Jul 31

Well red

Rogerandjessica_carrotcakeWhenever college PR students or complete strangers stop me and ask what they should be reading, I always provide the same response:

- Adweek and Advertising Age in order to learn where the wonderful world of integrated marketing communications is headed.
- PR Week in order to learn where the industry has been (as well as who the key players are at the global agencies).

I also recommend Don Spetner’s superb column in the monthly edition of PR Week and Robert Klara’s riveting ‘Perspective’ in Adweek (a note of transparency; Klara has interviewed me several times for Perspective).

Klara’s current Perspective column is absolutely fascinating, and traces the ad industry’s decision to use red as the preferred color for dresses in print and TV advertisements.

I learned for example that, “…through time, there’s been a common meaning for the red dress: it’s love, lust and love.” Oh.

I also discovered that, when celebrity photographer Milton Greene shot Marilyn Monroe in 1957, he made sure she wore a red dress. Of course, Monroe could make a brown potato sack look alluring.

Klara says the red dress effect is so potent that behavioral psychologists have studied it and demonstrated that women who don red are not only regarded by men as more physically and sexually attractive, but also tend to have more money spent on them (Note to self: Avoid dinner with women wearing red dresses).

Brand Consultant Liz Dennery Sanders says red has always signified wealth, power and passion. Right on! Guess who drives a fire engine red BMW M3?

Klara says marketers take to red like bees to honey. Over the years, women in red dresses have popped up in ads for everything from Barbasol to Buick.

But, and here’s what always makes Klara a must read: marketers are never sure how the general public will react to an ad displaying a lady in a red dress.

In one example, a 1962 print ad from Royal Lipstick by DuBarry, Klara says the red dress captures ALL of the excitement of a night out on the town.

But, a current one from Loews Hotels and Resorts evokes the opposite reaction, with experts uncertain if the woman in the red dress is, in fact, a lady of the evening. Good lord. Talk about unintended effects!

Most industry trade rags simply don’t provide this depth of analysis or, dare I repeat the word, perspective.

I, for one, am now locked and loaded for the next time a prospect asks our opinion of her re-branding effort and whether the second color should be blue, green or red. “Well,” I’ll deadpan with an authoritative air, “it all depends on whether you want your new brand to express love, lust and sex or boring, bland sameness.”

I’ll bet few, if any, PR people would come up with that rejoinder. And, I’ll have Robert Klara’s column to thank for making me look good.

Jul 29

A United at the end of the tunnel?

luggagsseRepMan readers know all about my dysfunctional relationship with United Airlines. Some might liken it to the tensions that currently exist between Hamas and the Israeli government. Others see me as Barack Obama to the airline’s Vladimir Putin. Still others have said it reminds them of a latter-day, airline version of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Let’s just say it’s contentious to the max.

So, imagine my surprise and sheer delight when, after they crippled a recent climbing vacation of mine by losing a bag containing ALL of my equipment, United’s customer service team did the following:

- Stayed in constant touch with me on Twitter
- Alerted me as to my missing bag’s whereabouts (it was apparently still touring the various terminals at Newark Airport instead of being at my side in Austin, Texas).
- Suggested I buy replacement gear in Austin, and submit the receipt for reimbursement. Yeah, right.

Still, with the missing bag nowhere in sight and my climbing team heading towards Texas Hill Country, I had no choice but to buy some $562 worth of new equipment.

I did my climbing, forwarded United the receipts and, truth be told, forgot all about it.

So, imagine my surprise when the country’s worst airline sent a deeply apologetic letter (see attached) AND a check for $562.28. Talk about a partial thaw in the Cold War! Holy Checkpoint Charlie!

In her surprisingly well-written missive, Claims Analyst Shannon Walther said, ‘Your unpleasant experience was a disappointment for both you and us, but I can assure you that it was the exception, not the rule (Sure. And the Cubs will win the World Series in my lifetime). I hope you’ll choose to fly with us again to give us a chance to rebuild your trust in United.’

How sweet! My eyes actually welled up with tears.

While one check and a tear-jerker of a letter may not restore my trust in United, it did go a long way towards taking the sting out of my Austin misadventure.

As for flying again with United, I have no choice. They are pretty much the only airline of choice at Newark, the closest airport to my house.

I will say, though, that United has clearly gotten its social media and customer service acts together. Now, if they can only do the same with their pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers, United just might lose it bottom-feeder position in ALL of the meaningful airline customer satisfaction surveys.

Until then, I’m sprinting to the nearest branch of Chase Manhattan to cash my check. Based upon my past decade of interaction with United’s unfriendly skies, I half expect the teller to sigh and say, ‘I’m sorry Mr. Cody, but there are insufficient funds in the United account to cash your check.”

Jul 28

I was wondering if you received my e-mail?

Today’s RepMan is dedicated to our West Coast demi-god Ann Barlow.

(1) (1) playI’d be a very rich man indeed if I had a dollar for every follow-up e-mail to an unsolicited e-mail that’s filled my morning in-box.

Typically, the follow-ups are entitled, “I was wondering…” and usually followed by the words: “if you received my e-mail last Thursday and if you, and your direct marketing team, are ready to schedule a 90-minute exploratory meeting to discuss the technical infrastructure needs in Estonia, and how my company, Estonia Water Works & Fried Chicken, can be of assistance.”

Typically, I ignore these unsolicited follow-ups.

But, I received one this morning from a 16-year-old aspiring actor who has spammed me no fewer than three times to tell me he’s selected Peppercomm to be his publicity agent for the foreseeable future.

This guy, Kaz, has “…some training, appeared in high school and regional plays…” and, like most of us, “is just one break away from hitting the big time.”

Worn down, but also amused, I decided to respond to Kreepy Kaz this time. I told him we’d disbanded our Hollywood publicity division and fired our West Coast President, Ann Barlow, after her bungling of the Charlie Sheen, Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus “incidents.”

I told him Peppercomm was actually the “kiss of death” for would-be superstars like Kaz, and suggested he send his unsolicited requests to some other firm that has better luck with star struck teens.

Besides, I don’t have any more time for Kaz. I need to craft a response to the space representative who’s been sending me unsolicited e-mails urging me to act now and place full-page ads in Bolivia Today, “the number one publication serving South America’s next economic power.”

I’m thinking of telling ‘Enrique’ that we’ve already earmarked our South American marketing dollars for Chilean World News. We’re hedging our bets that Santiago, and not La Paz, will be the next big financial center of the universe.

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.