May 21

“You can pay me now or pay me later”

To mix metaphors, a brand’s reputation is only as strong as its weakest link. Case in point is the recent donnybrook surrounding the backlash from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s accepting donations from the infamous Sackler family

The Sackler Family owns Purdue Pharmaceuticals which manufacturers OxyContin. Just recently, the family had to pay the state of Oklahoma $270 million as part of a settlement in which they were accused of aggressively marketing the highly addictive painkiller that has laid waste to generations ranging from pre-teens to Octogenarians.

Last week’s backlash against the Met and the museum’s decision to no longer take donations from “members of the Sackler family presently associated with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin,” is indicative of the mega exposure that for-profit corporations and non-profits institutions alike now face: Have they invested in questionable business concerns or, as was the case with the Met, has an organization willingly accepted funny money from very bad people?

The only way to ensure an organization doesn’t appear on the nightly news and become the focal point of an op-ed in The New York Times is to perform an honest assessment of stakeholder relationships and business practices in the context of the values and purpose the organization claims to hold.

This is especially critical in the “Age of Purpose” which is seeing every corporation, charity, marketing agency and entity under the sun determine its higher purpose for existing. It’s one thing to announce that your organization exists to end world hunger or cure the common cold. But, it’s another issue altogether when activist employees or, in the case of the Met, loyal patrons, call you out for hypocritical business practices or a disgraceful partnership. Espousing a noble purpose that is not consistently upheld in all aspects of your organization is what is now popularly considered to be “Purpose Washing.”

It’s incumbent upon every organization, large, small or otherwise, to stress test their corporate purpose to ensure it isn’t undermined by questionable sponsorships or partnerships, board composition, or marketing programs. And I happen to know a few PR firms who excel at providing exactly that sort of service.

To delay doing so is to invite trouble. I’d equate a Purpose stress test to the slogan of the old Midas Muffler advertising campaign: “You can pay me now or pay me later.” In other words, a quick stress test today could avoid a massive crisis containment program down the road.

The choice is yours, Ms. CCO or CMO.

 

###

 

May 16

Actions speak louder than words

Philip Morris International (PMI), which has earned a well-deserved reputation for saying one thing and doing another, is at it again. 

Close on the heels of PMI’s launch of a global marketing effort for its heated tobacco vaporizer called IQOS (or, I Quit Ordinary Smoking), the Big Tobacco brand was caught marketing its killer weed to unsuspecting young people.

Happily, an alert Reuters reporter spotted the social media transgression and called out the nefarious nicotine maker for violating its own marketing policy.

Allegedly intent on helping smokers ease their way off the killer weed through IQOS AND not marketing to younger, impressionable teens who see vaping as the cool, new thing, PMI featured 21-year-old Alina Tapilina, a Russian model/influencer, endorsing IQOS on Instagram.

Caught red-handed (or black lunged, if you prefer) PMI chose to suspend the marketing campaign and yank the IG post VERY LATE on a Friday night (hoping against hope no one would notice).

A PMI spokesperson Tweeted, “We were deeply disappointed to discover this breach and are grateful that it was brought to our attention.” Yeah, sure they were.

Make no mistake that, despite hollow promises to provide “smoke-free alternatives”, PMI delivers shareholder value by continuing to addict people worldwide.

To make matters even worse, PMI had the unmitigated gall to declare 2019 the “Year of Unsmoke” (while continuing to pay young, attractive social influencers to peddle their vape).

PMI remains a slippery, sleazy brand intent on devising new and ever more insidious ways to addict a whole new generation of smokers with its youth-oriented influencer and social media campaigns.

This most recent transgression belies PMI’s stated intent to remake a battered image and be seen as a highly moral company. In reality, it’s just the latest example of PMI saying one thing and doing another. Shame on them.

Late-breaking news: North Carolina just became the first state in the nation to sue Juul. Fingers and tobacco leaves crossed that many others will follow suit.

                                ###

May 09

Big Tobacco is Baaaaaack!

Not content with having tempted and trapped countless generations of unsuspecting high schoolers to become nicotine addicts, Big Tobacco is back in a new and insidious way.

As detailed in this superb opinion piece by legendary ad man, Alex Bogusky, Big Tobacco has jumped on the coolness of a new delivery mechanism, vaping, as a way to tempt today’s middle and high school kids.

Marketed as a tasty, fruity and fun way to enjoy tobacco, vapes have immediately became fashion statements for Kool Kids, who also see them as a new way in which to rebel against their parents and teachers.

Some schools have stepped up and “banned” vaping in classrooms. But, naturally, the kids have found a way around that rule.

They blow a day’s worth of the vaped cigarette smoke into water bottles and “sip” it down as they tread innocently from classroom to classroom.

So where were the various surgeon generals and the FDA when Big Tobacco started to badly bend the rules again? Taking a smoking break, perhaps?

Someone needs to stamp out this latest, insidious assault on our nation’s young people. And it needs to be done now, before another entire generation is addicted and skyrocketing health care costs further cripple our global competitiveness.

With Washington lawmakers deadlocked on everything under the sun, who’s left to shine the spotlight on the new scourge?

I nominate The Ad Council and suggest they dust off some of the legendary anti-smoking TV spots and print ads of the 1980’s and launch a massive education program aimed at pre-teens and teens. Make no mistake: the future health of an entire generation is at stake.

In the meantime, those of us with scruples who also happen to own marketing communications firms should just say NO if Big Tobacco comes knocking with millions of dollars for a cigarette vaping campaign. How could you possibly justify making a pact with the devil weed?”

###

Apr 29

An American Original

If you missed knowing Missy Shorey, you missed out on something very special.

Missy, who passed away at the ungodly young age of 47, was an American original.

We first crossed paths when we met at a long-ago Spring Conference held by the PRSA’s Counselors Academy.

It was clear from the get-go that, while we were in the same PR world, we were worlds apart in our respective POV’s on life. But we never let it stand in the way of our becoming fast friends who routinely shared the good, the bad and the ugly of agency ownership.

I last saw Missy when we shared the stage at the 2017 Counselors Academy Spring Conference.

Our topic was something along the lines of: “How to counsel your clients in the aftermath of a Trump Tweet attack.”

Needless to say, Missy offered a suggestion that I immediately took umbrage with and countered with the counsel that I’d recommend to clients. We sparred back-and-forth for what seemed like forever and agreed to disagree.

Immediately after the panel ended, Missy ran over to me, gave me a big hug and said, “Wasn’t that a blast! Let’s grab a drink.”

Classic Missy.

Unlike so many of us, she had the rare gift of not letting political differences get in the way of cherished personal and professional friendships.

I’ve had the fortune to meet several American originals in my life in PR. Dandy Stevenson, my late personal assistant of 15 years was one. Missy Shorey was another.

The great thing about American originals is that, while they may go the way of all flesh, their memories will live forever.

I will miss you so much, Missy. But I will never forget you.

###

Apr 25

There isn’t a tool or technology in the world that will ever replace great storytelling

It was just about three years ago that I listened to a digital guru (dressed in all black, of course) predict that public relations would be dead by now. He went on to state that, unless PR professionals immediately transformed themselves into digital gurus, they would either end up as Wal-Mart greeters or baristas at Starbucks.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the cemetery. PR didn’t die. In fact, it not only survived, PR thrived. Today many industry pundits and gurus see public relations as THE dominant marketing discipline.

The reason is something so obvious that it’s eluded countless, nattering nabobs of negativity such as the guru mentioned above. The most sophisticated programs, dashboards and automation are useless if they exclude the need for basic human interaction and, critically, great storytelling.

Two recent articles in the marketing and PR trade press illustrate the point.

Marketing Dive reported that Keith Weed, the long-time chief marketing officer of Unilever is retiring AND the corporation may retire the CMO title along with the high profile executive.

I’ll let you peruse the entire article, but here are some key takeaways:

  • “Recent history shows the move away from the CMO role is not beyond the pale, even for organizations that have built a reputation around the quality of their brands and advertising. Coca-Cola got rid of its CMO title in 2017.”
  • “The CMO role for many organizations does not necessarily go away, but rather, gets reshaped, with the ‘M’ sometimes losing relevance based on industry trends.”
  • “Unilever’s…course of action will almost certainly reverberate across the industry and light a fire for many marketers looking to preserve the relevance of their job.”

In other words, paid content alone, driven by digital and data, isn’t making the cash register ring fast enough. And CMO’s (and their function) are being replaced faster than White House appointees.

Now let’s pivot to a recent PR Week piece that featured the subhead, “Earned media still reigns supreme in the complex communications industry as overall revenue continues its upward trajectory.”

Here’s a link to the entire article.

Allow me to lift a few quotes:

  • “There’s no doubt earned media is at the heart of an ever increasing number of campaigns, whether they’re overseen by advertising, media, digital or PR firms.”
  • “Look at the work honored each year at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity…..most relied on earned media.”
  • “Paid should be the support element. Ogilvy PR doesn’t exist anymore, neither does MSL. It’s (just plain) Ogilvy.. They’re (the advertising & digital services) coming to us,” said Richard Edelman.

The self-proclaimed digital prophet who extolled the limitless future of data and technology completely overlooked our basic human need to tell, and listen to, interesting, educational and exciting storytelling (read: PR).

The other problem I had with the faux prognosticator sporting black shoes, pants and shirt and warning an audience of PR professionals in 2016 that they’d soon be lucky to earn a minimum wage was his recklessness. He hurt people, made them rethink the path they’d carefully chosen and has been held unaccountable for his misdeeds.

###

Feb 22

Does the D in Digital Stand for Dying?

I’ve read quite a few recent articles in the advertising and marketing trade press suggesting the halo surrounding the magical word “digital” is not only fading, but actually becoming a bit of an albatross.

According to this article in Marketing Week, more and more marketers are disbanding their separate digital departments and teams and folding them into the larger marcom group. Why? Because, just as was the case with social media, digital is no longer perceived as a standalone “thing.” It’s now seen as simply one more channel in the never-ending battle to engage with stakeholder audiences in a holistic way.

And, as the article points out, we all live in a digital world. So let’s move on and get back to calling ourselves marketers and not digital specialists or influencer specialists or CSR specialists, etc. We’re marketers, pure and simple.

This development comes as no surprise to me because, like so many previous cutting-edge products or service offerings, our industry witnessed a Gold Rush mentality on the part of many firms to immediately reposition themselves as being digitally driven. I like to survey the battlefield before deploying my resources. At Peppercomm, we’ve fully embraced digital, but have never elevated it to a pedestal higher than our other integrated offerings.

In retrospect, I think it was the right move because, as Marketing Week columnist Tom Goodwin said, “…using the word digital in the near future will come across as slightly batty.” And, as Mark Ritson, the author of this particular MW column, wrote, “As we speak, most senior marketers are making their power play and ensuring that the head of digital is being shifted horizontally towards the nearest window while they unite the two teams under their direct leadership.” Ouch! Caveat digital specialist.

Based upon this very real trend, it’s only a matter of time before the “digitally driven” moniker becomes a red flag to any corporation looking to engage a fully integrated agency. It’ll be similar to those firms who, in the aftermath of the dotcom bubble bursting, rapidly repositioned themselves as anything but dotcom specialists. I should know since I led Peppercomm’s repositioning.

While I certainly don’t claim to be a futurist, I sensed the digital metamorphosis would peak at some point in the future and be seen for what it is and what it isn’t (while simultaneously hearing digital specialists proclaim the death of public relations).

As the Marketing Week column confirms, we’re entering a new phase of marketing communications in which an old-school Wall Street Journal feature story is just as important as understanding the user experience and properly coding a new website.

The bottom line for me is this: the stakeholder audience will always determine which channel(s) a brand and its agency should use to engage with it and, ideally, convince that audience to consider the brand’s product or service.

So, digital, it was nice to know you. And social media, it’s been a real treat to partner with you through the years. Now let’s wake up before it’s too late and realize that a fully integrated in-house department or partner agency is the business model (and positioning) of the future. Oh, and by the way, thanks to the non-stop, 24×7 crisis world in which we live, public relations has never been more important. Any reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated

Feb 08

Designed to Fail.

It seems that every new day brings with it another egregious self-inflicted crisis caused by racially and gender-insensitive marketers.

The most recent examples are the truly horrific gaffes committed by Adidas and Gucci, respectively;

How could anyone think this was okay?

“There are somethings that just don’t make sense in life; Adidas celebrating black history month with this shoe is one example”

While the in-house marketing team and agency partners are unquestionably at fault for their lack of social awareness, I think the real genesis of these blunders lies with the designers and engineers.

These are the uber cool and uber insulated types who are constantly trying to come up with the hippest, sleekest and most cutting-edge sneakers, sweaters and widgets.

Having worked with designers and engineers alike, I know they live within their own ivory towers. They obsess over trends, technology and ease-of-use, but are oblivious to the larger societal issues rocking our world. As a result, a Gucci designer will create a way cool addition to an existing sweater without realizing that, when the add-on is added-on, it looks like someone in blackface.

And who else but an Adidas designer would come up with an all-white sneaker to celebrate Black History Month? (Note: I’ve alerted Adidas that they’ve just won the coveted Repman Award for the most tone-deaf brand in the world).

So here’s my solution to the problem: immediate diversity & inclusiveness training for product designers and engineers.

It seems to me that, if the designers and engineers are given the proper training, there will be far fewer opportunities for their marketing brethren to create a totally unnecessary cause celebre.

That said, stay tuned for next week’s self-inflicted brand misstep. 😎

Jan 30

Shattering Glassdoor’s Reputation

Achieving five stars on Glassdoor for an organization is the equivalent of a restaurant receiving 3 stars from Michelin Guide.

But based on an explosive Wall Street Journal expose, all that glitters at Glassdoor is most certainly NOT gold.

Here’s Peppercomm Partner Deb Brown’s POV. Personally, I’d give it 4.5 stars:

What happens when your entire business model is questioned? That’s what happened to Glassdoor recently when the Wall Street Journal published an investigative report titled, “How Companies Secretly Boost Their Glassdoor Ratings.” That title has to hurt, especially when on its website, Glassdoor states, “Built on the foundation of increasing workplace transparency…”

Employers flood the ranking site with 5-star postings requested from enthusiastic staffers, leading to unusual spikes, a WSJ investigation found.

To be fair to Glassdoor, employees who are upset at their former or current employer are probably more likely to post negative reviews than content employees posting positive reviews. And when “all” employees are encouraged to write reviews, are they all truthful or feel pressured in any way to write glowing reviews, even though they are anonymous?

Glassdoor does have policies in place and monitors reviews. But, that’s obviously not enough and its reputation is at risk. How can the public trust Glassdoor when looking for a job? How can companies that have accurate ratings compete for talent if their competitors are secretly boosting their ratings?

Glassdoor needs to immediately address this issue. It needs to admit fault, put stricter policies in place and explain how it will enforce them. If Glassdoor is revising its policies, then it needs to create a campaign articulating these critical changes in order to regain trust. The company should use an outside firm to help them develop this and communicate it. The CEO should proactively do interviews, be transparent about what needs to change, and how these new changes will be enforced. The company should also reach out to its most important clients to show it is committed to these changes.

If these claims are true, CEO Robert Holman needs to hold an all-hands meeting with his employees.

In addition, Glassdoor knew this investigative report was coming out since a spokesperson was quoted. The company should have made sure it was completely prepared. If it was prepared, I didn’t see evidence.

And, one has to wonder how Glassdoor employees would rate their employer after reading this story. This reputational issue is both external and internal. If he hasn’t done so yet, CEO Robert Holman needs to hold an all-hands meeting with his employees.

The bottom line is the company is built on the foundation of increasing workplace transparency. Glassdoor can’t ignore the article and must be transparent in how to fix this issue to safeguard – and rebuild – its reputation.

Otherwise, a competitor will see an open door…if it hasn’t already.

Dec 14

The year of the tireless spammer

I don’t know about you, but for me 2018 will be remembered as “the year of the tireless spammer.”

I’ve been receiving spam e-mails ever since Al Gore invented the Information Superhighway (remember that term?).

But I have never, ever seen as many completely absurd, off-the-mark spam e-mails as I have this year.

I’ve been approached by everyone from realtors and remodelers to temporary search firms and tug boat leasing companies.

What makes this year so special, though, is the individual spammer’s persistence.

I just can’t rid myself of these pests. I unsubscribe, but they come back like some monster that refuses to die in one of those horrible slasher flicks.

Here’s a typical example:

From: Kathy
Date: December 13, 2018 
Hi Steve,
Just a gentle touch base for my email below. Please suggest if you’d like to connect over a call to discuss our services. Help me with your best 30 mins time slot.
Regards,
Kathy

 

On Tue, Dec 5, 2018 at 6:12 PM Kathy wrote:
Hi Steve,
Trust you are doing well. I was following up per my previous email.
Wondering if you had a chance to review my initial email and would like to connect to explore our services further. Please suggest me a best 30 mins Tomorrow or sometime next week that works best for you.
Thanks
Kathy

 

On Tue, Oct 30, 2018 at 5:10 PM Kathy wrote
Hi Steve, 
Hope you are doing well!
My name is Kathy, and I represent Thrymr – An Outsourced Software Product Development Company. I am writing to see if we can schedule a brief call to discuss about your Development initiatives.
Our services include
  • Web & Mobile Rapid Application Development
  • ETL & Data Analytics
  • UX/UI Designing
  • Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence
  • GIS & Map Services
  • Cloud Computing
  • Blockchain
  • Resources on T & M
How about having a quick call at your convenience? Please let me know a time to share the invites.
Thanks for your time. Look forward to speaking with you soon.
Regards,
Kathy

 

So how do YOU cope or, better yet, get rid of unwanted pests. Call the Orkin Man?

If I do that, I’m worried I will begin receiving spam e-mails from Ollie, the outbound marketing whiz from Orkin.

Dec 10

Peppercomm/Directors & Boards Survey Shows Societal Crises are Keeping Nearly ALL Board Directors Up at Night

Eight-in-10 admitted their companies aren’t prepared. 

A recent survey of 43 directors of public and private boards revealed that nearly 90 percent are extremely or somewhat concerned about a societal crisis striking the company of which they are a director. An additional 84 percent of the directors said their company wasn’t prepared for crises ranging from mass shootings and trade wars to #MeToo and Twitter attacks from President Trump.

The survey was fielded immediately following a day-long simulation of a fictitious societal crisis created by Peppercomm, in partnership with Directors & Boards Magazine.

Other key findings included:

  • 77 percent of the participating directors were worried about their personal exposure and reputation as a result of the crisis.
  • 14 percent were EXTREMELY worried about their personal exposure.

The directors’ biggest concerns about a societal crisis impacting their company included:

  • Reputational damage (86 percent)
  • Business disruption (58 percent)
  • A drop in stock price (44 percent)

NOTHING NICE ABOUT I.C.E.

The simulated societal crisis (created by Peppercomm) concerned a publicly-traded company that had historically taken strong stances on human rights, but had just been “found” by employees to be providing I.C.E. with sensitive data about undocumented immigrants entering the country. Many employees were threatening to go on strike, BUT the CEO refused to cancel the I.C.E. contract.

After presenting the simulated crisis scenario to the directors, Peppercomm executives asked the group to answer such questions as:

1.) What’s the first step you would take?

2.) Would you issue a statement? If so, what would the wording be?

3.) If you decide not to issue a statement, explain the reasons why you’d remain quiet.

4.) What questions would you ask of the CEO (and her/his C-Suite)?

5) If you do decide to issue a statement, who would make it? The CEO? A board director? The CCO? Someone else? Why?

6.) Which stakeholder audience would take priority? Shareholders? Customers? Employees? Another group entirely?

7.) Would you engage outside counsel? If so, which ones?

8.) How would you define post-crisis success?

The simulation, which was held at New York’s Harvard Club on December 5th, will further inform Peppercomm’s already considerable knowledge of societal crises.

The firm has conducted three co-branded research studies with The Institute for Public Relations and recently launched the PR industry’s first societal crisis service offering called StandSmartTM.

Every director surveyed agreed on one thing: the worst time to test a company’s societal crisis readiness is in the midst of an actual mega incident.