May 03

If only….

Recently we interviewed some venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who, upon reflecting on their early successes and failures, wished they’d known then what they know now. That thought popped into my head as I addressed a group of University of Vermont college students the other day. It was my third lecture Steve_cody_2 before soon-to-be-graduates in the past six months. As I addressed their questions and concerns, I thought to myself, ‘If only I’d had the opportunity to meet with, and speak to, an entrepreneur/businessperson when I was starting my career.’ Needless to say, I didn’t. As a result, I knew next to nothing when I showed up at Hill & Knowlton as a freshly-minted junior account executive.

So I figured I’d compile my list of ‘If only I knew then what I knew now.’ For example:

– Ninety percent of business is, indeed, just showing up. I never cease to be amazed at how dysfunctional American business & industry is. With a little hard work, inspiration and desire, it’s not too difficult to run rings around the average businessperson. So, check your intimidation at the front door.

– One’s image and reputation is everything. When I was younger, I was quick to accuse and quick to condemn. Happily, I didn’t burn too many bridges along the way. Now, with the possible exception of medical supply executives, I bend over backwards not to offend anyone.

– Networking is fundamental to building one’s image and reputation. I waited way too long to begin building a database and communicating regularly with what should have been an ever-expanding list.

– Voracious reading is fundamental to success. Monday’s UVM business class, for example, depended almost exclusively on the web for news and information. Despite the fact that most were business majors, few, if any, read The Wall Street Journal.

– Voracious reading fuels an expanded vocabulary which, in turn, drives clear, consistent writing (a commodity that is becoming increasingly scarce in business & industry). I believe the best public relations writing mirrors that of the Journal. Wished I’d known that earlier on in life.

– Multi-tasking is imperative. It’s amazing how much productive work one can get done on a conference call. That’s when I wrote this blog.

There’s much, much more to share and reflect on. But, I’d like to ask readers to contribute and answer the same ‘if only’ question: namely, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?

Apr 30

The G’s knew what they were doing all along

I had the opportunity recently to reconnect with the husband-and-wife team who ran a PR firm for whom I worked for in the mid-1980s. Howard and Sheila Geltzer (who we rank-and-file types always called the ‘G’s’) operated a very successful agency for some 30 years.

When I toiled as an account supervisor at their firm, I saw the G’s as great, but flawed, leaders. They taught us a good deal about positioning, client management, strategy and, of course, media relations. But, agency profitability, client over-servicing and accounts receivable issues always seemed to intrude in any and all conversations.

As a 26-year-old know-it-all, I resented the financial discussions and thought ill of what I perceived to be a pennywise, pound foolish, management style.

Fast forward a few decades and you’ll find an older and wiser me. In fact, I told the G’s that I now understand and totally respect what they’d accomplished and how they’d managed the business. All of which reminds me of the famous Will Rogers quote: "The older I get the smarter my father gets."

Apr 18

Bigger isn’t always better

There’s a fascinating byliner in PR Week by Laurie Dodge, who says she’s worked on both the client and agency side, and managed agencies large and small.

Dodge’s missive is less than flattering towards the bigger agencies. She decries what she calls the ‘senior person syndrome,’ otherwise known as ‘bait-and-switch.’ She also mentions a big agency propensity for young, inexperienced staff learning at the client’s expense as well as peddling ‘off-the-shelf’ solutions ‘….that worked for someone else."

I’ve had the opportunity to work for several large agencies and, sad to say, I’ve seen numerous examples of what Ms. Dodge has pointed out. I’d like to think these service issues are caused by the financial pressures placed on the big guys by their holding company parents and not some sort of corporate apathy that besets the larger firms.

I remember the CFO of one large agency periodically demanding that our account people increase fees in order to satisfy the holding company profit goals. She justified her demands by claiming that our clients ‘always had extra money stashed away in some desk drawer.’ I guess CFOs had more room to be creative in those pre-Enron days,

While I’m sure that particular CFOs behavior was extreme, I have to tell you we do love competing for business against the big guys. It’s much easier to sell against some of the weaknesses cited by Ms. Dodge than it is to go up against the best and brightest of the independent midsized agency world.

That said, there’s a definite need for large agencies, especially if a client has on-the-ground needs in multiple markets or a deep and specific need in a particular area such as public affairs. But, as more and more corporations are learning, bigger isn’t always better.

Apr 02

As if we needed any more proof

As if we needed any more proof that the traditional advertising model is in freefall, Ad Age devoted a recent cover story to the matter at hand. And, while reading a round-up provides a broad brush perspective on the issue, I was also able to hear about the pain first-hand at a recent industry panel discussion.

Held by PR News and VMS, the ‘integrated communications’ session included representatives from the PR agency and client-side worlds as well as experts from direct response and integrated marketing shops.

Everyone agreed that, because of the horrific cost/benefit ratio of traditional advertising (i.e. Word-of-mouth, digital and other one-to-one communications are so much more effective at reaching consumers in a disintermediated media world), we’re seeing more and more ad shops providing traditional PR services.

We’re seeing this happen on some of our larger accounts. So, as our peers in advertising see their budgets reduced year-after-year, they come to our clients with ideas and recommendations sounding surprisingly like ours.

While there’s still a dividing line between our disciplines it’s becoming murkier and murkier. So, while we in PR debate whether Web 2.0 is a separate phenomenon or merely another communications channel, the ad agencies are scrambling to retrofit their models so they can sound more like ‘earned media’ as they like to describe media relations.

The panel was extremely enlightening and, for me, served as a real wake-up call that PR is not THE place to be, but a place that increasingly desperate ad agencies also want to be.

Mar 29

How a ‘send’ button can send one’s image and reputation to Hell

Once again, the digital world has enabled an unsuspecting PR player to unwittingly wreak havoc on him/herself and the organizations he/she represents.

Following on the heels of such embarrassing mistakes as the GCI Intern who took on Uber Blogger Jeff Jarvis’s unkind comments about Dell, the Weber AE who was labeled moron publicist of the month for incessantly pitching a KFC non-story to Gawker and, of course, Edelman’s infamous anything-but-transparent blogging work on behalf of Wal-Mart, we now have the Waggener Edstrom/Microsoft briefing book on Wired Magazine’s Fred Vogelstein.

As is customary before arranging any interview between a client and reporter, WagEd’s account team created a briefing book for their Microsoft client in which they describe what Vogelstein is like. Such information helps a client prepare for the interview and avoid any possible pitfalls.

Somehow, though, the briefing document fell into the wrong hands, Vogelstein’s. Amazingly, someone from WagEd actually e-mailed the Vogelstein briefing document to the editor himself. And, faster that one can type, ‘oh shit!’ Vogelstein had great material for a totally new and different type of story about Microsoft.

Naturally Vogelstein blogged about how the WagEd people described him as being, among other things, ‘tricky’ and someone who ‘digs for dirt.’

Mistakes happen, and we’re all human. But, as a result of someone’s mistake, deliberate or otherwise, WagEd has jeopardized a media relationship, gotten smashed from an image and reputation standpoint and, at the very least, not strengthened its long-standing relationship with Microsoft.

Having sent e-mails I later regretted, I now try my best to think through any potentially controversial correspondence before hitting the ‘send’ button. It’s a sad, but very real fact of the Web 2.0 world in which we live that a ‘send’ button can also send an individual’s or organization’s image straight to hell.

Thanks to Stephanie Chaney for the idea.

Mar 15

Avoiding churn and burn clients

Seems like the advertising and PR trades always carry the same names of client companies conducting agency searches. These ‘churn and burn’ clients hire and fire agencies as frequently as Major League Baseball teams do with their managers.

Propriety prevents me from naming names but, just as sure as Jenny Dervin of JetBlue has her list of ‘agencies and freelancers’ she’d like to have blacklisted from the new business process, we agency types know which client companies constitute the churn and burn bunch.

Having experienced some of these clients first-hand (and read and heard countless war stories from peers), I know that churn and burn typically results from some combination of:

– an unclear marketplace positioning (red flags should go up when a prospect answers your preliminary positioning question by saying, ‘Well, we’re hoping the new agency can tell us that.’ Wrong-o. We can create a positioning that will resonate with the media, but the client needs to know what service offering differentates their company from all others.

– high-level executives within the client organization who either don’t understand or don’t appreciate PR

– unrealistic expectations (it’s critical to align the definition of success from day one)

– a weak (or junior) client contact who will assume credit for the agency’s good work but throw it under the bus when times get tough

– a client who isolates the PR agency from other ‘marketing partners’ such as interactive shops and advertising agencies. How can we succeed if we’re not leveraging the efforts of others?

The key to avoiding churn and burn clients is due diligence in the search process. For example, a prospect recently asked about our termination clause, saying he had to be able to fire the new agency within the first 60 days if things didn’t work out. Ouch. We quickly and politely excused ourselves from that potential nightmare.

Bob Barlow, a West Coast entrepreneur and hubby of Peppercom’s demi-goddess, Ann Barlow, passed along a pearl of a line that fits perfectly in this instance: ‘You meet one a-hole in a day, it’s unfortunate. Two in a day, it’s a shame. Three in a day, you’re the a-hole.’

After a while, agencies have no one to blame but themselves if they fall prey to the churn and burn client.

Feb 23

Being Rob Longert

I just spent a full day living Rob Longert’s life.

Rob is a junior account executive who agreed to swap jobs with me for a full day. So, while I Rob_longert_2 shuffled off to his cubicle alongside our other junior account executives, Rob ‘ran’ Peppercom for a day.

The idea, which at first seemed like a lark, ended up becoming a huge learning lesson for me. I learned, for example, how difficult and stressful it is to be an account executive at a fast-paced agency. I also learned how critical technology has become to the job of an account executive (and, how daunting such technology can be to someone who isn’t the most tech-savvy guy in the world).

Perhaps most importantly, I ‘re-learned’ what it feels like to be on the receiving end of an assignment. It’s easy to drop off a task and ask someone to get it done by COB. It’s quite different, though, to be struggling to juggle three existing assignments, and then have someone drop off a late afternoon assignment that’s due by COB. Talk about meltdown city.

The tasks I was assigned were probably a breeze for a 20-something junior account exec to perform, but I defy any senior PR executive to try and compile comprehensive news searches, scan articles, track down and forward links to various teams, attend team meetings and brainstorms and, oh yes, draft a pitch letter for a client’s industrial product, all within an eight hour day.

I can honestly say that I came close to drowning. I blew every deadline I was given, and felt like I was letting my various account teams down.

At the same time, I observed some things that could be improved upon and, perhaps, make us a better place to work. I also came away with enormous respect for the incredibly intense schedules our people have. In fact, I honestly thought twice about asking our various account people to help me with things today after having gone through my Rob Longert of a day yesterday.

I encourage any executive in any line of business (even medical supplies) to set aside a day and see what it’s like to be a junior person at your firm. I guarantee you’ll be a better person for having gone through it.

So while I’m still recovering from being Rob Longert, I’m really glad I did the day-long swap. As for you, Rob, my hat’s off to you. Words can’t express how thrilled I am that you’re doing your job and I’m doing mine. Being Rob Longert is brutal.

Click here to hear a discussion about the day with Rob, Steve and Peppercom staff.

Feb 06

We’ve got one tough Soldier of Christ at the Middletown train station

Braving wind chills of minus 11 and indifference from my fellow commuters, our resident over-the-top evangelizer was once again on the job this morning.

His refrain, as always, asks us to ask ourselves who we are really working for: ourselves, our families, etc., and asks us to ask ourselves who we really should be working for: the Big Guy up above.

Despite his one-trick pony of a message, I must admit to a certain admiration of this guy and hisBbilw  delivery technique. As corporate spokespeople go, he’s not bad. In fact, compared to many, he’s damn (sorry) good. He’s always well-dressed, engaging, has the passion of his convictions and, as I’ve noted, stays on message.

Regardless of whether he has all his marbles, our train station prophet actually outperforms a lot of corporate spokespeople with whom we’ve worked. In many cases, corporate spokespeople either confuse themselves (and their audiences with too many messages), use "inside baseball" speak that only they and their co-workers understand or see media interviews as nothing more than sales calls and try to use the same hard-sell techniques one sees on those God-awful (sorry) Saturday-morning infomercials.

So, despite the weather, I must admit to a grudging respect for my proselytizing platform preacher. He may say some strange things, but the guy stays on message and delivers what we call the "problem-solution" argument (problem: we’re all going to hell if we don’t accept Christ into our lives. Solution: accept Christ). Talk about mastering the K.I.S.S. principle. I wonder if he’s available for media training?

Oct 13

Obfuscation can impact a corporation’s image as surely as a crisis can

I had a fascinating interview with a reporter yesterday on the subject of press releases. Press releases fascinating, you ask? Well, no not the releases themselves, but the words and phrases contained therein.

This particular journalist said she and her peers had noticed a dramatic increase in the use of bizarre and unintelligible words and phrases being used in press releases issued by publicly-traded companies. Most were chosen to "describe" a financial irregularity or misstatement. Some of the bon mots she shared with me were priceless and included: "procedural disconnects," "process inconsistencies" and "misaligned column calculations."

When asked why these obvious obfuscations were being inserted, I defended the corporate communications people and, instead, pointed the finger at the in-house lawyers. As we know, lawyers can be the bane of the communications person’s existence. While we try to clearly and consistently communicate during times of crisis, the typical barrister will either insert legal mumbo jumbo, totally water down what we submit or, worse, insist on saying nothing. The end result can be to alienate the journalist who, in turn, may be just a tad tougher in his or her subsequent article (or, imply that the corporation is trying to hide something because of its obtuse announcements).

In their defense, lawyers are concerned about what is said or written in light of any future legal action. So, while they focus on winning in court, the average lawyer is often clueless about winning in the court of public opinion.

I’ve often thought corporate and crisis communications courses should be taught at law schools (and, maybe, now some are). But, the fact remains that media continue to receive densely worded, impossible to decipher press releases from corporations whose legal beagles don’t realize the negative impact such prose has on the subsequent reporting (and resulting image).

I rest my case.

Sep 28

Cablevision blunder could be impetus for groundbreaking PR campaign

Cable TV operator Cablevision Systems Corporation announced Friday it had inadvertently awarded stock options to a vice chairman named Marc Lustgarten. No big deal ordinarily, except for the fact thatD8764_1  he has been pushing up daisies since 1999.

Typical of most big companies, Cablevision followed its fiduciary responsibilities by reporting the embarrassing mistake, but wouldn’t comment further on the Lustgarten affair.

But, why bury it (pun intended)? Why limit the awarding of stock options to just one deceased former vice chairman? Just think about it: Cablevision’s crack communications department could really jump on this idea and rollout a nationwide, grassroots (again, pun intended) campaign asking consumers to nominate famous dead Americans who should receive Cablevision stock options. There would have to be some tie-in to Cablevision’s business for it to make sense, so maybe consumers should be directed to think about the history of television as they make their stock nominations.

If I were voting I’d give strong consideration to this pantheon of dead entertainers and broadcast industry notables:

1) Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of the television set

2) Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel (stars of the prototypical TV sitcom)

3) Milton Berle (TV’s first superstar)

4) Johnny Carson (my favorite talk show host ever. Conan? Please…)

5) John Lennon and George Harrison (who, with their still breathing bandmates, made television history on the Ed Sullivan Show)

6) Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker remains my all-time favorite TV character)

I’m sure there are many other dead stars who would appreciate being remembered via posthumous Cablevision stock options. Who would you vote for? Let me know. Or, better yet, let the Cablevision corp comm people know. They’ll need your input to complete the PR plan.

Hat tip to Greg Schmalz for the heads-up about Cablevision’s blunder.