace integrated marketing communications.

But, when split-second commentary needs to be crafted after, say, a Charlottesville incident, the other disciplines are simply lost at sea.

PR has long served as the moral and ethical compass of the organization. The function has also taken the lead in crafting an organization’s corporate purpose. That, in turn, has become the North Star in terms of saying exactly the right thing in the right tone and through the right channel.

Is PR dead? To quote Mark Twain who, after hearing that newspapers were printing his obituary said, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

The same holds true for PR.