Sep 01

It was 26 years ago today that my dog Pepper taught the firm to play

It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly three decades since I borrowed $12,500 from my mother-in-law and older brother and decided to launch a PR firm in my Black Lab’s honor.

Peppercomm entered the business world on September 1, 1995, and, since then, has experienced more ups-and-downs than a yo-yo on steroids…

– O’Dwyer’s twice named us America’s fastest growing firm of the year in the late 1990’s
– PR Week named us Agency of the Year in 2006
– Crain’s New York Business named us best workplace in 2011
– PR Week named us best workplace of 2020 (an amazing achievement considering the mega societal and health woes that brought the entire world to a standstill)
– And we’re once again a finalist for Crain’s New York Business of the year.

We’ve thrived in spite of some serious setbacks:

– The dotcom crash
– The post 9/11 client halt on all PR/marketing spends
– The 2008 market correction
– A vicious Kramer v. Kramer business divorce in 2018.

The reasons we’ve thrived begin and end with great people, great people and, yes, great people.

Ann Barlow, Jackie Kolek and Maggie O’Neill all marked their 20th anniversaries this year. I do not exaggerate when I say that, without their superb client counseling (and having my back when I needed it most), there would be no Peppercomm today.

Then there’s Courtney Ellul, Matt Purdue, Melissa Vigue and Tara Lilien, four other formidable partners, who have made countless contributions over the years.

And I MUST pay homage to a superb middle management cadre, a very cool group of whip smart junior employees and an IT director who contributes more creative ideas on a daily basis than any IT executive anywhere.

Last, and certainly not least, is our humor-driven culture.

Unlike ANY other PR firm, we train employees in stand-up and improvisational humor, tie it into our annual charitable fundraising and now offer three distinct modules to meet the unprecedented needs of client organizations in every conceivable industry.

Peppercomm’s humor-driven culture is our key differentiator and the not-so-hidden secret to our winning so many workplace awards as well as countless best campaigns of the year citations for so many superb clients.

Success is a beautiful thing that grows increasingly beautiful when an organization occasionally stumbles and falls, but gets right back up each and every time and each and every time becomes a little bit stronger, a little bit nimbler and dare I say, a whole lot cooler than ever.

So let me introduce to you the one and only Peppercomm, 26 years young and growing younger (and stronger) every day.

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Aug 10

Sending the Wrong Signal

One of the keys to winning an interview or delivering a compelling speech is combining facts with authenticity and a genuine sense of enthusiasm. In regards to the latter, I’ve often told a client subject matter expert that if she isn’t enthusiastic about her product, service or organization why should any time-pressed reader, listener or viewer pay attention? 
Sadly, Luis Rojas the beleaguered, baffled and befuddled manager of the rapidly-fading New York Mets is a poster child for sending ALL of the wrong signals.
Check out his expressions, tonality and sense of frustration and resignation as he dissects the Mets loss to a truly miserable Miami Marlins team in a recent post game press conference. The word grim comes to mind. 
Ask yourself this after viewing the video: Would you follow this guy into battle (and that battle could be injecting a little more enthusiasm in the workplace, delighting a client with a totally unexpected creative idea or winning a new piece of business thanks to developing amazing rapport with the prospect).
I sure wouldn’t. 
Everything about Luis Rojas adds up to one word: defeat. 
It’s clearly not his fault that the team has fallen from first to third place in the incredibley weak National League East. But it IS his fault that the team has mirrored his hangdog expression and negative body language throughout their three successive losses to the Phillies this past weekend.
It doesn’t matter if you’re leading a baseball team, a Fortune 500 corporation or a self-proclaimed NextGen digital firm. Leaders must lead. And leaders MUST rise to the occasion no matter how grim the current prospects may be.
I’ve had to rally myself in the aftermath of 9/11, the 2008 economic downturn and, of course, during the ongoing pandemic. 
Through it all I’ve tried my best to project a positive, but realistic, demeanor. 
It’s easy to lead when one’s managing a first place team or is the CEO of health care agency that has more business than it can handle. 
But the true mark of leadership comes when the chips are down and the future looks bleak. That’s the time when great leaders are acutely aware of their words and actions, dig deep and find just the right physical and verbal messages to keep an organization’s hopes up and performance at its very best.
Sadly, Rojas was either poorly media trained, decided to skip the session entirely or believes his words and actions alone cannot right a sinking ship. 
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Jul 27

Charleston, Climate Change and The Calamity that’s upon us

How can otherwise intelligent people continue to believe that California’s rampant wildfires, the Midwest (and Northeast’s) tornadoes, excessive heat in places such as Seattle, Germany’s biblical-like floods and every other “worst climactic event ever recorded” is a natural thing that occurs every 10,000 years or so (See: Little Ice Age for more info).

Case in point. My daughter recently attended a wedding whose bride, groom, bridesmaids (save: Catharine) and groomsmen were united in their denial of global climate change.

With all due respect, that was one ignorant group of revelers.

To wit, please scan Maureen Dowd’s superb editorial “Apocalypse Right Now”.

And for those of you who, like me, list Charleston, SC, as among the most gorgeous cities in the country, check out the impact of coastal flooding CAUSED by global climate change.

The Charleston saga hits very close to home (so to speak) since I’ve been a proud member of the College of Charleston’s Communications Department Advisory Council for more than a decade.

Peppercomm and the CofC have had a superb, relationship of long-standing.

Many of today’s superstars (ie Trisha Bruynell and Caroline Mooney in particular) as well as the recently-hired Sierra Buck and Olivia Jebrine have played instrumental roles in our success. And Eternity Hunter, a CofC Summer intern is absolutely lighting it up (Check out her “Day in the Life of a Peppercomm intern” video she posted the other day on IG).

In the meantime, though, I hope and pray that climate deniers will wake up to the realities of what’s happening all around us and, for once, place their trust in science (as opposed to buying into yet another big lie).

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Jul 15

“I bet you didn’t know this”

At long last sports teams are waking up to the very real dangers of online sports gambling and gambling addiction.

According to a recent report by Caytoo, British sports teams are turning down the mega sponsorship dollars they’ve always received from gambling firms. They’ve also cut down on the amount of sponsorship money they’ll take from gambling’s evil cousin, alcohol.

I’m not sure how or why, but compulsive gambling has somehow flown under the media’s radar as society has awakened to the need for societal change at all levels.

But gambling’s pernicious impact should not be underestimated. The Caytoo report said one percent of adults identify as compulsive gamblers. That may not sound like much, but one percent of 300 million Americans amounts to three million souls. And, get this, SIX to NINE percent of children say they’re addicted.

Happily, gambling’s precipitous decline in the British sports establishment is akin to having a very bad night in a Vegas casino. In just two years, gambling’s sponsorship of rugby, soccer and cricket has been cut in half from 15.1 percent of all major sponsorship bucks to just over 8 percent this year.

And if it’s happening in the UK, you can bet the house that US sports teams will be pressured to follow suit. And Caytoo cites four reasons why…

  • 50 percent of compulsive gamblers commit crimes.
  • Families where a parent gambles compulsively are more likely to experience domestic violence, including child abuse.
  • Over 80 percent of problem gamblers were at risk for alcohol or drug use dependency.
  • More than 60 percent of compulsive gamblers said they wanted help, but only 25 percent actually sought assistance.

I take these statistics personally because I lost a beloved uncle to compulsive gambling. The guy was addicted to betting on baseball and the horses. And he’d gamble the full amount of each paycheck on one or both sports. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for him to lose his shirt, turn to drinking to ease the pain, ask his siblings for financial support and end up dying a lonely, penniless and broken man.

Sports gambling is evil. It killed my uncle. And while it may not kill a member of your family or circle of friends, it can trigger all sorts of other calamities.
So three cheers for the British sporting establishment in forcing gambling companies to spend their ill-gotten gains somewhere else. I just hope our country’s sports franchises do the same thing. And soon!

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Jun 15

¿Qué pasa?

I was in the midst of a much-needed Spring cleaning of my home office when I stumbled across a true relic: a book called, “F’d Companies: Spectacular dot-com flameouts.” The book was published in 2002 by someone named Philip J. Kaplan.

I wouldn’t waste your time (or mine) except the handbook included a particularly nasty review of a one-time Peppercomm client called Quepasa.com. It also triggered an of-the-moment cautionary tale I thought might be educational (stay tuned). In his magnus opus, Kaplan skewered QuePasa.com, which he described as “…a portal and community site for Spanish speakers.” And that it was.

And, as was the case with about 45 or so other dotcoms we represented, Que Pasa paid us northwards of $40k per month to issue a press release a day to incite market interest. And it worked.

Que Pasa raised a staggering $68 million in their IPO.

But as Kaplan pointed out, Que Pasa offered “…free e-mail, news feeds, even chat rooms!” and, as he added: “….just about everything you needed $15 and a free Geocities website to accomplish.”

Ouch! Needless to say, when the technology bubble burst in April of 2000, Que Pasa said adios amigos to the business world.

Fast forward to today: start-ups are back in a big way and popping up more often than yet another laughably absurd Qanon conspiracy theory.

And truth be told, I fell prey to the very same circa 1999 dot-com double talk that a travel insurance start-up recently laid upon me.

The 2021 “version” put us on a microscopic retainer, but “promised” they’d raise massive amounts of money in their second round of funding and immediately increase the fee to $20k per month.

Not.

They never raised the money.

Instead they sent one of those classic “Dear Agency” e-mails in which the CMO stated in an impassive, impersonal note that “…..moving forward, we’ll be handling social, media  and influencer relations in-house.”

I was tempted to respond by asking, “Que Pasa?”

Alas they would ‘t understand the inside joke and I was too busy kicking myself for believing the same faux hype I’d heard 20 years ago.

So, caveat PR agency owner: Many of today’s start-ups aren’t very different than their dotcom predecessors.

Kick the tires. Be sure they do indeed have funding and, whatever you do, don’t buy into the lie that “…once second-round funding comes in, we’ll dramatically increase your fee.”

Trust me, you will NOT enjoy reading a Philip Kaplan follow-up. The inaugural was chock full of truly offensive, misogynistic and F-bomb laced prose.

And if there’s anything I despise, it’s an individual (or a firm) using the F bomb for pure shock value.

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Mar 15

Good-Bye to You

I received my vaccine booster this past Saturday and, within 12 days, will be 99 and 44/100th percent immune from the ravages of COVID-19.😅

And while I’ve personally bid adieu to the scourge of our lifetime, I fear the ignorant, uniformed and belligerent will trigger a second wave of the deadly virus within the next 30 days (or sooner).

All one has to do is follow what’s happening in countries such as Brazil, Italy and France to see that the virus is absolutely delighted to perform an encore when safety precautions are ignored.

We can easily avoid what’s happening overseas but, as the ubiquitous Dr. Fauci warned Americans yesterday, we need to “mask-up” and continue to social distance. Good luck with that.

Thanks to our former president and his cultish followers, some 45 percent of Republicans say they will not wear masks.

To make matters worse, the “Immortals” (aka college kids on Spring Break) are partying hard sans masks and social distancing in what are obviously super spreader events.

Yesterday Fauci asked Trump to step up and ask The Base to wear masks.

That’s akin to asking New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to voluntarily step down in light of the ever-increasing number of sexual and workplace harassment suits he’s facing.

Neither Trump nor Cuomo will do the responsible thing.

So who will take the heat when, like Italy, Brazil and other parts of the world, we soon see wide swaths of Texas, Alabama and other bastions of The Base forced to shut down for a second time? The answer is obvious: Fox, et al, will concoct a number of ersatz reasons to blame Biden, the Democrats and the Left-Wing media.

I yearn for the day when I can say good-bye to COVID and ignorance alike but, alas, the latter’s become firmly ingrained (and enabled) by a Republican Party that has no moral compass whatsoever. And, like a rapidly spreading virus, it will only get worse.

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Feb 22

You can always tell how smart someone is by what they laugh at

I’d like to claim credit for those insightful words but they belong to Tina Fey. And they’re just one of countless astute observations made about the tremendous power of humor in business in a brand new book.

Fey, along with other comedians, as well as some of America’s best known CEOs and leadership gurus all contributed pithy comments to the book, “Humor, Seriously: Why Humor is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life.”

The authors are two Ph.D’s who teach a REQUIRED course about the importance of humor in the workplace at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

They’re doing so because, based on their extensive research as a behavioral scientist and leadership guru, respectively, the authors have proof positive that comedy not only differentiates an individual, it’s also a key attribute of the very best leaders of today and tomorrow.

I’ve known this stuff for years since, as a highly mediocre stand-up and improvisational comedian, I’ve seen laughter help me in business to build rapport, increase creativity and, yes, even help close deals.

It’s also why we’ve trained our employees in stand-up, tied it in to our charitable fundraising and, hold for shameless self-plug, provide comedy workshops for clients of all kinds.

In fact, self-deprecating humor has been proven to make ALL leaders who embrace it seem more empathetic, vulnerable and, get this, intelligent (I’m an obvious exception to that rule).

But don’t take my word for any of the above.

Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, the co-authors of Humor, Seriously say, “Humor charms and disarms (in a business setting). Even small gestures of levity are powerful in negotiations.” (note to self: Try your New Jersey Transit material the next time you negotiate with a procurement officer). “That’s in part because they (humorous words and phrases) spark human connection — and when we connect as people, we often get more of what we both want.”

I dare say we all want to spark more human connections as we battle our way through this horrible period in history.

But the words comedy, laughter and humor actually scare many uptight business executives who take themselves and their work far too seriously.

I can think of one head of internal communications at a global corporation who, in response to my suggesting we conduct comedy training for their fast trackers in order to combat anxiety, depression and poor morale, said, “I’m just too afraid that, in this cancel culture world of ours, someone will say something during the training that would trigger a lawsuit of some kind.”

Possibly, but not if the proper parameters are established in advance. When we comedy train everyone from rocket scientists and lawyers to bankers and oncologists, we take a deep dive into each organization’s culture to determine what is, and isn’t, appropriate before any training occurs. So, to borrow the vernacular du jour, we make the training a “safe place to be.”

The results can be game-changing, especially for Gen Z and Millennial employees who have either been sheltering alone in an 800-foot studio apartment or moved back into the same bedroom they had in high school (which HAS to be brutal).

I could go on, but must insert another pearl from the authors: “Research PROVES that humor can be one of the most powerful tools we have for accomplishing serious things. Humor makes us APPEAR more competent and confident, strengthens relationships, unlocks creativity and boosts our resiliency during difficult times.”

I will end with a most excellent application of humor that was used by President Obama during a State of the Union Address (btw, just try to imagine the off-the-charts anxiety you’d be feeling in the moments leading up to delivering a speech of that magnitude). Here’s what Obama said when explaining the need for heightened government efficiency:

“The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in saltwater. But the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in fresh water.” Obama took a long pause and then added: “I hear it gets even more complicated when they’re smoked.”

Republicans and Democrats alike laughed out loud (and when’s the last time that happened?).

 

 

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Feb 02

Saluting the Danderoo

We’ve made a point of never forgetting the passion and pride the late Virginia Dandridge Stevenson brought to work every day of her many years serving as my executive assistant at Peppercomm. 

In fact, this is the third consecutive year we’ve asked our employees to vote for the peer who best personifies The Danderoo’s qualities and attributes.

These include:

  • A great sense of humor
  • A never quit attitude
  • A heart of gold
  • A passion for enjoying life to its fullest
  • Pride for working at Peppercomm
  • Unflappable resilience (an especially critical attribute in light of the events of the past 11 months).

I’m pleased to announce that Ashley Grund is this year’s winner. Ashley will receive $250 for herself and an additional $250 to donate to the charity of her choice.

Among the many compliments shared by Ashley’s peers in selecting her for the award were these:

  • “She’s the definition of a team player.”
  • “She’s so positive and is a beautiful person, inside and out.”
  • “Ashley’s always there whenever you need an extra helping hand.”

As you can tell, Ashley is pretty special. And I’m willing to bet that, wherever she is at the moment, Dandy is giving Ashley Grund a well-earned and rousing round of applause.

Winning PR Week’s best workplace award and PR Daily’s Best travel & tourism campaign of the year are both very special. But nothing means more to me (and the many Peppercommers who fondly remember her time with us) than in announcing the latest recipient of The Dandy.

Congrats, Ashley!

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Oct 29

Stay Well with Kel

One of the true joys in the otherwise dismal seven-month period since the pandemic hit home has been the emergence of Kel, our superb IT director of 16 years, who has blossomed into our resident wellness guru at Peppercomm. 

Every two weeks or so, we’ll set aside 20 minutes from the usual, twice-weekly virtual staff meetings to have our “Stay Well with Kel” stretching, deep breathing and yoga training sessions. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to step back from the keyboard, stand, pick up a few light weights, roll one’s shoulders and neck and forget about, however fleetingly, our worries of the day.

So I thought now was a good time to give Kel a break from his normal routine and learn a little bit more about the man behind the machine…

How has COVID impacted your professional and personal lives?

I had to make a few adaptions to my workflow, e.g., not having a proper home office, I had to use my laptop on my lap for many endless hours, which after then affected my posture causing stiffness on my neck and shoulders. On a personal level, food shopping felt like going to the airport, not just any airport, but LaGuardia Airport.

As an IT professional, are there any unexpected ways your job has changed since the start of the pandemic?

Since video conferencing became the norm, I have only had a handful of actual voice only calls.

Which “meeting” platform do you prefer? Zoom, Teams, neither and why?

Teams is my favorite now; it does the things we need in an elegant and simple way. I like Zoom too, but the gallery view hurts my eyes.

How do you stay current with all that’s new in the ever-changing technology world?

Webinars, online keynotes. It is a never-ending process. But I would say that trying to stay current with technology can be costly and creates disruptions.

Aside from my usual ineptness with Zoom 101, what’s the most frequent request you receive from our employees?

There is no one most frequent request. This depends on what kind of client work we are doing at the time.

What’s Plan B if, god forbid, NYC goes off the grid? 

We are ready to go back to using smoke signals and African drums to replace all forms of communications with clients. I have been studying celestial navigation for years now.

Tell me about your fitness background, the classes you lead, etc? What got you started in fitness?

My fitness background from studying different martial arts throughout the years. The fitness movements I teach are not designed to help anyone get stronger or look tough or big. Instead, they are designed for functional mobility. I (virtually) teach a self-defense class, and there is nothing more challenging than that.

You lead our twice-a-month “Stay Well With Kel” sessions. Can you describe them for the reader and how do you intend to take us to the next level.

Twice a month, we take a few minutes to practice a few stretches and shoulder mobility exercises to improve our posture. This video explains it best.

What’s your secret to maintaining a positive, upbeat attitude? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you down or upset.

A long time ago, at the start of five-day hike through the Appalachian trails, my instructor had this to say: “this trip is what you make of it”. Work is what you make of it. Well I got a smile for everyone I meet.

How do you unwind? 

I love riding my bike, hiking in the outdoors, it’s a feeling that I can’t explain.

Oct 13

Indefatigable

In my quest to find just the right word to pay homage to the late Virginia Dandridge “Dandy” Stevenson, I chose the word indefatigable. Webster’s Dictionary defines indefatigable as “…someone or something that cannot be tired out.” That fits her like a glove. 

Dandy, who passed away some 26 months ago, was my long-time executive assistant. But labeling her as an executive assistant is akin to describing our country as experiencing a bit of unrest at the moment.

Dandy was so much more than an executive assistant.

She was tirelessly optimistic, creative, opinionated, energizing, protective and beyond proud of everything we’d built at Peppercomm. (Note: I hired Dandy in the immediate aftermath of her being downsized as the EA to the CEO of Porter Novelli. I knew a good thing when I saw it.)😊

Everyone who came into contact with Dandy over the years has a story to tell. She loved to be deeply involved in everything from creating new business decks and critiquing the type face and color on business cards to contributing creative ideas to our legendary holiday cards and videos as well as taking notes at staff meetings.

Her note-taking is arguably the best illustration of Dandy’s indefatigable DNA. She wouldn’t just distribute a mundane report of who said what at the meetings. Instead she’d channel a combination of Lewis Carroll, ee cummings and Franz Kafka to create some of the most original (and, yes, bizarre) employee communications known to man.

And I’m intent on keeping her memory alive.

To do so, we’ve created an annual Dandy Stevenson Award in which we ask our employees to nominate the one person who most closely defined Dandy’s multiple qualities, which we listed as:

  • A great sense of humor
  • A never quit attitude (See: Indefatigable above)
  • A heart of gold
  • A passion for living life to its fullest
  • A deep sense of pride in working for Peppercomm
  • Unflappable resilience (Note: Were she still alive, I have no doubt Dandy would have found myriad ways to keep herself and the agency energized as the days, weeks and months of this endless pandemic dragged on).

Last year’s recipient of the Dandy Stevenson Award was Hannah Robbins, one of our superb West Coast employees. Hannah received $250 for herself and another $250 to donate to her favorite charity (www.eastbayspca.org). Dandy would have loved that. She absolutely adored her two cats. 😉

In closing, one might describe me as indefatigable in continuing to pay homage to one of the most memorable and important persons in Peppercomm’s 26-year history and my professional life.

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