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.

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.