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This is not the first time Delta has withdrawn support over a politically and emotionally charged issue.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.

Oct 26

Talk about a wunderkind

Note to readers: This is the second, and final, blog reviewing Harold Burson’s new book, “The Business of Persuasion” (available through Rosetta Books)….

But, after reading what Burson-Marsteller Founder Harold Burson had achieved at the same age, I must say I was beyond humbled (a unique experience to be sure).

Consider the following (taken directly from his autobiography):

  •  He became a stringer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal as a sophomore in high school.
  •  He filed reports on University of Mississippi football for the Commercial Appeal while a college sophomore.
  •  While still in college, he provided public relations counsel to D.H. Ferguson, which was helping to build the atomic bomb.
  •  After WW II began, he filed nightly written reports for all U.S. officers serving in Europe.
  •  At the age of 24, he covered the Nuremberg trials for the American News Network.

His accomplishments are mind-numbing to say the least, but Burson provides key advice for any high school or college student hoping to achieve at least a modicum of his success:

First, he proffers these tips for succeeding in PR:

  •  Content is still king. Train yourself to be a good writer, avail yourself of writing labs and tutors, seek feedback on your writing and your future will be assured.
  • As the volume of texting grows, the quality of writing declines. Do yourself a favor and take as many writing courses as you can cram into your schedule.

He next provides advice for succeeding early in life:

  • Volunteer to do the jobs no one else wants to, and to the extent possible, inform people of the importance of your service to the company.
  • Take calculated risks early in your career, risks that will hasten your trek to the objective you have set for yourself.
  • Suggest new ways of approaching problems as ideas come to you. Just because more experienced people reject them outright does not mean they are bad ideas. They may be ahead of their time or lead to alternative and timelier ideas.

Finally, Burson’s takeaways from his career in the military include:

  •  Those who have the willingness and the discipline to do the grunt work will work their way up in business.
  •  Prepare yourself to adapt to ever-changing situations such as different bosses, unusual assignments or difficult colleagues.
  •  Some assignments call for a high degree of integrity. What you say and do will either earn you the trust of others or lose it.

Stay tuned for part three tomorrow and, oh, btw Mr. Burson: Where were you when I was 24?

Oct 17

Rudderless in a perfect storm

Much has already been written about Harvey Weinstein’s decision to retain the service of Sitrick and Company, one of the best-known crisis firms in the country.

Most of the rhetoric has either excoriated Sitrick for defending such a heinous client who continues to see one starlet after another come forward with new accusations of rape. Others defend Sitrick arguing that, as is the case in our jurisprudence system, any defendant is innocent until proven guilty and deserving of counsel.

Few, if any, have weighed in on what I have to believe are the toxic effects of Sitrick’s decision on the average Sitrick employee.

It’s one thing to advocate on behalf of such controversial clients as Big Tobacco and quasi-dictatorships, but the Weinstein crisis strikes at the very root of our nation’s latest flashpoint: sexual harassment. I wonder how female employees of Sitrick explain to their family and friends how they can work for an organization that is defending such an alleged serial predator. That can’t be a fun discussion.

And while Sitrick has a long-standing record of defending controversial clients, this could prove to be their Waterloo. Just look at what happened to Bell Pottinger, a leading U.K. public relations consultancy. They found out the hard way that defending the wrong client at the wrong time can not only destroy employee morale, but actually put the firm out of business.

I believe Sitrick chose to defend Weinstein because the firm lacks a clear purpose (Note: a purpose may be defined as why an organization exists, why its employees show up to work every day and what higher purpose does the company serve). In other words, the firm is rudderless.

I recently co-authored a blog with Roger Bolton, president of the Arthur W. Page Society in which we said: “An overwhelming number of employed adults expect their organizations to speak up in times of crisis. But doing so should be guided by the corporate character (or purpose, if you will). A purpose should serve as a company’s ethical and moral company, and guide a CEO’s decisions and actions.”

Lacking purpose, Sitrick chose profits over people (and principles) and, I believe, will pay a very heavy price.

After word: I did some quick sleuthing to see if some of the best PR firms in the business do, in fact, have a clear purpose. They do. Two of the best came from:

  • Edelman: “….We drive powerful connections between companies and the greater good. In other words, we help marry profits and purpose…”
  • Weber-Shandwick: “….We’re energized by the ways our diverse global network of employees apply their passion and ideas in partnership with clients around the world to contribute to a brighter future.”

I’d like to believe that neither Richard Edelman nor Andy Polansky, CEOs of Edelman and Weber, respectively, would even entertain the notion of representing Harvey Weinstein since their purpose would guide them to do the exact opposite.

Jul 14

The PATH to an Awful Day

Today’s post is by guest blogger Catharine Cody.

Normally I ignore my dad’s posts about NJ Transit delays, failures and false promises, too.  But recently, the PATH service between Hoboken and 33rd street has become so abysmal, that I felt the need to blog about it.

cat

Let’s face it. No one LOVES to commute.  It’s just something we have to do every day if we want to get to work.  As a proud Hoboken resident, I often tell people how amazing my commute to work is.  On a normal day, it’s 30 minutes door-to-door!  While on the PATH train, I can usually find a nice, clean seat and relax in the air-conditioned car for 14 minutes.  14 minutes- no more and no less.  There is an adequate amount of space for the people who make this commute, and everyone is quite pleasant towards each other.

Over the past few months, however, PATH service has slipped.  In fact, the Port Authority reduced service during peak hours by 14%.  Meanwhile, ridership at the Hoboken PATH station has increased by 11% since 2012.  To sum up, we have more commuters and fewer trains.

After a quick search on PATH’s main website, one can’t find any information about the reduced service.   In fact, PATH doesn’t even have a tagline.  Before the service cuts, I would have suggested something along the lines of, “The Luxurious Way to Commute” or even “14 Minutes of Bliss Every Morning.”  Now I’d recommend their tagline be, “The PATH to an Awful Day.”

And, it really is the PATH to an awful day, because Hoboken-ers don’t want to be squeezed into a jam-packed car.  We live in Hoboken for a reason, so we don’t have to deal with the 6 train nightmare every day.  So, PATH officials, take heed.  Give us our DAMN trains back and we’ll be blissfully serene in the mornings.  If you keep this up, we’ll all be angry New Yorkers before long.