Sep 04

23

It’s hard to believe that Peppercomm began its improbable rise to fame and fortune 23 years ago today.

I say improbable because there was no reason to expect success. After all, why would yet another start-up in the highly competitive PR firmament succeed?

The answer? Our name.

I decided to name the firm in honor of my late black lab, Pepper.

The name turned out to be a godsend.

It was at that precise moment in time the dotcom boom was in overdrive. Venture capitalists were pouring billions of dollars into dotcoms with any semblance of a business plan (as well as many that did not).

The phone began ringing off the hook. Why? Because dotcoms mistakenly thought Peppercom (there was only one M in those days) was a dotcom specialist. We weren’t.

But we hired tech PR specialists faster than you can say IPO and, by 1998, O’Dwyer’s had TWICE named us the fastest growing PR firm in the country (which isn’t that impressive when one considers we started with no billings whatsoever. But, still….).

Our firm shot through the PR firmament like Halley’s Comet. And then, just as suddenly as it had all started, the dotcom bubble burst.

One $35,000 per month dotcom client after another either declared bankruptcy, stopped all work or, in the case of a true dotcom wanna-be called iFrame, took us to court demanding a refund (we won).

Thankfully, we had managed to attract, and win, blue chip clients such as Steelcase and GE (the latter courtesy of The 10 Company’s Valerie Di Maria. Thanks for your Peppercomm service, Val).

And my superb partners took it from there.

Fast-forward to today and tomorrow.

Peppercomm’s success has always been fueled by innovative products and services (some of which exceeded beyond my wildest dreams while others withered and died on the vine).

We’ll be building on a 23-year record of innovation by introducing a first-of-its-kind “societal crisis” offering next week.

Called StandSmart (sm), the service will provide CCOs, CMOs, CHROs, CEOs and boards of directors with:

– A predictive, data analytics tool that helps our clients anticipate relevant industry and societal crises as they initially bubble up (Think: NRA, NFL or NAFTA;  Internet privacy, phishing and prevarication; trade and Twitter wars to name just a few).

– An overlay to any organization’s existing crisis response/management plan that leverages the company’s higher purpose to respond quickly and accurately to any news, false or otherwise. Google’s response to last week’s POTUS attack is a superb example.

– Sitting down with the client and her team to identify each, and every, issue that is relevant to the organization and preparing responses in advance, and in cooperation with the in-house general counsel and CEO.

StandSmart is the logical next step for an iconoclastic agency named in honor of an iconoclastic canine.

Here’s to the next 23 years.

#Woof

Aug 20

Is Google’s North Star Going South?

Today’s guest blog comes courtesy of Deb Brown, one of my Peppercomm partners in crime who doubles as the very best media relations strategist in the business….

All companies – regardless of size – need a purpose, the reason why employees come to work each day and what the company stands for. The purpose is its North Star, guiding the company through difficult decisions and challenges, ensuring it remains true to its beliefs. Yet, Google’s North Star seems to be going south. According to Fortune, Google, which originally pulled out of China in 2010 because the company refused to give in to the government’s censorship demands, staying true to its focus on digital rights and an open Internet, is now seeing things through a different lens, specifically a “green” lens. Google’s “secret” project called Dragonfly is expected to enable a censored search engine and censored news aggregator app for China.

While some employees are supportive, many employees are furious. And it’s probably just a matter of time before consumers react as well as other companies that do business with the search giant.

How prepared is Google to deal with the potential fallout?  How far is Google willing to stray from its purpose as a company and what it stands for? If Google’s deal goes through, will the money be worth the hit to its reputation? And, even if the deal falls through, is the damage already done? What will Google stand for now?

While we help companies navigate these very rough waters, only the company itself can determine what it should stand for. Google may think it won’t be hurt because it’s the giant in the industry. But, every Goliath has its David.

May 24

Are You Ready for Some Football (Controversy)?

 

Today’s guest blog is authored by Steve Goodwin, a principal at Brand Foundations, a strategic branding & purpose partner of Peppercomm’s. As you’ll read, the National Football League once again finds itself knee deep in controversy. Enjoy…..

The NBA and NHL playoffs are nearing their final rounds. The MLB All-Star break is within view. Yet even though team training camps won’t open for another couple of months, the National Football League is grabbing headlines. And one of the league’s fiercest rivalries promises to make the upcoming season anything but predictable… for corporate America.

Redskins/Cowboys? Raiders/Chiefs? Packers/Bears? Nope. Fiercer than those legendary matchups. We’re talking owners vs. players.

This week, NFL owners unanimously approved a new policy that requires players and team personnel to stand for the national anthem if they’re on the field while it’s being played. Players will have the right to remain in the locker room. Significant fines can be levied against teams for noncompliance.

Within nanoseconds of that announcement, the NFL Players Association took a contrary stand, promising to fight the ruling – on which they maintain they weren’t consulted – “to the end.”

And moments after that, NY Jets owner Chris Johnson issued a statement saying that he would pay for any fines incurred by his team’s players… a thumb in the eye of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (and of a certain inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue).

So the stage – perhaps “trap” is a better word – is set for mega-controversy. Two obvious questions loom:

  1. Will companies with NFL players under endorsement contracts face collateral brand damage if those players opt to defy league rules and take a knee?
  1. Given the copious racial overtones as this issue has played out very publicly over the past two years, will companies who count “diversity” and “inclusiveness” among their deeply held values still feel comfortable with their NFL sponserships the first time a player or team is penalized?

Those are among the sort of questions and potentially incendiary issues that are increasingly forcing big businesses to assess their sponsorship, partnership and other corporate relationships. How thin is the line some companies will need to tread this NFL season? Think about your favorite running back tip-toeing the sideline to stay inbounds.

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.

Oct 04

The Power of Vulnerability

It’s always been my opinion the strongest leaders are the ones who aren’t afraid to display their emotions, vulnerability and humanity in times of stress. Vulnerability is, in fact, one of the key lessons we instill in our troops as they undergo stand-up comedy training (a de facto part of our management development for the past decade).

There are a few terrific examples of CEOs who “get it”, but I’ve rarely seen a late night talk show host display his emotions and vulnerability to the degree Jimmy Kimmel did in the aftermath of the Las Vegas tragedy.  Regardless of your political views, watch the entire segment.

The single best advice I could provide any CEO addressing stakeholders in a time of crisis is to emulate Kimmel’s authenticity. It’s riveting (and incredibly effective).

Sep 26

A company without a purpose

Lost amidst the usual hysteria surrounding Donald Trump’s Tweets, tirades and threats this past weekend was the woeful performance of Under Armour.

In a flip-flopping move reminiscent of 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry, Under Armour took two diametrically opposed POVs in the space of an hour.

The drama unfolded after the sports apparel brand decided to publicly support the NFL and NBA players who suddenly, and unexpectedly, were attacked by President Trump at the appropriately named Von Braun Center at the University of Alabama.

Under Armour stepped up and immediately expressed its commitment to diversity, inclusiveness and the right of all America citizens to exercise their First Amendment rights. Then, when conservative followers began savaging the statement on social channels everywhere, Under Armour stepped back. Holy two-step, Batman!

The brand wizards took down the original Tweet and subsequently added a line about respecting our flag in a new one.

That new Tweet incited a second wave of protesters who called Under Armour weak, wishy-washy and pandering.

And, what did the powers that be at Under Armour say as they were receiving incoming mortar from all sides? Nothing. Not a word. The silence was deafening,

Alas, this is not the first time Under Armour took a fire, aim, ready approach to their Trump-related statements.

In the afterglow of The Donald’s inauguration, the company issued a hagiographic salute to our new president without realizing their top celebrity endorsers were female, people of color or others who found Trump’s incendiary rhetoric abhorrent.

The brand once again had to back pedal and support their high profile athletes’ right to speak their minds.

Under Armour’s pathetic attempts at communications don’t merely signal a sophomoric approach to marketing communications. It tells me the company lacks a purpose.

And, if you think corporate purpose is just a warm and fuzzy HR thing, think again. A recent Harris survey shows an overwhelming number of employees surveyed not only expect their company to have a purpose; they expect their CEO to reaffirm that purpose whenever such flashpoint issues as DACA, Charlottesville, illegal immigration or a crazy attack on black athletes goes down.

Once a company’s executives and employees agree upon the purpose of the organization’s existence, it’s relatively easy to allow that purpose to serve as the North Star, guiding any and all future statements that reinforce the mission and values embedded in the corporate purpose.

The Arthur W. Page Society contains countless guidelines one can follow to create a meaningful purpose that not only helps crystallize statements in times of crisis but answers the why and how questions rumbling around in every American employee’s mind:

–  “Why do I go to work every day?”

–  “How is my company making the world a better place?”

A corporate purpose will also elicit an employee response along the lines of:

– “This is why my professional life fulfills me just as much as my personal one.”

Under Armour lacks a purpose. Or, if they do have one, it’s either beyond mundane or ignored.

I suggest Under Armour hire some real communications professionals who know how to create, embed and activate a purpose. If they don’t, they’ll continue to wreak havoc on their image, reputation and sales.

One more year of this and Under Armour will be underwater.

 

 

Sep 21

Humor flexes its muscles

I’ve just returned from The Arthur W. Page Society‘s superb annual conference in San Diego. And, while the conference theme was, “Search for community in a (dis) connected world,” there were a surprising number of speakers who addressed the power of humor in business.

Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, said his use of humor, authenticity and doubling down on the airline’s “purpose” were key to his ability to weather the widespread outrage after the “incident” on flight 3411.

Rich Jernstedt, former CEO of GolinHarris (now Golin), erstwhile chair of the Council of PR Firms and current head of his own consulting firm, shared a priceless “Page Moment” that occurred long ago and far away, AND demonstrated the legendary Al Golin’s use of humor in an intense situation.

The Golin team had just entered the massive boardroom of a large prospect they were pitching. As everyone pulled up a chair, Mr. Golin flipped backwards and, chair and all, fell on the ground. Instantly, he said, “And, now, for my next act…”

There was no response from the stone-faced prospects (probably out of politeness—not just sure how to react) but, later, after Golin had been awarded the business, the client contact said Mr. Golin’s use of humor and ability to take the incident in stride was a decisive factor in their selection. While their non-verbals may have indicated otherwise, the prospect team was in search of an agency that could not only do the job but, critically be a FUN partner.

I experienced a similar occurrence when we pitched Yahoo’s business. Right smack in the middle of the presentation, we were explaining how we would roll out a local market campaign.  To illustrate it, one of our San Francisco employees selected a last-second slide to pinpoint the various markets we’d be targeting.

The lead prospect took one look at the slide and said, “You do know you’re using Google Earth in that slide, correct?”

I immediately spoke up and said, “John, we purposely inserted that slide to make sure you were paying attention.” The entire room broke out in a hearty laugh. My comment not only saved the day, but created an instant bond with the Yahooligans by sharing an “inside joke.” We were awarded the business a few days later.

Afterword: In his remarks at the Page conference, Rich shared research conducted by The Hay Group that showed “executives who were ranked as outstanding used humor twice as often as those ranked average.” The same survey showed that humor used skillfully:

  • Reduces hostility
  • Deflects criticism
  • Relieves tension (See: Al Golin/Steve Cody examples above)
  • Improves morale
  • Helps communicate difficult messages.

Embrace humor as part of your executive persona and you’ll find yourself laughing all the way to the bank.

Sep 12

The Babe Ruth of the Back Office

Some things bear repeating. This blog ran one year ago and is more appropriate than ever…

The Babe Ruth of the Back Office

leeWhat do Weber-Shandwick, F-H, Makovsky, M. Booth and, yes, Peppercomm, have in common?

They’re hugely successful strategic communications firms whose prowess is directly connected to the strength and performance of their back office functions.

Show me a PR firm with a weak CFO, office manager or personnel director, and I’ll show you an agency that isn’t winning new clients, growing profits or attracting and retaining great people.

 

Caste System

Alas, back office workers are often treated in much the same way as the Untouchables in India’s Caste System. They’re literally invisible, are rarely mentioned in internal memos and NEVER included in those already suspect best workplace tales that PR Week likes to spin.

But, that’s not the case at my firm.

If an office manager hall of fame were to be created, I’d make sure Peppercomm’s Lee Stechmann would be among the first class to be elected (He’s the Babe Ruth of the Back Office).

Making the case for Lee

To begin with, Lee is arguably our best writer. His daily, and weekly, updates are equal parts Dostoyevsky and Louis CK.

Case in point: Every Friday, Lee reminds employees on our two floors in the New York office to remove their food from the fridge, place empty plates in the dishwasher and dispose of any refuse in the general kitchen area.

On one particular Friday, he added a note to help those who might be in need of extra grease to clean their silverware. It read, “You’ll find Dawn underneath the fifth floor kitchen sink.”

Good lord! I was aghast and immediately responded with an agency- wide memo asking why Lee had put poor Dawn under the sink, and how long he intended to keep her there.

To his credit, Stechmann issued an immediate clarification that read like  a police bulletin and assured employees that Dawn was NOT an underachieving employee being punished for her transgressions but, rather, a dish washing detergent.

That said, Dawn’s plight is still considered an unsolved mystery at Peppercomm and the fifth floor sink is still roped off with yellow crime scene tape.

Above and beyond

But, it isn’t Lee’s flair with the pen that elevates him to Greek god status on the Mount Olympus of clean-up.

Rather, it’s his random acts of love and kindness that truly set the man apart. To wit:

Our building (like every Manhattan office) plays host to occasional visits from small, furry creatures. Rather than declare war on them, though, Lee extends an olive branch. Peppercomm’s Sarah Sanzari recalls spotting Lee on a Saturday morning carefully plucking tiny mice from the glue traps in which they’d been snared, cleaning them up, rehabilitating them, and freeing them outside the building. Holy Saint Francis of Assisi, Batman!

Adam Giambattista, another Peppercommer, says Lee never bothers to ask when he spies AG lugging two heavy boxes up the staircase connecting our fifth and sixth floors. He’ll simply grab one and carry it himself.

And, Nicole Newby says she’ll often discuss her love of cats with Lee, who provides shelter in his garage during the winter for homeless felines.  Now, you tell me: How many office managers in this world will shower cats and mice alike with equal amounts of affection?

Lee’s true piece d’resistance, though,  occurred about five years ago when one of his beloved little fellow’s passed away of natural causes (a fact later confirmed by a coroner’s report).

As you’ll see in the accompanying photograph, Lee built a tiny coffin for his deceased office mate and adorned it with laurel wreaths (or, reasonable facsimiles thereof).

In honor of our fallen comrpepper-mouse.ade (and Lee’s quick/thinking craftsmanship), we observed an agency-wide moment of silence before Stechmann tossed the carcass down the garbage chute.

Great people make for great workplaces. And, those great people aren’t limited to the ones with fancy titles and high-profile digital footprints. They include top professionals such as Lee Stechmann without whom, I think it’s safe to say, Peppercomm wouldn’t be Peppercomm.

And, what higher honor can a business bestow on a single individual than to annually name him their unofficial Most Valuable Player year-in and year-out? Lee is given that honor at every year’s offsite retreat (I don’t give him anything. I just tell Lee he’s our most important employee. Maybe I should give him something, huh?).

I also have no doubt that Lee’s quiet excellence has played a key part in our having won virtually every Fortune Magazine award for great cultures.

I’m sure Burson, Mitchell, Marina Maher and other top firms have their back office heroes but, trust me, none shine brighter than our very own Lee Stechmann.

Sep 11

It’s so nice to have The New York Times verify what I’ve been saying all along

As loyal Repman readers know all too well, I despise the unnecessary theatrics weather reporters employ to heighten the drama, pathos and, of course, ratings of any natural disaster ranging from blizzards and hurricanes to earthquakes and wildfires.

In the case of Hurricane Irma, I find it despicable for thesemeteorologists to prey on people’s fears by purposely standing in waist-deep water, finding the windiest spot on a beach or allowing themselves to be nearly blown off the roof of a high-rise apartment building.

It’s unprofessional and irresponsible. But, enough from me. Read what The New York Times has to say…

As Irma’s Winds Rise, So Does a Debate Over TV Storm Reporting
Television correspondents are standing out in the storm as Hurricane Irma lashes Florida. Is that necessary? Reporters say better them than you. Read the full story.