Apr 17

Neither Jail Time, Stiff Fines Nor a One-Way Ticket to Mars will Stop Silicon Valley Leakers from Leaking

Ever read something and experience an immediate flashback to another period in your life? No? Well, I just did.

And this is the article that triggered my business version of PTSD. It’s a piece from CNN.com reporting that Apple’s senior management has threatened dire consequences to ANY employee who is caught leaking internal information.

Unfortunately the threatening memo was, well, leaked to CNN.

And, here’s the personal flashback it triggered.

Along with my Peppercomm peers, I enjoyed a front-row seat as the newly-minted CEO of the now moribund Yahoo addressed a worldwide audience of employees. She was there to deliver her state-of-the-company address.

By way of quick background, Yahoo had been plagued by internal civil wars that were being played out daily in Silicon Valley rags thanks to, you guessed it, workers leaking sensitive information.

Back to the CEO and her inaugural address. After acknowledging the thunderous applause from hopeful employees who were desperately praying this latest CEO could right the good ship Yahoo and return the tech dinosaur to its glory days, she barked out the following message:

“Let me begin by addressing the leaks. The leaks will stop immediately. Do you know why? Because if I ever catch one of you leaking a confidential memo to Kara Swisher or any other reporter, I will personally drop-kick your sorry ass to Mars! Got it?”

She then proceeded to share her strategic vision for fixing the foundering has-been and then invited questions from the audience.

A meek, mild engineering type stood and asked, “Since some of us like me have cultivated relationships with reporters who cover the highly technical aspects of our products, is it still OK if I speak with those types of reporters?”

If looks could kill, that poor engineer would be pushing up daisies as we speak.

She glared at the unassuming engineer and screamed, “Are you a complete moron? Were you not listening to what I just said? Leak one word or one sentence and you will be a dead man walking. Got it?”

Based upon the deafening silence, the whole room (and worldwide viewing audience) GOT it.

Alas, the leaks continued. She was fired after less than a year and replaced by the equally inept Marissa Meyer, whose first official act was to terminate thousands of Yahoo flex-time workers while building a state-of-the-art child care center adjacent to her office at corporate headquarters. In other words, she could bring her kiddies to work (but the moms, dads, caregivers who tried doing the same from their homes and apartments were given the heave-ho). Very deft touch, no?

I am in no way equating Apple’s future with the demise of Yahoo, but I will say that when management feels the need to threaten leakers with jail time, a company’s best years may very well be in the past.

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 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 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 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.

 

Jan 03

Dumb and dumber

You would think by now that most business executives would understand the impact, both positive and negative, that their words have on the public consciousness.

During the holidays, though, we saw two food purveyors fall victim to their own words.

One was a local Arizona restaurant called Cup it up. The other was Papa John’s a nationally-known pizza delivery chain.

In the former’s case, the restaurant’s ultra conservative owners decided, for reasons known best to them, to publish their unwavering support of President Trump and a whole litany of conservative causes.

That didn’t sit well with the chef or wait staff. They quit and Tweeted their distaste with the owners’ POV. They also made it clear they’d never work for such an establishments.

Customers were also revolted and not only sent back their orders but absolutely crucified the restaurant on Yelp. Oh, and they also stopped patronizing the eaterie. Bottom-line: Cup it up can cup it out. They’ve shuttered their doors.

At about the same time, John Schnatter, CEO of Papa John’s, resigned in disgust saying he blamed the NFL players taking-a-knee controversy for causing lackluster sales.

Once again, an executive’s comments caused an uproar and, based upon the avalanche of negative press, Schnatter meekly apologized and returned to his post, chastened and shriveled up almost as badly as a three-day-old slice of pizza.

Both organizations could have avoided these disasters IF they had taken the time to create a corporate purpose that explained why they existed, what their higher purpose was and, critically, was in alignment with the majority of the views and beliefs of their employees, customers, vendors and entire supply chain.

A corporate purpose should serve as an organization’s ethical and moral compass that, in times of crisis, can determine the content and tone of any public message. In fact, a carefully thought out “next generation” crisis plan will properly equip any organization of any size to prepare for, and determine the correct response (or non-response) almost immediately.

Please don’t confuse the above-mentioned crisis plan with the one sitting in your bookshelf and created by an agency three or four years back. It’s as out-of-date (and useless) as a Jeb Bush for president bumper sticker.

Organizations, and their agencies, need to act NOW to ready themselves for the new normal, create a corporate purpose (surveys prove corporations with a purpose outperform their rivals and Millennials increasingly won’t work for any company lacking a higher purpose).

With the corporate purpose in place, the communications and strategic planning teams can then meet and assess any, and all, potential vulnerabilities (e.g. Are they ready for a POTUS attack tweet, fake news damaging their brand, industry or societal issues that require to CEO to speak up, looming sexual harassment allegations, etc).

I suspect we’ll see many more examples of Cup it up and Papa John-type incidents this year. Sadly, too many executives still maintain a “can’t happen to me attitude.” Others think corporate purpose doesn’t matter. The worst time to prove that perception wrong is after a political magnus opus is published on a web site or a CEO blames a highly controversial issue for hurting his sales.

It’s time to shake off the post-holiday hangover and get to work preparing for what can’t be anticipated.

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.

Nov 14

Why Corporate Leaders Must Join the National Conversation

Today’s guest blog was authored by Lauren Parker of Peppercomm…

“Where is the corporate Kapernick?”

Ariel Investments CEO Melody Hobson posed this question to a room full of CEOs during her presentation about diversity and inclusion in the board room. It’s one example reflective of our evolving cultural landscape and the impact it’s having on corporate America.

Politics divide Americans on issues from gun control to tax reform. Women are standing up against systemic misogyny. The topic of racial inequality has moved out of the shadows and onto our national football fields. Every morning, we awake to new headlines that amplify these important national conversations.

Technology has changed the way we consume and amplify news and opinion. It’s given people the opportunity to shout their points of view and it’s led to the expectation that everyone should have an opinion to share – including corporate leaders. Social media has provided a direct line of access to those executives.

People want to know where corporate leadership stands on issues most important to them because people want to buy from, work for, and invest in companies that align with their values. In fact, 47% of millennials believe corporate CEOs have a responsibility to speak up about important social issues, and 51% are more likely to buy from a company led by an activist CEO (KRC Research). Moreover, 62% of employees of all ages expect their employer to take a stand on major issues of the day (Glassdoor).

CEOs can no longer hide in their corner office. They are expected to be the face of their corporate values. For some, this is a natural role to play. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, is one of the few corporate executives standing up to President Trump and the GOP tax plan. At the recent New York Times DealBook Conference, Schultz said, “I don’t believe that corporate America needs a 20% tax cut. The tax cut is not going to create a level playing field and more compassionate society.” Schultz took a dissenting position compared to many of his peers, but successfully connected his stance to the company’s core values, which resonates with many coffee-loving consumers.

Other executives have struggled in the spotlight. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank has taken heat after sending conflicting messages about his support for Trump and subsequent decision to leave the president’s manufacturing council. The brand took another hit when it initially came out in full support of the NFL players, then deleted the tweet and replaced it with a more generic statement. Brand spokespeople including Misty Copeland and Steph Curry publically denounced the brand claiming it “stands for nothing.”

Companies have had to respond to fake news about their business; backlash over ad buys on controversial programs; and even direct confrontation from our president. Brands can no longer attempt to be all things to all people. At the same time, they can’t afford to simply stay silent. So how can companies navigate this new set of challenges and keep its reputation intact?

  • Define Your Mission and Values: Have a clear definition of your company’s mission and values and communicate them clearly and regularly across its communication channels (not just in times of crisis). Use these as your North Star when determining when and how to speak out a challenging issue.
  • Check the Company You Keep: Recognize the importance of building a supply chain with partners who have similar corporate values. If their reputation slips, you’ll want to avoid being dragged down with them.
  • Know Who You Serve: Deeply understand your target audiences and what motivates them. Use that knowledge to connect on issues of shared importance.
  • Dust off Your Crisis Playbook: A basic crisis communications plan will no longer cut it. You need a sophisticated protocol for assessing potential reputational threats and getting the right message to the right people at the right time.
  • Speak to Your Values: You don’t have to take a formal stand any time a new issue hits the national zeitgeist. Speak authentically on the issues that directly connect to your core values and allow you to reinforce your company’s purpose.

In today’s polarized environment, it’s impossible to appease everyone but it’s even riskier to stay on the sidelines. Are you prepared to stand for something?

***

Find Lauren on Twitter at @ImLaurenParker.