Jul 24

Living “Listen. Engage. Repeat.”

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Julie Hoang.

bad-yelp-reviews-damage-reputationRecently, I had an unusual experience that really put Peppercomm’s mantra “Listen.Engage.Repeat.” into perspective. While we often talk to clients about the meaning of the tagline, I understand it a whole lot better after actually having to live through its meaning myself! Here’s the story…

About two weeks ago, I went out to eat with my parents. That same night, we started feeling not so great. A little later, we felt worse. Needless to say, the rest of that experience didn’t end well with me taking almost three days to gain my strength and return to normal.

Once I had the strength, I attempted to call the restaurant, but to no avail. That led me to write a review on their Yelp page (which I don’t normally do) as I saw they were responsive in the past. I did not hear back from that either. To my surprise, I was instead contacted by the Department of Health (DoH)! I would’ve never imagined it, but the DoH has a Yelp account and actively monitors the platform. They saw my post and contacted me to speak so that they could better understand the situation (this is still being scheduled). I was dismayed that a third party was able to get back to me before the restaurant did, but applaud the NYC DoH for their great job at listening and actively monitoring the site for potential health complaints.

To figure out why this restaurant had such a lack of care and customer service, I made one last call to them last week. It took two days before a manager called back. He explained he had been off-site for a few days and that they don’t currently have anyone actively managing the Yelp reviews. He did apologize for the whole experience, and offered to refund the cost of the meal, which was great, but as a PR pro, opened up a much bigger issue they needed to address internally.

Yelp is a great way to interact with customers, but it’s also important to acknowledge and address their comments and issues in real time – before someone else does. In a world relying increasingly on relationships, brands NEED to show they care or customers will show them that they don’t. For this particular restaurant, this could have all been avoided if they initially addressed my problem offline. Instead, it escalated rather quickly and for a company in an industry where enough negative reviews could force them to shut down, this is not an issue to be taken lightly. When the “Listen.Engage.Repeat.” model is not practiced, dire consequences – in this case, having the DoH contact me – could result.

My final piece of advice for the restaurant? Go on Yelp and acknowledge you’ve addressed this with me offline. Then look into these tips for handling on-line reviews and read this from the NYCity Health Department. As for a pending discussion with the DoH, I still intend to hold one, but will explain that it was finally addressed by the restaurant. What would you do in this situation?

Jul 23

I call it G-U-T-S

torinoreviewI must admit to choking back crocodile tears after reading Steve Keyser’s poignant tale of a middle-aged office worker who’d overheard a couple of Millennials saying he was “over the hill, couldn’t or wouldn’t learn new skills and couldn’t even keep up with the skill set needed for the job. Ouch!

Keyser says the 20-something’s “mentioned age” in their bashing of the older guy, and actually suggested he be put out to pasture. Boy, with co-workers like this, who needs enemies.

To add an extra dimension of poignancy to his tale of woe, Keyser tells readers he just happened to bump into the grizzled veteran in the hallway. Their eyes met, and Keyser says, “I knew by the mist in his eyes that he had heard them talking about him.” I don’t know about you, but I’m bawling right now.

Keyser quickly gathers his wits though and immediately transforms himself into a self-help guru whose goal is to provide the battered bastard of the business world with a strategy to combat perceived obsolescence. He calls it R-E-L-E-V-A-N-T. I call it B.S.

The old guy doesn’t need Keyser’s mnemonic device to fight back. He needs to step up to the plate.

In fact, shame on this middle-aged dude for letting two know-it-all Millennials get away with bashing his skills and abilities. And, shame on the 20-something gossip queens for bashing a fellow employee. And, shame on Keyser for providing a generic, off-the-shelf solution to an easily-solved dilemma.

My solution is called self-confidence. The middle-aged manager has more experience in his pinky than both Millennials possess collectively. If he’d had the courage of his convictions and, as Sarah Palin likes to say, the cajones, he would have confronted the Millennial Meanies in the heat of the moment.

I’d counsel him to share the countless crises he no doubt personally worked on. I’d tell him to name drop the scores of influential reporters he still maintains friendships with. I’d also have him mention the numerous speeches he’s either written, delivered or both. In short, I’d have him push back hard on the social media-obsessed Millennials who think, just because a white hair may not know how to Tweet, create a LinkedIn profile or discuss content creation, that he’s a “dinosaur” and “needs to be put out to pasture” as the 20-somethings so charitably put it.

Millennials need to know that tactical knowledge of the latest shiny object means very little in the larger world of strategic public relations. They need to be told that wisdom only comes with experience. And, they need to learn a little bit about respect in the workplace.

I’m genuinely impressed by the knowledge and ability of our Millennial work force. But, I also know when push comes to shove and the sh*t hits the fan, they’ll turn to an elder stateswoman (or, dare I suggest it, an elder statesman) and ask for counsel.

I do hope the middle-aged manager in Keyser’s woeful tale hasn’t thrown in the towel. He has too much to offer and, as noted earlier, just needs a little intestinal fortitude to stand-up to the young naysayers. As for the latter, I’d alert the human resources manager and have him take them out behind the woodshed. Office politics are one thing. But, workplace age politics are not only unacceptable: they’re reprehensible (Hey, that was someone’s dad those two Millennials were belittling).

So, if you should find recent college grads questioning your job worthiness, Forget R-E-L-E-V-A-N-T and try my shorter and much more effective acronym.

I call it G-U-T-S. Try it.

You’ll feel better. The kids will be duly chastened and the agency and client alike will continue to benefit from your wisdom.

Jul 22

I’d call it a Pink Metropolis

Ann Friedman’s recent piece in New York Magazine is causing quite the stir in our navel-gazing world of public relations.

Tiffany_Troiano_Olga_Horvat_Robin_Kassner_Karen_Biehl_Bridget_OBrien_Olga_Zabelinskaya1Entitled, ‘Why do we treat PR like a Pink Ghetto,’ the piece  tells us what we already know:

- The lower ranks of PR are completely dominated by young, white women.
- The media tends to portray these women as bubble-gum chewing, party planning air heads.

Friedman was kind enough to write a balanced piece on the subject and even admitted that PR people provide her with story ideas. Gasp. A reporter willing to go on record saying that PR IS providing a worthwhile service to journalism? What is the world coming to?

On the other hand, she repeats all the stereotypes, says 73 to 85 percent of ALL PR professionals are women and that, yes, she’s had more than her fair shares of phone calls from ditzy blond, gum-chewing types straight out of central casting.

I have my own views about the pinkification of PR, but first wanted to ask two members of Peppercomm’s distaff side to weigh-in. Here’s what they had to say:

-  I’d like to think that the “Pink Ghetto” doesn’t really exist, but it certainly does in entertainment/pop culture. Kelly Cutrone is talented and, seems to be well-respected (I think she is a good friend of Harold Burson?). I had only seen a few episodes, but I think Cutrone’s show on Bravo didn’t last because it seems as though only men can get away with having that Type-A demanding personality and succeed (i.e. Chef Gordon Ramsay). This goes back to basic gender stereotyping—girls are supposed to be sweet and nurturing, men are the breadwinners and are tough by nature.

-  Make Chef Ramsay a woman and I guarantee his show wouldn’t last, unless the personality was softened a bit. You need a certain personality to make it in this industry and it may not be one that is best reflected on television for good entertainment (so you either have ditzy women or tough men). When there are talented and smart PR folks portrayed fictionally, they are usually portrayed by men. I’m thinking of the characters on Netflix’s House of Cards, the movie Wag the Dog, etc. Overall, PR needs its own publicist, but we need those smart, great female publicists to stand out in the spotlight a bit more to debunk the gender stereotypes of the industry.

-  Robin Kassner, CEO of Haute PR is one of the reasons why the perception of the Pink Ghetto exists in reality. Here’s just a little sampling of when she went on Bravo’s ‘The Millionaire Matchmaker’.

-  Women come cheaper.  I’ll never forget my former male boss’ explosive reaction when I complained about a paltry raise in the face of superior performance: “Christ, XXXXX, you make big bucks for a woman!”  

-  Women are “nice.”  They are bred to be courteous, kind and caring.  “Dialing and smiling” is part of most women’s psychological DNA.

I’m glad Friedman wrote her piece because, frankly, our trade publications won’t touch the incendiary subject with a 10-foot-pole. Why do I say incendiary? Because while it’s politically correct to say PR’s upper ranks are dominated by far too many middle-aged white guys like me, it is oh-so politically incorrect to write anything disparaging about women, or the progress of women in attaining substantive jobs in PR.

I’m all for equal rights and equal pay. But, in the same way too many middle-aged white guys project a retro, out-of-touch image to the larger business world, so, too, do too many young white females.

And, frankly, our industry has done an abysmal job of recruiting young men of any color, people of color and foreign-born nationals.

As a result, in the not-too-distant future PR will be far more than merely a pink ghetto. It’ll be a white, pink metropolis that will be superseded by competitive fields such as advertising that ARE taking steps towards building a work force that reflects our changing population.

Until then, like, um, I have some reporters to like, send blast e-mails to and, oh yeah, a party that’s happening downtown that we, um, like, were hired to coordinate and what not. Gotta go. Text me, OK?

Jul 21

AmeXecutioner

Leave-Home-Without-It--49628Ever try using an American Express card to purchase goods outside a major metropolitan area? If so, then you know an AmEx card is about as welcomed at retail as an Israeli soldier is in Gaza City.

Having recently frequented several food establishments in northern Maine, I can attest that, as one waiter laughingly told me, “We take every card, as long as it isn’t an AmEx.”

There’s a reason why American Express isn’t accepted at most retail locations. Thomas J. Powers, Jr., a bon vivant, raconteur, journeyman credit union executive and on-again, off-again finance sector thought leader, shared this explanation: “American Express is to the credit card industry as Ronald Reagan was to the lower and middle classes. Both cater to the high-end, luxury side of the market, believing that, by incentivizing the best establishments, money will trickle down to the masses.”

Powers went on to say that, while Amex will reward the uber prestigious Four Seasons Restaurant in New York by only hitting them with a three percent surcharge on payments, they’ll absolutely decimate the ‘Walk This Way’ in Bar Harbor, Maine, slapping that eatery with a whopping seven percent surcharge on meals (prompting Walk This Way’s Tony to laugh out loud when I asked if he’d accept my AmEx).

Back in the day, American Express was THE card for retail transactions near and far. In fact, the late, fedora-clad Karl Malden immortalized the brand’s breadth and depth with the tagline, ‘American Express: don’t leave home without it.’

Now, though, American Express is the kiss of death for most fly-over, middle-of-the-road retailers (who avoid it like the plague).

In fact, one might say the X in American Express stands for AmeXecutioner of any restaurant’s profits.

Were he still alive, I’d haul out Malden’s sorry, fedora-clad ass and have him update the brand’s tagline as follows: ‘American Express. Leave the damn thing home!’

Special tip of the hat to credit guru and uber journeyman, Thomas J. Powers, Jr., for providing insight.

Jul 18

Teaching the Invisible

Today’s guest  post is by WALEKPeppercommer,  Brian Hickey.

imnvisiagesSelling the Invisible, Harry Beckwith’s “field guide to modern marketing,” is a must-read if you’re interested in hundreds of quick, practical, road-tested strategies and truisms about selling or delivering a service, such as PR and communications services (versus a product, such as the “Incredible Expanding 50-Foot Garden Hose,” let’s say). Beckwith’s laser-focus on marketing fallacies, errant presumptions, and the seemingly countless ways we so often misread, oversell, and just generally miss the point when it comes to what clients truly value, compared to what we think they value makes Selling the Invisible an invaluable guidebook to the business.

Re-reading Selling the Invisible led me to think about the corollary to the book, namely, Teaching the Invisible. After all, we’re all deeply invested in training young staffers in best practices. With this in mind, three areas are among the most important skills to develop, and the most instrumental in having a successful career- communications, judgment and relationships.  There are plenty of other skills that are part of a successful career, but these three seem to me to be at the center of the equation. I say that because it’s frequently one or more of these areas where people struggle most frequently, in my experience.

Communications.  Surprisingly as it may seem, the rapid-fire, relentless demands that are all part of a day in the life of every PR pro can undermine the very thing we’re supposed to excel at: communicating. Understanding what you’re hearing and making yourself understood is an essential skill in this business. That’s why it’s important to periodically step back from the day-to-day and ask yourself if there’s anything better or different you can do to enhance your communication skills.

Judgment.  Arguably the most intuitive skill of the three, judgment is probably the most difficult one to teach. Sound, consistently solid judgment is the product of experience over time combined with the ability to learn from your mistakes. There are no shortcuts to that. It takes time to cultivate softer, fuzzier attributes such as professional instincts. Refining your sense of intuition is what comes with this process.

Relationships.  Building your network over time and making the best use of it is the most sure-fire way to bring about all kinds of developments in your work and your career that would not otherwise occur. Your network of reporters, editors, colleagues, managers and even friends will greatly influence the arc of your professional development.

Mastering the invisible assets of communications, judgment and a rich network of relationships will contribute more than anything else to a rich, rewarding career.

Jul 17

The Biggest Problem for the Smallest State

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Laura Bedrossian.

34574524“If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” is a saying with which many are familiar. But how about: “If it is broke, let’s just keep doing the same thing over and over?” While it sounds ridiculous, I’m convinced it’s the new motto for my home state of Rhode Island and the root cause of its branding problem.

Currently, I live in New York, but Rhode Island is very near and dear to my heart, having lived there the majority of my life. The Providence Journal’s Mark Patinkin has written a few humorous books on Rhode Island, discussing everything from the local culture to the unique accent. At the heart of Patinkin’s writing is the message that if you grew up in Rhode Island, it never really leaves you – and he’s right.

Rhode Island has so much to offer – from its beaches to its history to its delicious food. For these reasons and more, it should be a go-to destination for tourists. Instead, a scan of the news may leave you believing you’re stepping into a political circus. Just a sampling of the stories on which the state has looked foolish over the last few years:

-        The state’s current governor, Lincoln Chafee, once made it to the U.S Senate, making an interesting mark. Instead of voting in the 2004 presidential election for someone that was running, he thought it would be better to cast a write-in for Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, as a “symbolic protest.”

-        Right before Chafee, we had Gov. Donald Carcieri, who hired his niece and then tried to get the local news to apologize to him when they asked questions on nepotism. Eventually he admitted fault, citing that it was unclear on why this could be an issue. (I’ve always liked the word unclear.)

-        Most recently, former Providence mayor, Buddy Cianci, made headlines for announcing that he wanted his old office back. Cianci is also known for his marinara sauce (in fairness, it’s actually delicious), but also for his time in prison. Yes, let’s vote corruption right back in.

I want people to love RI as much as I do. To do this we need to change the narrative. And the Tourism Board should take a stand and hire media relations/reputation management professionals to start seeding stories on what makes the state special.

They could focus on local business leaders – like my grandparents, whose deli, The Food Chalet, has stood for 42 years and counting, Carolyn Rafaelian, founder of Alex and Ani, who started a nationwide fashion craze from her home that has gotten so big, I’ve seen ads in the cabs here in NYC and Del’s Lemonade, which has been a thriving business and a staple for residents since the 1940s.

Step 1 is voting in new people with fresh ideas who will be in the news for doing something to make the state standout in a good way. Step 2 is putting a concerted effort into the state’s branding. Wake up, Rhode Island, you’re great and people should know it—you just need the right communications folks to help.

Jul 16

Why Commercials with Dogs Score Big With Me – And How They Can Do Better

Today’s guest post is by Chris “RepMan, Jr.” Cody.

Mickens and Rooney are two of my best friends.  And, as I’m sure you guessed by the title, they are both dogs.   I love dogs.  All dogs. Andy Rooney (the television personality we named our German Shepherd after) once quipped, “The average dog is a nicer person than the average person.”  There is much truth in that and the new Subaru ads are demonstrating the potential of commercials with dogs.

Two recent examples will suffice.  The first features a dog family at a stop sign.  A female dog walks in front of the Subaru and as the male dog checks out the female, his dog wife growls at him.  It’s hilarious because it’s a familiar situation to many couples.

The second example also features a dog couple.  The two are sitting in a Subaru outback and are passionately kissing.  Then the light switches on and the father of the female dog barks a warning to stay away from his daughter.

These commercials are great, but what would make them truly breakthrough would be a partnership between Subaru and a national rescue center. I’ll bet the YouTube video spreadability would expand faster than Mick and Rooney chomping down on a fresh supply of Milkbones.

So, how about it, Subaru? You’ve got the right idea, and you’ve stopped dog lovers like me in my tracks BUT you have failed to make me love what you’re doing because you haven’t made me feel for the dogs themselves. Bad, Subaru! Bad auto maker! Now, pick up the phone. That’s right, boy. Pick up the phone and call the ASPCA. Tell them you want rescue dogs for a casting call. Good. Now, here’s one of Mick’s extra Milkbones. Good car company. Good company.

Jul 15

Actually, the check isn’t in the mail yet. Who cares?

Today’s guest post is by Michael Dresner, CEO of Brand Squared, a Division of Peppercomm.

wimpyThe RepMan blog from June 20th chronicled the financial wizardry of blue chip brand firms, who leverage their might and mandate 120, 150 or 180 day payment terms from their agencies.  Why do that?  To preserve cash flow?  To exercise customer power?  To ensure that only financially stable agencies are on the roster?  To manage the slow payment terms of your own customers? Or, is it simply to cover up the occasional dysfunction of corporate accounts payable?

I had a client last year that was 100 days past due on a sizeable invoice, whose answer was “none of us here really know how to get invoices paid.”  Right.

For all corporate purchasers that created this new SOP in agency management, congratulations on showing your might.  But here’s the problem.  It’s going to cost you.  Lest that sounds illogical, let me play this out.  Your purchasing team introduces the new payment terms that stretch into the distant future.  Your account leaders will say “whatever it takes.  We’re your partner.  We’re here to make this relationship work.”  And they will.  Because if clients keep their money for 4-6 months at a time, agencies (large and small) will borrow at a low interest rate to keep the lights on and staff paid.  No bank will worry too much about P&G or Mars not paying for work complete.  Let’s say their ongoing bank charges a few points (probably less).  The agency will simply bake that interest charge into the cost of service fees right back to you.  And shocking as this may seem, agencies will add a point for good measure.  Why not profit on this?  It’s a client directive.

For all clients reading this, please don’t think YOUR agency is the exception.  One of my professional colleagues is a CFO at a major holding company and lauded herself with accepting all major clients’ new payment terms.  I laughed and asked how much money her agency is now making off of interest.  She said “you don’t even want to know.”

So – who earns money from this new, client progressive model?  Agencies and their banks.  Who loses?  Clients.  Clients will pay higher fees.  They can argue the extra 5-6% now added to service fees, if they even notice.  Agencies will mention higher complexity in last year’s service offerings.  Name three marketing people on the client side who would even be willing to fight that.  I can’t think of one.

Clients lose on other levels too:  incumbent agencies WILL invest resources in making themselves financially whole – time, energy, labor hours – and those resources will inevitably come from a finite pool attributed to said client.  If I were on the client side, I would want the agency spending those resources on how to grow my brand.  Clients will also lose out on small agencies that spun off from the large holding companies, the small agencies with the most creative ideas, with the most innovative thinking and eliminated bureaucracy, which cannot operate on six month payment cycles because they’re new companies.   Those smaller agencies won’t go out of business. They will simply eschew the Fortune 500 and find more collaborative clients.  And ultimately, those smaller agencies will represent the larger truth that small business has and will always be the engine that drives industrial and economic growth.

So – for all of those purchasing managers insisting on 4-6 month terms – ask around.  Get an unofficial view from an agency friend.  See how easy it is for a vendor to borrow money at low rates in lieu of paid invoices and make you pay that interest in some fashion.  See if your new mantra precludes marketers from using independent shops with hard-working, inventive experts in their field, who swallow their pride and work with an easier customer base.   Are you really winning by holding onto the check owed for services already rendered?

Good luck with that.

Jul 14

Lessons from the Battlefield

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Chris Piedmont.

College of CharlestonThe College of Charleston (CofC) is known for many things including its beautiful architecture, long history, and location in America’s top city. However, the past six months, when I served as student body vice-president was filled with crisis after crisis. First there was the battle over a possible merger with the Medical University of South Carolina. Then, came the debate over whether the SC General Assembly would cut the College’s funding for selecting Fun Home, a book with LGBT themes, for the annual campus-wide reading program. Lastly, there was the outcry over the Board of Trustees selection of former SC Lt. Gov. (and confederate reenactor) Glenn McConnell as the 22nd President of the College of Charleston.

While these crises were stressful, they taught me three valuable crisis communication lessons that apply to many situations.

Say something
Respond to stakeholders’ concerns in a timely manner
When a crisis occurs, be quick with a strategic response. You don’t have to say much, but you must say something. Not commenting leads to a communication vacuum that will be filled. If you’re not sharing your brand’s views on the issue, then those hitting you will fill the void.  The College’s administration did not address many of these issues with students and it left a vacuum that was filled by inaccurate information and magnified the crises.

Think before you send
All too often this important lesson is forgotten. When facing a crisis, it can be tempting to quickly fire off a full-throated defense of company practices. A powerful defense is fine, but ensure that this is the best strategic response before hitting send. One SC representative didn’t think before hitting send and he caused himself and his wife, a CofC Board of Trustees member, a lot of headaches.  When I reached out on behalf of the CofC Student Government Association urging the legislature to restore our cut funding, he fired back a harsh response within ten minutes. When shared with members of the Student Senate, his response was forwarded to local media outlets that picked it up and ran with the harsh words. Waiting a few minutes before hitting send would have been a much smarter idea.

Reputation is a long game
It takes years to build a reputation but all of that built up goodwill can be change quickly by a series of crises. Respond in a timely and strategic way and your brand can weather most storms.

CofC has had some big hits the past few months, but hopefully the institution will bounce back better than ever with a few lessons learned. During the times of crises, my mantra was the College of Charleston is bigger than one issue, one book or one president. Well, so too is every other brand. With a good communication team responding appropriately, a brand can survive almost anything.

Jul 11

Like an atheist in the Vatican

funny-Jack-Daniels-water-dispenser-300x293There’s a fascinating Advertising Age feature that shines the spotlight on Brown-Forman’s new workplace policies.

If the company name doesn’t sound familiar, it should.

Brown-Forman is the Louisville-based distiller of Jack Daniels, and other major liquor brands.

So, what’s so novel about B-F’s new workplace program? It’s centered on making teetotaling employees feel included in the company’s social programs!

So, for example, while the average cafeteria menu in the company’s Bourbon Street Cafe includes Old Forrester marinated flank steak and a cocktail make from Woodford Reserve, Southern Comfort and orange and pineapple juices, there are also non-alcoholic beverages from which to choose (BTW, how could anyone possibly function after a lunch of flank steak and Jack?).

The teetotalers program is part of an overall Employee Resource Group diversity program that’s aimed at making various B-F work groups feel more at home. Those groups include:

- Boomers (Stop the presses! I’m finally a member of a minority!)
- LGBT
- Veterans
- Women
- Young professionals
- Non-drinkers

This is a noble cause for which B-F deserves a ton of credit. But, it also begs the question: Why would a teetotaler work for a liquor marketer in the first place? Talk about entering the belly of the beast. It’s akin to:

- An atheist working at the Vatican
- A Yankee fan selling cotton candy at Fenway Park
- Yours truly serving as Sir Martin Sorrell’s aide-de-camp

I’m all for inclusiveness and diversity in the workplace. But, I’m not sure I agree with the lemonade and ginger ale lunchtime options for non-drinkers at a liquor manufacturing company. That’s one toke over the line (to mix metaphors).

If the non-drinking cohort refuses to imbibe, I honestly think they should find employment elsewhere.

There are enlightened workplace cultures and then there’s Brown-Forman’s. In my mind, I’d simply let employees know they’re expected to consume their employer’s product. Period.

There are plenty of other employers in the greater Louisville area and I, for one, would want employees who use my product, and will feel comfortable serving as brand ambassadors in social situations. That’s tough to do when one refuses to even sip a Jack & Coke.

I don’t know about you. But, this is one example of political correctness gone very, very wrong.

Regardless of your feelings, though, let’s all raise our drinks and salute B-F for their other progressive efforts at diversity (especially the one earmarking Baby Boomers an important minority).

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Note: Repman will be spending the majority of next week attacking northern Maine’s rugged Mt. Katahdin and cliff climbing along Bar Harbor’s Otter Cliffs. In my absence, various colleagues will be contributing guest columns. And do post comments about their blogs. We’ve got some real beauts scheduled for your reading pleasure.