Jun 26

How Are Communicators in Manufacturing Adapting to the New Normal?

While many PR firms have been battening down the hatches during these wild times, we have continued to reach out and conduct primary research that will benefit everyone in the field.

In today’s guest blog, Peppercomm’s Matt Purdue shares the findings of qualitative research we’ve just released that shares the thoughts, feelings and actions of CCO’s in the manufacturing sector. 

There are plenty of great take-aways and best practices to be gleaned. So glean away…


In the John Lennon classic “Nobody Told Me,” the legendary singer/songwriter croons, “Nobody told me there’d be days like these. Strange days indeed.” The great Liverpudlian could have been talking about what’s happening in the U.S. manufacturing sector today, particularly when it comes to communications and employee engagement. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging, many manufacturers have been deemed essential businesses. Even in regions that have gone into lockdown, these companies have continued operating their facilities. Across the U.S., millions of frontline production staff have been and are still working under strict health and safety protocols.

Meanwhile, many office staff, engineers and technicians have been forced to work remotely, trying to figure out new ways to collaborate. This complicated new normal has been particularly challenging for communications leaders – but also very rewarding. To take the pulse of how they’re working and reveal best practices, we at Peppercomm recently conducted in-depth interviews with 10 comms executives across a range of manufacturing companies.

Our findings are detailed in our new report, “Engineered Resilience: COVID Communications in the Manufacturing Sector.” As a whole, we found that these communications professionals and their teams are responding to these strange days with determination and innovation. We also shared some of the top insights in a recent article in IndustyWeek. Some highlights of our research:

Think global, act local: Every company we spoke with has formed a pandemic task force with leadership at corporate headquarters. They develop new policies, and then communicate with regional and local teams to execute them as they see fit. Communications leaders have created toolkits to be used at individual locations to produce everything from manager talking points to posted signs – and even translated into multiple languages as needed to ensure 100-percent awareness.

Driving the dialogue: The leaders we interviewed stressed that they have upped their game in terms of gauging employee sentiment and encouraging more two-way communication. They have increased the number of employee surveys and are performing short pulse checks every few weeks. They are also urging employees to provide feedback directly to managers and/or executives, either directly or anonymously.

Supporting the home front: For those employees stuck at home, comms professionals are leading with empathy and understanding. They are constantly communicating ways staff can remain productive and positive despite the challenge of dealing with childcare, elder care and other issues. They also are being very careful in their communications about what the return to office – or “reboarding” – will look like. No one is rushing their office staff to return, with safety as their top priority.

We at Peppercomm have also developed a new Reboarding Playbook to help guide communicators on the path of bringing employees back to their facilities. It’s available at no charge in an effort to share this critical information as widely as possible as the U.S. economy pushes toward recovery.

Jun 16

Tis always better to give than to receive

I’ve been purposely silent during these difficult times because, frankly, I didn’t feel I had anything constructive to add to what already’s been said. 

However, I’m very proud of our firm’s statement on BLM, the agency’s BLM-specific action steps we’ll be announcing this week as well as our decision yesterday to be one of the first 39 PR firms to pledge a firm commitment to the Diversity Action Alliance.

Peppercomm has really been stepping up big time in terms of sharing communications insights and research throughout the Coronavirus pandemic.

Since March 15th, we’ve co-branded two extensive research reports with The Institute for Public Relations that surveyed some 750 senior communications professionals about their actions and reactions to the pandemic.

The first covered a wide range of subjects including trusted sources of news and information, the change in organizational tone and content as well as where senior communications executives were focusing their time and efforts.

The results of the first report triggered the second, which took a very deep dive into internal communications and employee engagement.

And we’re set to release a third report at the end of the month that asks CCOs and others what lessons they’ve learned to date as well as their thoughts about the second half of 2020.

Yesterday we released yet another brand new research report and bylined article. The subject: employee engagement in the manufacturing sector during the pandemic. Here’s the report and here’s the Industry Week article.

While all of this thought leadership most certainly heightens awareness of my favorite firm, it also shares best practices, hurdles and countless takeaways for the entire PR profession and, in the most recent examples above, the manufacturing sector as a whole.

In times like these, when most firms are battening down the hatches and absolutely surrounding their clients with love and affection (as are we, btw), it’s beyond cool to also look up, look ahead and share what we’ve learned with one and all.

As the late Denny Griswold, the legendary editor of PR News liked to say, I’m “….proud to serve PR.”


May 27

Bang! Zoom! You’re Gone!

It’s been refreshing and, in many ways, enlightening, to see how transparent and empathetic most organizations have been when it comes to imparting bad news during the pandemic. 

That said, there are always exceptions to the rule and here is one of the most egregious of late:

WW (aka the business formerly known as Weight Watchers) chose a regularly scheduled Zoom meeting to downsize scores of employees real-time and right in front of each other. If a shock like that doesn’t cause one to go on a starvation diet, I’m not sure what will.

FYI, the original Weight Watchers was always notorious for being a shark-infested culture that doubled as a churn-and-burn serial client. I distinctly recall reading an Advertising Age article a decade or so back warning agencies to steer clear of all WW RFPs.

The name change to WW and Oprah Winfrey’s involvement clearly haven’t changed the soulless personality of an organization that clearly puts profits ahead of people (and chooses to ignore the profound mental, emotional and psychological trauma the Zoom firings must have caused).

So while many organizations are handling the new normal (and the unfortunate financial fallouts) beautifully, there will always be exceptions to the norm.

All of which beggars the question: How would you feel being terminated on Zoom right in front of your peers? Strikes me as the kind of torture that might have worked quite well back in the good, old waterboarding days of Gitmo.


May 07

Why doesn’t our country have a Minister of Loneliness?

Wikipedia defines the word loneliness as, “..an unpleasant emotional response to perceived isolation. Loneliness is also described as “….social pain — a psychological mechanism which motivates individuals to seek social connections. It is often associated with an unwanted lack of connection and intimacy.” 

As our country continues to suffer through this godawful pandemic, loneliness has become a very real concern for businesses everywhere. It’s threatening productivity and has risen to the very top of the C-Suite’s list in terms of caring for the safety and wellbeing of employees. Back in early March, physical health and wellbeing were paramount. Now as our Groundhog Day-like existence continues with no real end in sight, we’re seeing a rash of suicides being reported every night on the evening news.

Mental and emotional health experts alike have stepped up, penned articles, made themselves available for counseling, pushed updated regulations and reimbursement for online sessions, and done everything in their power to provide assistance.

So, how is the Trump Administration helping?

They need look no further than across the pond to see how the United Kingdom is dealing with loneliness during the pandemic.

The Brits have created an amazing array of public and private sector organizations in tandem with the government to address the issue. The result is the Connected Coalition.

The U.K. even has a Minister of Loneliness (a position that was created a few years ago as it became painfully obvious that our 24X7, always-on, social-media driven world was creating huge and unexpected emotional side effects).

All of which begs the question: Why don’t we have a Minister of Loneliness?

If the Trump Administration is, in fact, concerned about the health and wellbeing of all Americans, one would think that would include the huge and growing problem of loneliness. Alas, it’s unclear whether this Administration is unaware of the profound mental distress permeating the country or simply choosing to ignore it.

It comes as no surprise that, in a just released PRovoke Covid-19 PR Industry Survey, the U.S. government received the LOWEST marks by survey respondents for “handling the COVID-19 crisis.”

These findings dovetail with the recently released IPR/Peppercomm survey of 403 senior communications executives who listed “government leaders” such as presidents and prime ministers as the second least trusted source of information. Only social media was less trusted.

It’s a disgrace that, with all of the money being dispersed and all of the divisive political one upsmanship we’re witnessing, someone at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue hasn’t stepped up and suggested the creation of a cabinet-level position to deal with this rapidly growing problem.

Considering how he succeeded in bringing a lasting peace to the Middle East, Jared Kushner would be my candidate for the position. Once he’s done perfecting all the drive-through testing and PPE sourcing, of course. Plus, the guy always looks lonely.

Instead, this Administration will stand by while this overwhelming miasma drags millions of Americans into an abyss from which some may never escape.

Maybe our Administration should create a Minister of Indifference instead.

# # #

Apr 28

Steve Always Loved Peppercomm

Remembering Steve Goodwin

Steve Goodwin was more than a strategic partner to Peppercomm and me. 

Steve was a sheer delight to work with and possessed a dry-as-dust sense of humor that matched my own (he was funnier). I guess that’s why we clicked from the moment we first met. But who knew then that Peppercomm’s amazing relationship with the branding guru would be cut short this past week.

Steve and JP Laqueur, his long-time business partner at Brand Foundations (www.brandfoundations.us), had worked closely with the Peppercomm team over the years, becoming friends as much as partners.

I must admit that, after JP wrote to me of Steve’s passing, I completely lost it. Steve was beyond cool. We clicked on every wavelength and loved nothing more than to make each other laugh. We shared a French-based multinational client for many years and loved to practice our halting, ALM French Level II on one another. I always referred to him as M. Goodwin and he called me “Le Formidable Steve.” He was also kind, generous of spirit, smart as hell, and humble.

You can read more about Steve and in this wonderful obituary published in the Washington Post this past Sunday.

Steve leaves behind a beautiful wife, two incredible teenage sons, and a veritable army of family, friends and fans (including me). I loved Steve and will miss him dearly. So, too, will many of my Peppercomm colleagues (past and present). Here are some of their recollections:

Ann Barlow: “One of my favorite stories of his was Steve’s epic run to the Alamo. He checked into a San Antonio hotel, got into his running gear, psyched himself up for a good long run, came downstairs and told the front desk clerk he was headed out to run to the Alamo and back. Goodwin noted that the clerk gave him an odd look but just shrugged his shoulders. Two hundred yards later, Steve arrived at his destination. So much for an epic run.”

Jacko Kolek: “We worked on several proposals together that never really materialized, but that didn’t stop Steve from making each opportunity a top priority and providing invaluable strategic thinking. He recently offered his generous support and time pro bono on a new project where we desperately needed his expertise. He was not only incredibly smart, but also really helped to educate us on the process and what we needed to do to best serve the client.”

Deb Brown: “One of my fondest memories of Steve was working with him on writing assignments. Steve was an exceptional writer and editor, and if I sent him a blog or a 1000-word bylined article to review, he would always make the piece more engaging and…simply…better. But he never had an ego and was always genuinely nice and very thoughtful. He would also say that his changes were just suggestions, but, of course, I would end up accepting all of them. How could I not? His suggestions were always on the mark. Steve will be sorely missed.”

Matt Purdue: I know Steve absolutely adored his kids and praised their athletic accomplishments. The very last time we spoke, he told me how proud he was of them for the way they were handling the pandemic disruption.

Also, more than any of the purpose “gurus” out there on TED stages and selling books, Steve truly believed in the power of business to do good. He didn’t see purpose as the flavor of the month that was going to help him sell consulting projects. HIS purpose was to help make the world a better place by guiding companies to truly own a purpose above profit.”

And, finally this from JP Laqueur: “Having been his partner for most of the past decade, I will say that he was the backbone, the rhythm, the power behind our work.  He gave me the confidence to pitch any piece of business, to know our work would be delivered with uncompromising quality, and to walk into any workshop believing we would win over the room.  And he instilled this same confidence in our clients as well – in their belief in us, in their brands, and in themselves. Early in our collaboration, when we were still forming our partnership, I remember him saying to me, “You’ve gotten a taste of the ‘product’ of Steve, but you haven’t yet felt the ‘power’ of Steve.”  And that was so true. His impact went far beyond his beautiful words and the product of his work. He changed lives with his music, his humor, his compassion and his love.  All who knew him felt that “power” and were changed for the better.”

After word: When Ann Barlow reached out to Steve’s wife to express our profound condolences, she responded by saying, “Steve always loved Peppercomm.”

Peppercomm always loved Steve too. And we will never forget him.


Apr 23

Better get onboard about reboarding before it’s too late

Think you’ve thought about just about everything when it comes to employee engagement and internal communications in the midst of the pandemic? Think again.

As Tara Lilien, Peppercomm’s chief talent officer, writes in today’s guest blog nearly everyone is overlooking return/to-work preparedness (a finding substantiated by our just-released co-branded survey with the Institute for Public Relations).  

Tara’s observations are particularly timely in light of the four Southern states planning to re-open on May 1. Would love to hear what you, and your organization, are doing to prepare for a return to the workplace.

As we anticipate the return to offices and the “old way” of working at some point in the coming months, we are considering what that will mean for the reboarding of our employees and teams. 

Reboarding is a process some companies have paid attention to for a while and have used it to help employees successfully return to work after a pivotal time away, such as maternity or disability leave. But how can organizations, both large and small, across the globe truly help employees return to work, in weeks or months from now, in a way that makes them feel safe (both in the physical sense and psychologically) and prepared for the new normal?

Leaping into remote work

Most companies leapt into “remote work” with little to no preparation and at 6 weeks later are slowly settling into the new normal.  Luckily, at Peppercomm, we have a very flexible workplace and many were accustomed to work from home – but certainly not for this extended period of time and with distractions of housework, concerns for health of themselves and family members and in some cases the transformation into teacher to their children.

In many ways, some may wonder if remote work is the future of work? For the most part, it’s been quite effective.  In our PR industry for example, business pitches have moved to video presentations in lieu of plane rides, hotel rooms and the costs associated with them. Meeting formats are more structured and agendas more quickly accomplished.  And our teams are meeting more frequently, daily in fact, which our employees have found an extremely positive experience.

Reboarding after this pandemic: top tips to consider

However there will be a time when our cities reopen and we return to cubes, offices, train rides and more.  With that, here are a few things we are thinking about:

  • Phasing in. Do we phase back the employees as we reboard? And how do we take into account the different nuances and guidance for people in different states and even different countries? Some may be anxious to get back to the office and work along side their peers, while others may be hesitant to board their public transportation and be amongst others if the virus is contained, but not abolished.  Will those who commute in their own cars travel with more ease than those who board a bus or train?  Perhaps there will be an opportunity to reenter as you feel ready.
  • Physical space. When we return, do our office configurations still work in this new normal? The emphasis has quickly moved from maximum density to reducing density. Companies that have moved to an open space concept, packing 5-10 people at a long desk will need to reconsider spacing.   Do we meet in conference rooms again for staff meetings, or do people participate from their desks and conference rooms transform to scrum type spaces for 2-3 people to collaborate in a big space? Will I meet candidates I am interviewing with a handshake or a simple nod?  People may want to keep their 6-feet distance long after the guidelines were issued and companies should plan to accommodate this as best as they can – safety will be our top priority, but comfort for your employees needs to also be top of mind.
  • Body/mind balance. With the emphasis while we are home and during this pandemic on physical well being and more walks taking place, more time for meditation and people taking up new hobbies – does that all go away once we are in the grind of rush hour traffic and away from our homes for most of the daylight hours?  We may see employees who want to figure out a better balance and companies may feel more inclined to offer this type of flexible schedule to allow for health as an even bigger priority.
  • Navigating change. Have our employees changed? It will be a few months away – but these months are significant in how they’ve impacted our teams.  Some got sick, while some got healthier.  Some lost family members.  Some became caregivers.  Some spent more time with their children than they had since they were born.  Some did not get to see their children graduate from college.  Some may have children still at home with school and summer plans suspended.  Some were alone the whole time and some couldn’t find a moment alone.  Think about leaning in to your EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs), meeting one on one with employees to really find out “how are you?”, and be flexible to a changed workforce when you finally all come together.
  • Oftentimes, during times of disruption or change, employees seek upskilling or different ways of learning. Many employees we know, at our agency and other firms, are proactively using this time to ‘up their game’. With many of the online learning platforms offering their services for free and adding learning modules to their libraries, we’ve seen employees very interested in embracing this way of learning.  How do we keep this pace of learning and development up when we open our office doors again? How do we share and apply knowledge? There may be an opportunity for companies to move more of their learning and development online and offer it in an on-demand format as it is happening now.
  • Co-creating reboarding. As an agency, we have spent this entire experience engaging in dialogue with our colleagues and acting on their feedback, informally and in real time. When it comes to re-entry and reboarding, we’ll be considering our employees’ voices and inviting them in to the process of determining what is right for our company. They may have some excellent ideas your CEO and HR team haven’t yet thought about.  If you are building a reboarding task force, consider not only your CEO, HR and operations leads and departments heads but also employees across all levels, locations and life stages.
  • Is fun even an option? We’re still going to need an antidote to the stress and general heaviness we’ve all been experiencing. At Peppercomm, comedy is in our DNA. When we re-open for physical business, we plan continue to incorporate the tenets of comedy into our service offerings and share laughs with one another. In good times and bad, and in virtual and physical life, there’s a space for levity and laughter. It’s good for business – and good for us humans.

Reboarding will take on new meaning for all employees in the next few months. Our CEOs, leadership teams and HR professionals are all building best practices around this together and in real time, since this is something unprecedented for which there is no handbook or case study to learn from.  We should be as transparent and honest with our employees throughout the process so they are an active part of the conversation.  How we act now will directly influence and impact the employee experience.  It’s important we start planning now – and then be prepared to be agile and flexible on our plans as this continues to evolve –  on what we can expect so we are better prepared to return than we were to leave our offices.


Apr 06

Privilege and a Pandemic

Maintaining (and in some cases enhancing) the image and reputation of people, persons and things in the midst of the global pandemic is fundamental to those of us in PR. But the tone deaf continue to pop up as often as new outbreaks of the dreaded virus itself.

Check out Peppercommer Courtney Tolbert’s take on the self-inflicted reputational damage caused by the so-called COVIDiot…

And let us know if you think the tone deaf influencer will ever again regain her followers’ trust.

Many have come to view the current covid-19 virus as a great equalizer. While the virus may not discriminate, the subsequent pandemic has served to expose the vast differences between the haves and have nots.

Instagram: @ariellecharnas

Many of the privileged elite have taken this time to donate to a variety of causes to help in the efforts towards surviving this crisis, yet some in the public eye have chosen this time to lean into their privilege and are met with significant public criticism. Influencer Arielle Charnas (now dubbed the ‘covidiot’) recently became a poster child for exactly what not to do if you are a public figure during this time.

Charnas, a fashion/lifestyle blogger has always lived an opulent lifestyle. Her 1.3M Instagram followers love to see her posts that often include glimpses into her decadent life. However, her actions dealing with the coronavirus were not met with the usual acceptance and have instilled a lot of anger not only in her fanbase, but in the general public.

CliffsNotes version of Charnas’ actions that people take most issue with are first, while exhibiting no symptoms, and using the connection of a personal friend who’s a doctor, Charnas got tested for coronavirus. After testing positive, she proceeded to document her exodus from New York City to the Hamptons (after not waiting the recommended amount of time before traveling again). Additionally, she kept her children’s nannies with the family the entire time. Yikes.

Every rule Charnas skirted was a direct result of her privilege, in a time fueled mostly by fear and confusion people do not want to see this blatant lack of regard for the rules waved in their faces.

The point of this is not to tear Charnas down. I’m sure, like everyone else, she’s incredibly scared during this time. The point is that in times of crisis, the haves need to use their privilege to lift up the have nots. Now is the time we all need to be pooling resources and coming together – while, of course, remaining at least six feet apart.

It’s clear that Charnas has done significant damage to her brand here. In your opinion is she beyond forgiveness? What next steps would you like to see her take to rehab her image?


Mar 30

All for one

I haven’t blogged in recent weeks for three reasons:

  1. I’ve been laser focused on our employees, our clients and our business.
  2. I didn’t feel I had anything to volunteer that hadn’t already been said by countless others.
  3. I’ve been happily immersed in fielding, sharing and interpreting the results of a co-branded survey of 300 senior communications professionals we conducted with The Institute for Public Relations (www.instituteforpr.org). 

Here’s the “Communicating during COVID:19” report if you haven’t already read it.

The co-branded survey is intended to better inform and, hopefully, equip everyone in our field to deal with communications in the midst of chaos.

IPR President Tina McCorkindale and I have already spoken to a webinar audience hosted by COMMbizPro, another one that IPR itself coordinated and a third that will kick/off tomorrow’s (Tuesday’s)  Ragan Communications “COVID-19 Virtual Conference”.

Peppercomm isn’t just sharing feedback for the sake of publicity but, rather, in the hopes the more information PR professionals have at their disposal, the smarter they’ll be in comporting themselves personally, communicating with stakeholder audiences and, critically, identifying TRUSTED sources of factual information and advice they themselves are sharing.

We’re passing along these insights with clients, prospective clients, academics, college & university students and, yes, our direct competitors. We do so because now is NOT the time to hoard either toilet paper or best practices.

Nor is it the time to cede the field to global agencies who possess the breadth and depth to churn out daily COVID-19 updates in their sleep.

This is a time for agencies of all sizes to shine.

We’re very fortunate to be able to partner with IPR but you, too, can find a credible third party with whom to undertake cursory or comprehensive research. Every tidbit of information, no matter how small, will add to our collective knowledge and, frankly, the ONLY thing holding you back from contributing is you.

We are already hard at work in shaping a follow-up survey of CCOs that will be qualitative in nature.  We intend to take a deep dive into lessons learned to date, how the CCO’s role and responsibilities may have changed In the wake of COVID:19 and what senior communications executives see as the implications for the future of the CCO role specifically, and PR in general.

So, a quick note to my fellow midsized and small agency owners: By all means, stay focused on your people, your clients and, of course, business development.

But now IS the time to pitch in and help the entire field by sharing critically important information in the midst of mayhem.

Borrowing a well-known phrase from Aleksandar Duma’s classic novel “The Three Musketeers”, agency leaders should lift their heads out of the sand and embrace an, “All for one and one for all” philosophy.



Feb 28

A rose by any other name

There’s bad luck and then there’s the image and reputational hell that’s facing Corona Beer at the moment. 

While the brand is charging ahead with a $40 million advertising campaign, my gut (and that’s a Corona beer free gut, btw) tells me the iconic brew needs to kick back from the bar for a while, suspend all marketing and ride out the Coronavirus crisis.

Based upon the two surveys cited in the article I embedded, beer drinkers are avoiding Corona like the plague (my apologies for the inappropriate pun).

Depending upon how much global carnage the Coronavirus causes, Corona may eventually decide a name change is in order. That may seem extreme but, just like Boeing, the Corona name has become toxic.

That said, undertaking a massive name change and re-branding effort for either Boeing, Corona or both would be like manna from heaven for corporate ID firms such as Landor and SiegelGale (once again proving that one brand’s misery can be another brand’s windfall).

But what say you? Should Corona halt all advertising? Limit worldwide distribution? Or carry on as if the Coronavirus isn’t keeping billions of people awake at night?

And before I conclude, what are your thoughts about Boeing? Should they undergo a name change before re-introducing the forever troubled Super Max 8? Will all of those leaked employee e-mails calling out senior management for putting profits before safety force make the name change a fait accompli?

A rose by any other name may still be a rose but, for Corona and Boeing, the appropriate Shakespearean wording might be a thorn by any other name is still a thorn.


Feb 18

There’s nothing smart about this campaign

We live in a world of personalized, micro-target marketing that, thanks to artificial intelligence, has become equal parts amazing and appalling:

  • Amazing: Brand X knowing exactly what I buy and suddenly popping up on my IG feed with a way cool product I MUST purchase.
  • Appalling: God knows who else, besides Brand X, has my personal information and what they plan to do with it? 

I mention hyper targeting because I must admit to being left completely dumbfounded (a state of mind with which I’m very familiar, btw) by a new campaign from the fine folks at TD Ameritrade (TDA).

First, click on this link to see their TV spot.

Now riddle me this: To whom is TDA aiming its commercial?

It has to be Baby Boomers since, aside from Steve Carell’s horribly bad 2008 remake of “Get Smart”, absolutely no one under the age of 60 will possibly understand TDA’s lame attempt to leverage a TV show that ran from 1967-1970.

From Gen Z types to Younger Millennials and from older Millennials to Gen X’ers, no one will “get” the subtle comedy thread embedded in the pitch (especially TDA’s use of “Would you believe?” in the middle of the 30-second commercial). For the uniformed, Would you believe…. was Special Agent 86, Maxwell Smart’s, signature line.

Getting back to the introductory paragraph, how could marketers who are armed with mountains of data explaining exactly how to reach younger and middle-aged audiences choose, instead, to play a nostalgia card that no one in their target universe will get (as in Get Smart)?

In closing:

  • Would you believe smart investors will be befuddled by TDA’s tagline, “Where smart investors get smarter?
  • Would you believe egregious target marketing mistakes such as this happen all the time?
  • Channeling Maxwell Smart one last time, would you believe the TDA marketing types are anything BUT smart?