Nov 05

Ready for another walkout or two?

Get ready for another global organization to experience what went down at Google last week when employees around the world staged a walkout in protest of the company’s response to a widespread #MeToo scandal.

This time, though, I predict the spotlight will be on three of the world’s best known and most highly admired strategic management consulting firms: Booz-Allen, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group.

That’s because The Sunday New York Times chose to devote front page coverage to the trio’s extensive (and incredibly lucrative) contracts with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who was recently fired for his role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Not only are the firms reaping ungodly amounts of money from the repressive Saudi regime but, critically, NONE withdrew from participating in last month’s Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh (at a time when virtually every other company, journalist and executive universally bailed in protest).

Making matters worse, the Big Three doubled down on their participation at the event:

  • McKinsey led panels on money and energy (One would think the Saudis don’t need much advice on either).
  • BCG focused on “unspecified intelligence” (Boy, does that ever sound shady).
  • Booz-Allen held meetings with representatives of Saudi’s army and navy to whom they provide counsel (I never knew white shoe consulting firms did Black Ops).

When pressed for comments, firm representatives either provided a weak, evasive response or no comment whatsoever. And therein lies the problem.

As was the case with Deloitte last month (see my blog), I don’t think the rank-and-file employees of these global powerhouses will “permit” their executives to keep padding their wallets with moola paid by sleazy, if not murderous, regimes. Employee activism has become a force to reckon with (and no longer ignored).

And if I were sitting in the corner office of Booz, BCG or McKinsey, I’d also worry about losing key clients whose corporate values and ethics won’t permit them to engage consultants with highly controversial contracts.

Now is the time for the Big Three to step up and speak out. They need to either terminate their contracts with the Saudi government or provide a very transparent reason why they will continue to bill, bill, bill.

It’s tough to walk away from billions of dollars, but more and more employees expect their organizations to possess a higher purpose and do their part to make the world a better place. They want to feel comfortable that their personal values are in alignment with their employers’ words and actions.

I hope all three consulting firms are taking this reputational crisis as seriously as they should. If they aren’t, watch for Google-like walkouts and Deloitte-like picketing.

Nov 02

Your Walkout is Coming

Today’s timely guest post is from Ann Barlow, the leader of our West Cost office and the current Board Chair for Watermark. 

Too many companies are caught by surprise when fed up people take action. It’s time for them to know where they’re vulnerable, where they need to do better, and step up.

Including Google.

In a year of so many #MeToo incidents laid bare, I wondered if I was becoming as numbed by reports of sexual harassment and discrimination as I am by the other outrageous behavior reported each day. So I was surprised, but also a little pleased when the New York Times piece and yesterday’s walkout by Google employees stirred up so much anger and frustration within me. Anger that company leaders over and over and over again look the other way when a rainmaker mistreats others. Frustration that even those companies that pledge to do better have so much trouble making real change happen.

But I also feel hope, because even beyond calling their leadership to account through yesterday’s walkout, the organizers put together a thoughtful, practical and actionable list of demands for change. The degree to which Google follows them will show just how serious it is about eradicating sexual discrimination, harassment and assault.  Nothing less will do.

As for other employers, no one should be foolish enough to assume that their environment is a place where women – and all employees — feel safe and equal because they espouse values, promote employee resource groups and win workplace awards. Unless employers dig in deep to truly listen to employees and understand their daily experiences, AND have the fortitude to toss out even the most powerful, their walkout is coming.

And it may not be just employees who walk away. People on both sides of ‘take a knee,’ gun control, transgender rights – and #MeToo – have shown a willingness to vote with their voices and their wallets.

What about your brand? Is your walkout coming?

 

Nov 02

Work Hard, Play Hard, Vote Hard

Today’s guest blog comes from our two U.S. office leads, Jackie Kolek of New York and Ann Barlow of San Francisco, ahead of next Tuesday’s election day. Go vote!

Peppercomm has always fostered a work hard, play hard culture.  We are constantly looking around the corner to see what’s next, creating new solutions and capabilities to prepare our clients for the new world of social activism and enabling them to address these challenges head-on and leverage the opportunities.

On November 6th we’ll temporarily put aside our relentless dedication to client service and put our employee’s civic duty at the top of our to-do lists.  While the past two years have delivered a seemingly never-ending cycle of negative news, personal attacks and arguing across party (and sometimes family and friend) lines, the upside has been the growing passion about, and attention to, the critical issues that matter to us as Americans and individuals. This Election Day we want to ensure our employees can exercise their right to have their voices heard and encourage them to do just that.  We’ve designated Election Day as a “Flex Day,” which means employees can work from anywhere, come in late, leave early, extend their lunch, or make any arrangement they need to make voting as easy as possible.  We’ve also marked it a “meeting-free day,” rescheduling all internal meetings to free up more time.  Since not all states make it as easy as it should be to vote, and we know some employees will face long lines or challenges voting by mail, it is our duty as an employer to help our team exercise their right to vote – regardless of the challenges.

In addition to ensuring our employees can vote, we want make sure we encourage them to vote and celebrate them for doing so.  We value diversity within our firm (our executive leadership team is 80 percent female) and believe that diversity can take place in many forms, including diversity of thought and values.  Therefore, we urge our employees to make their individual voices count on Election Day. We’re asking each of our team members to snap a selfie of themselves with their “I voted” sticker.  To celebrate these voices being heard, we’ll be hosting a free lunch for employees later in the week where employees will use their “I voted” sticker as their entry ticket (and in the spirit of inclusiveness, our non-US citizen employees get in for free).

Oct 22

The Last Laugh

One of the things that sets Peppercomm apart is our embedding stand-up and improvisational comedy training into our management development programs.

There isn’t another firm I know of that has embraced comedy to the extent we have.

The benefits have been enormous and range from improving employees’ presentation skills, to knocking down silos and bringing our people together in new and unique ways. Another benefit is having been named NYC’s top workplace by Crain’s New York Business.

We’ve also tied-in comedy to raise money for a whole host of charities over the years. And, in those fundraisers, the Peppercomm employees have performed five-minute sets at major NYC comedy clubs. How many professionals in our industry can add that accomplishment to their C.V.’s?

It’s a beautiful thing, especially when you can hold a charity comedy fundraiser in honor of a fallen comrade.

That’s exactly what we did last Thursday night.

As many of you know, Dandy Stevenson, my longtime executive assistant, lost her battle with lung cancer in August. See my tribute to Dandy here.

Her family asked that any donations in Dandy’s memory be made to the ASPCA.

So, what did we at Peppercomm do? We took it to the next level and staged a Dandy Stevenson Memorial Comedy Show, invited four or five ASPCA executives to perform with our troops AND ended up raising more than $1,500 in Dandy’s name. Oh, and btw, we had a blast doing it.

Before I continue, I’d appreciate any, and all, friends of Dandy who have not yet done so, to make a donation to the ASPCA in her name. Here’s the link.

If you’d like to get a sneak peek at what the experience was like, click on this link and check out our very own Deb Brown impersonating Donald Trump. It’s great. The greatest ever. Beyond great. And if you don’t like it, it’s not Deb’s fault. Blame the Democrats.

Other firms might remember a fallen comrade with a one-off luncheon or a cocktail reception. Not us. We do it the right way. We raise money for our late colleague’s favorite charity, enlist our own employees to perform stand-up and turn what could have been a wake into a laugh out loud tribute to a woman who laughed out loud more often and far louder than anyone I’ve ever known.

Dandy: We miss you and will never forget you. Hope you enjoyed watching the show from whatever celestial cloud you may be currently inhabiting.

Sep 25

Instagram? More like InstaSpam

I’m announcing my resignation as a member of the Instagram community. Note: My resignation has nothing to do with the shocking departure of Instagram Co-Founders Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom. But it’s effective immediately and, to paraphrase what corporations everywhere say when they’ve just dumped a top executive, I’m leaving to pursue other channels.

I’m stepping down because I am appalled at the vast spam wasteland that Instagram has become. I doubt I’m alone in making this observation, but I now spend more time deleting unsolicited ads on the platform than I do liking or commenting on member’s posts.

I realize Instagram needs to turn a profit, but the sudden tsunami of unsolicited ads is a complete turnoff. I realize the entire advertising universe is going through a very tough time (witness the huge turmoil at the major holding companies), but Instagram is making a huge mistake in terms of customer experience.

I loved Instagram because I saw it as the crossover star between Facebook (purely personally content) and LinkedIn (of, by and for professionals). But now it’s turned into a 24×7 deluge of product, service and company ads that I am neither interested in, and slow me down in searching what’s new with my connections – my ultimate attraction to the platform.

Job one for the new Instagram management team should be a deep dive into UX to ultimately figure out a better path to profitability. I can guarantee that if they don’t find a fix soon, many other loyalists will be leaving InstaSpam to pursue other channels.

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.