Jul 14

Just the facts’ ma’am

I was fortunate enough to catch former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer on MSNBC this morning.

Ballmer was appearing on @POTUS’s least favorite network to plug his new gig, www.usafacts.org and, if you haven’t paid it a visit yet do so ASAP.

USAfacts provides exactly what its name suggests: facts, and nothing but facts. The site is an aggregator of no fewer than 70 different sources of facts from various government departments, bureaus and agencies. There are no opinion pieces. No editorials. No speculations. Just facts and figures.

It’s a safe port in a storm-tossed TrumpWorld of fake news, bogus claims and outrageous lies.

Ballmer says the site was created in response to a recent Harris Poll survey that says 88 percent of Americans crave facts as well as a trusted source of information.

The majority (Democrats and Republicans alike, BTW) cite the national news media as their go-to source for news and information, but a staggering 75 percent of Millennials count, instead, on Facebook (knowing full well that FB is a miasma of lies, half-truths and stories that would make the editors of The National Enquirer blush in embarrassment).

I’ve already bookmarked USAFacts.org and subscribed to their daily report.

As Ballmer said, numbers don’t lie. And the numbers on USAFacts are fully vetted by responsible career professionals who’ve devoted their careers to serving the country. In other words, there’s no Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow filtering and spinning breaking news.

I want facts. I think all Americans want facts. And, right now, all we have is interpretation.

So, three cheers for USAFacts.org. My only hope is more Americans, ranging from “the base” to Bernie backers, include it in their daily news consumption.

I can’t speak for you, but I agree with the 88% of Americans who believe a single source of information is critical to an informed debate. Ballmer’s new baby may be the closest thing available to satisfying that need.

 

 

Jul 10

Gee, I Wonder What the Results Will Be?

Taking a page right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook, five major beverage manufacturers are ponying up $67.7 million to prove that a glass of wine, beer or cocktail every day will increase one’s chances of avoiding a heart attack and live longer.

Yet, other research has begun surfacing to suggest that even modest alcohol consumption can lead to increases in breast cancer and changes in the brain.  Holy conundrum, Batman!

So, the National Institutes of Health is stepping in to determine, once, and for all, if alcohol is good or bad. The total price tag for the multiple clinical trials? $100 million. So, that means Big Alcohol (or Big Al, as I like to call them) is funding two-thirds of the entire effort.

That’s like letting McDonald’s and Burger King pool their monies to prove there’s absolutely no link between their high calorie junk food and virtually every disease known to man.

Big Al’s serious investment is troubling to researchers who track influence-peddling in science (talk about a cool job!).

“Research shows that industry-sponsored research almost invariable favors the interests of the industry sponsor, even when investigators believe they are immune from such influence,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at NYU.

Needless to say Big Al’s lead spokesperson vehemently disagrees. George F. Koob, director of the Alcohol Institute (yet another way cool job) said the trial will be immune from industry influence and will be an unbiased test of whether alcohol “in moderation” protects against heart disease.

In case you’re interested (or, like me, want to volunteer) the study will recruit and follow nearly 8,000 volunteers age 50 or older at 16 sites around the world.

As was the case with Big Tobacco, Big Al may end up not liking the study’s results.

Imagine if every bottle of wine, IPA or Stoli suddenly contained the warning: “Drinking has been proven to cause numerous adverse ailments including shortness of breath, uncontrollable leg twitching, constipation, heart attack, stroke and death.” That might give the average consumer pause to think twice, unbend the elbow and exit the bar stage left.

Not me, though. No one’s keeping me away from my Sancerre at poolside. Uncontrollable leg twitching and research be damned.

When people have problems, they come to Uncle Bo

Image

I never thought I’d see the day when a New York City mayoral election bore a striking resemblance to the nightmare that was the 2016 presidential election. But, I have. And, it’s beyond frightening.

In one corner we have the abysmal, incumbent Mayor, Bill De Blasio who, a la Hill, promises more of the same (which included alienating the entire NYC police department and enabling the city’s homeless problem to rival levels we haven’t seen in 20 years).

In the other corner is a bold, brash, belligerent dude who, rather than promising jobs, guarantees a major crackdown on crime (in spite of NYC’s having recorded its lowest crime rate in years). The Trump clone is named Bo Dietl, and he is a real piece of work.

A retired NYC policeman and private detective, Dietl’s claim to fame is doing whatever it took to defend his highly controversial clients, and bully those who had initiated lawsuits against them. The end result?  The accuser either settled out of court or dropped the lawsuit entirely.

Dietl, who bills himself as “the tough cop”, has hounded people who say they’ve been traumatized and victimized. He’s been accused multiple times of intimidation and harassment. Check out this Times piece for a complete overview of Mr. Dietl’s life and times.

So, for whom has Dietl done dirty deeds for?

  • Sean Bannon (alleged spousal abuse)
  • Bill O’Reilly (workplace harassment)
  • Roger Ailes (see above)
  • Don Imus (see: Rutgers women’s basketball team)
  • The Trump family

But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In his quest for City Hall, Dietl has “made a racially-charged comment involving the mayor’s wife, sent an obscenity-laced text to the chairman of the Reform Party on Staten Island and been criticized for failing to pay $477,000 in state taxes.”  Remind you of anyone?

Dietl even represented the pre-POTUS himself.

It was a case in which Mr, Dietl said someone was causing “trouble” for a Trump Casino in Atlantic City. Dietl’s solution? Simple. He called “the man” and threatened to release compromising information about him if the problem did not go away. The problem went away.

All of this would be mildly amusing if the Times article didn’t suggest that Dietl has a legitimate chance of winning the election.

We already have one leader playing loose and fast with reality. The last thing New York City needs right now is a localized version of the above.

But, hey, since I see this as a problem, maybe I can take it to Uncle Bo?

Jun 26

You’re a C+ Leader – Now What?

The Betsy Plank Center at the University of Alabama has long been seen as one of the true sources of thought leadership in our industry. Their most recent report shows a yawning gap between how industry leaders perceive themselves versus the rank-and-file reporting to them. A special shoutout to Bill Heyman, the Babe Ruth of executive recruiting, who helped spearhead this seminal report.

Peppercomm’s Culture Czar, Sara Whitman’s has written today’s guest post with her take on the findings: 

The grades are in and it looks like we will see each other in summer school.

This year’s Plank Center Report Card on PR Leaders shows slipping grades in key categories like work culture, job engagement and job satisfaction. Overall, our industry leaders fell from a B- in 2015 to C+ in 2017.

Add to this an increasing gender gap between the perceptions of men and women from 2015 to 2017 in every area evaluated. Yes, that’s across the board and in every subject. Among them, engagement levels – while surprisingly high compared to national averages for engagement – took a hit, dropping from 59.7% in 2017 to 57.2% in 2015 – with female employee engagement levels driving that number down.

And then there’s this doozy: industry leaders gave themselves an overall grade of A-, while their employees say their leaders are more like a C+. Even worse, that discrepancy was exactly the same in 2015.

Ouch. Have we learned nothing?

Bill Heyman, CEO and president of Heyman Associates, co-sponsor of the study and long-time Peppercomm friend, said: “Social tensions in our world today have likely exacerbated these issues. We need to be bigger leaders to close these gaps.”

So what do these bigger leaders need to do? Here are three places to start:

1. Face the firing squad. Clearly we’re not listening if we’re consistently viewing ourselves as performing at a higher level than employees think we are. The trouble is we need to be willing to look in the mirror to close this gap. The best ways to do so – and some of what we do at Peppercomm – is to solicit anonymous 360-feedback, ensure you have anonymous suggestion boxes (digital of course!) and occasionally bring in a third-party resource to gather and deliver feedback.

2. Don’t be fooled. PR is an industry with an exceptionally high percentage of female employees. Leaders can’t trick themselves into believing this means equality and declare success in conquering the gender gap. Despite the numbers, gender disparity still exists and has deepened over the years, at least according to this report card. A concentrated effort on helping female employees lift each other up and to have a voice is incredibly important. Organizations need to do a thorough analysis of pay structure and pay gaps, and make a plan to address any issues. Instituting unintentional bias training is another smart investment. It’s 2017 and this issue shouldn’t be on the list anymore. Let’s get on it and move forward.

3. Practice what you preach. The whole shoemaker’s children analogy is getting old. We’re communicators. Let’s communicate. It’s unacceptable that some of the best communicators on the planet are leading organizations where shared decision-making is an exception and not the rule. Or where two-way communications is inconsistent at best. Isn’t that the foundation of the entire industry? I don’t have to give recommendations on how to address this. All PR industry leaders know the best practices. It’s time to practice them.

The good news – if there is any – is that we’re not failing yet. But if we don’t start studying and applying what we learn, that’s exactly where our industry leaders are headed.

Jun 22

Are Silicon Valley VC’s Exhibiting Signs of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s?

I ask the question in response to a headline in today’s New York Times business section, headlined: “Uber’s Lesson: Silicon Valley’s Start-Up Machine Needs Fixing.”The article pertains to wild child par excellence, Travis Kalanick’s ouster as Uber’s CEO this past Tuesday.

Farhad Manjoo’s analysis rightly points out that Uber’s problems were systemic and “a failure of Silicon Valley’s start-up machine.”

While not excusing Kalanick’s behavior, Manjoo places the blame for his frat house, take-no-prisoners culture on “…investors, boards of directors and anyone else who could have altered Uber’s course and clearly failed to do so.”

No argument from me. My question is this: Where were these VC’s, directors and others during the halcyon days of the dotcom era?

I can personally attest to having represented dotcom CEO’s (and their fawning staffs) who made Kalanick’s actions pale in comparison.

The dotcom CEO’s ranted and raved, openly dissed direct reports and agency partners alike and fostered truly toxic environments. And, no one said a word.

I recall an Israeli tech start-up CEO who commandeered our office space until his own was ready. He’d walk up-and-down our hallways screaming at whoever was on the other end of the phone and completely disrupting our productivity.

But, hey, he was paying us $40,000 a month and had given us stock options that would be worth millions once the start-up went public. So, what was a fledgling PR firm to do other than to suck it up and endure the abuse?

Another dotcom client employed a 22-year-old CMO who swore like a longshoreman and routinely screamed and yelled at our team (and her own hapless direct reports) in weekly meetings.

The CEO loved the young woman’s chutzpah and egged her on (and on). But, hey, they were paying us $35,000 per month and had also handed over options worth millions. (Note: PR Week proceeded to name this young hellion one of “PR’s up-and-coming stars”. Talk about not doing one due diligence. Ouch!).

Many of the meetings described above were attended by a lead investor, a partner from the VC that had provided an ungodly amount of seed money for a business model that made no sense whatsoever and would laugh out loud as their prototype Kalanick spat venom and expletive-laced epithets that would embarrass today’s hate mongers.

So, why is Uber a sudden wake-up call to Valley investors? Were they on lengthy sabbaticals during the 1990s? Or, did they conveniently “forget” the horrific behavior of the Travis Kalanick’s of yesteryear in search of the next big kill? It’s truly baffling.

Afterword: It should come as no surprise that the two dotcom CEOs described above went bust, along with their “game-changing”, profitless start-ups when the tech sector tanked.

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that many of those once-upon-a-time masters of the universe cum Neanderthals are now Uber drivers who insult passengers in the exact same way they did employees and agency partners 20 years ago.

 

 

Jun 14

Why am I not surprised?

As loyal Repman readers are well aware, the two bete noirs of my professional life are “traveling” on New Jersey Transit and United Airlines, respectively.

Not too long ago, NJT was named the nation’s worst commuter mass transit system. In my mind, the recognition was well-deserved and long overdue.

Now, Jenna Seter, a content marketing and business analyst with Clutch, has published a survey of 1,000 consumers that showed 53 percent will NOT purchase tickets from United Airlines. Seter linked the airline’s abysmal ratings to the highly publicized “mugging” of a passenger who refused to surrender his seat to a deadheading United pilot.

While I don’t disagree, I think the most recent fiasco is just the latest in a long line of miscues mixed in with system-wide incompetence and the negative attitudes of so many United gate agents and flight attendants with whom I’ve parried about excessive delays and/or a complete lack of communications as to why a flight had been delayed or, worse, canceled.

United’s problems began when they merged with Continental and proudly announced, “It’s not who’s merging that counts. It’s what’s about to emerge.” Had they only added the words “complete chaos”, the airline would at least have been authentic in its brand promise.

And, that’s what leads me to my central point. United may be at the bottom of every list when it comes to service  and quality, but they top my list of disingenuous corporations that guarantee one experience in their marketing (i.e. “Fly the friendly skies”) but provide the polar opposite in the real world.

The first step to overcoming alcoholism is to admit one is an alcoholic. I’d like to suggest United stop it’s “feel good” marketing and admit that theirs is a badly broken system.

Americans are quick to forgive a major transgression if the transgressor admits fault and vows to make things right. Seter’s research is yet another confirmation that America’s not buying what United’s selling. And we won’t until they yank down their phony brand promises, own their dysfunctional ways and promise to make things right.

Jun 08

Stimulus: Response

I used to work for an ad agency who loved to use the expression ‘stimulus: response.’

He especially loved to trot it out in new business meetings. He’d set it up by showing a clip depicting a sweaty, shifty-eyed Richard M. Nixon saying, “I am not a crook.”

The CEO would painstakingly explain that, while Nixon was trying to reassure Americans that he hadn’t laundered $1 million in hush money to keep E. Howard Hunt & Co., quiet about the White House’s direct involvement in the Watergate break-in, the word crook had, instead, elicited the exact opposite response in peoples’ minds.

The CEO would conclude by saying stimulus: response was key to any effective advertising and was carefully considered when we crafted the brilliant creative about to be unveiled.

I raise this rather ancient positioning & branding anecdote because White House Spokesperson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, committed nearly the exact same stimulus: response mistake as Nixon did when, in answering reporters’ questions in today’s post-Comey hearing “gaggle”, she said, “President Trump is not a liar.”

Bad. Sad. Pathetic.

A spokesperson, any spokesperson, is trained to never, ever, repeat a reporter’s negative question. Why? Because it’s almost guaranteed to become a headline or “call out” in any subsequent coverage.

Huckabee Sanders should have been mindful of the time-worn journalistic expression, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

I’m not qualified to rate the performance of the current administration, but I am more than a tad credentialed to critique the verbals and non-verbals of White House Spokespeople such as Huckabee Sanders and Sean “Where is he now?” Spicer. In my opinion each has set new lows in terms of transparency and common decency in their dealings with the Fourth Estate.

And, now, with her regrettable words, Huckabee Sanders has armed my long-retired CEO with an update for his stimulus: response lectures (which I can almost guarantee he is still serving up to some poor, unsuspecting soul in the wilds of Durango, Colorado).

Today, Huckabee Sanders learned what so many seem to forget: Those who ignore the mistakes of the past are bound to repeat them.

 

Jun 06

Number please

As a little boy, I always dreamt of one day becoming a telephone operator. Sure, other kids thought it far cooler to be cops, firemen and underwriters, but I was entranced by the romantic life of a telephone operator.

I’d lie awake nights imagining myself manning a switchboard in some godforsaken backwater, but dressed like James Bond, sipping a vodka martini (shaken, not stirred) and nonchalantly helping a complete stranger track down the phone number of a long lost lover, estranged family member or maybe even Money Penny herself.

Alas, I jest. I actually aspired to play centerfield for the Mets and bat lead-off just like my childhood hero, Tommie Lee Agee. Sadly, I was caught up in an early steroids scandal and my dream quickly turned to ashes (heavily-muscled ashes, but ashes nonetheless).

I dialed-up the “young Steve Cody as telephone operator wanna-be” tall tale for a short and not so sweet reason: a recent Bureau of Labor Statistics survey says telephone operators rank third on a list of the top 10 occupations most likely to disappear within a decade. The cause isn’t the hoax otherwise known as global climate change but, rather, robotics and artificial intelligence (A.I.).

Getting back to the dead pool and which career is most vulnerable, you’d be correct if you guessed locomotive firers.

In case you didn’t know (and shame on you for not being more aware of the world around you), locomotive firers are responsible for monitoring instruments on trains as well as watching for signals and dragging equipment. Dragging equipment? I can’t speak for you, but dragging locomotives doesn’t strike me as a fun way of spending the next 40 years of one’s life.

The firers edged out your friends and mine, motor vehicle electronic equipment installers and repairers (a career I briefly considered pursuing after graduating from high school).

As you already know, your friendly local telephone operators finished third. They were followed by postal service sorters (a real bummer for Newman fans everywhere) and shoe machine operators and tenders (one wonders if shoe machine tenders are as gentle as their job titles would suggest?).

You can check the article for the five other occupations that will soon join their horse-and-buggy maker colleagues in the special section of Elysian Fields set aside for those who don’t anticipate what’s next.

But, fear not. All is not lost.

In fact, one university in particular, Northeastern, has thought long and hard about the plight of everyone from locomotive fixers and motor vehicle electronic equipment installers to toll booth and telephone operators alike.

My alma mater’s visionary president, Joseph Aoun, began putting in place a revolutionary curriculum years ago that, he says, will graduate “robot-proof students.” This WashPo piece spells it out in far more eloquent prose than I ever could.

NU, which was one of the first universities to offer the cooperative education (AKA Co-Op) model, has extended and expanded the novel program globally while at the same time doubling down in such white hot emerging sectors as nanoscience, marine biology and computer design.

Co-Op is the school’s special sauce. It’s a five-year program that perfectly balances classroom theory with real world business experiences directly related to one’s major. Mix-in decades-long partnerships with mega corporations and more recent hook-ups with tech hub hot shots and you’ve got yourself all the ingredients needed to produce robot-free graduates.

And Northeastern is helping the individual who is already in the workforce stay relevant or change a career. For example, ALIGN allows individuals to combine their current background with new knowledge in tech and computer science and CAMD helps busy executives and current students update skills in the arts, media and design.

Traditional liberal arts schools are desperately trying to play catch-up, but how can students with little more than a sheepskin and a summer internship at TGI Fridays possibly compete with those who boast 24 months of on-the-job experience in robot-proof fields? It’s like asking the lowly New York Jets to blow away the world champion New England Patriots at Foxboro.

I could go on, but I’m handling the midnight shift at the Middletown, NJ, train station and need to call the operator for the number of the nearest locomotive dragging service. Those babies are heavy!

 

May 22

What’s a poor Millennial to do?

Last week I shared some rather alarming intelligence from the advertising agency, Hill Holiday, warning brands of all stripes about the severe implications of being caught creating or sharing fake news.

The HH research said consumers will drop brands that share fake news faster than Trump dumped former FBI Director James Comey a week or so ago.

Troubling new research from Research Now has only fanned the flames. It shows that Millennials, in particular, struggle when it comes to determining what’s real and what isn’t.

Considering so many Millennials are being asked to disseminate news on both the client and agency sides of our august industry, that’s akin to pouring gasoline on fire (i.e. If Millennial communicators can’t tell what’s true and what isn’t, what’s to prevent them from unknowingly sharing fake news on their company’s/client’s social channels and damaging, if not destroying, long-standing relationships between the brand and its constituents?).

It turns out the 1,100 Millennials surveyed struggle to determine what’s real and what isn’t. That’s because they aren’t being taught the critical thinking skills that were part and parcel of every college curriculum prior to their arrival on campuses a decade or so back.

In fact, 44 percent of the Millennials surveyed by Research Now received an “F” when the company evaluated their critical thinking skills and the ability to identify fake news. And, only 36 percent of Millennials surveyed said they were well-trained in critical thinking. Indeed, a shocking 37 percent readily admitted to having already shared fake news on their social channels.

Holy mega disaster in the making, Batman!

Critical thinking, you see, is paramount in determining if what one reads is true or false. And, according to the World Economic Forum, next to complex problem-solving, critical thinking will be the SECOND most important skill a college graduate will need to possess in 2020.

So, what’s a poor Millennial to do?

In my mind, the answer is elementary, my dear Watson. Do what every trained journalist is required to do before filing a story of any type: verify the news from a trusted second source.

So, if like most Millennials, you rely solely on social media news for information and entertainment, admit to routinely sharing that online content (55 percent) or have already accidentally shared fake news (36 percent), just do the right thing. Double check the “news” with articles in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, a trusted industry trade publication or another source whose integrity for accuracy is impeccable. If it doesn’t pass the sniff test, hit delete.

Having said that, ferreting out fake news is a challenge for communicators of all ages. See how well you fare in this test of recent events:

https://www.buzzfeed.com/janelytvynenko/fake-news-quiz-may15?utm_term=.mqLMQ12x0#.tf04J5q0j

I won’t tell you my score. If I did, I’d probably be interviewing for a job at Edelman as we speak.

Sadly, this is no laughing matter. In fact, it’s an issue that should concern our industry’s top trade groups ranging from the Institute for Public Relations (www.IPR.org) and The Arthur W. Page Society (www.awps.org) to the PR Council (www.prcouncil.net) and PRSA’s Counselors Academy (www.caprsa.com.)

PR professionals pride ourselves on being the ethical and moral compass of the organization. How can we continue to say that if young practitioners no longer possess built-in BS detectors?

Last, but not least, this should be a clarion call to the PR, journalism, communications and marketing academics who are (or, as the study suggests, aren’t) teaching students to develop critical thinking abilities. That’s where the crux of the problem begins and that’s where it should be immediately addressed.

By the time we hire Millennials, their sloppy news-checking habits have already been formed. And, unless we insist they check and re-check facts before passing them along, you’ll see more and more organizations take a huge hit for spreading fake news (and firing the agencies who enabled it to happen).

And a tip of Rep’s Critical Thinking Cap to Cat Cody for suggesting this post.

 

 

 

May 16

Not this Boomer. Not no how. Not no way.

Yesterday’s New York Times article, headlined “Eyes drift. Marketers stick to TV” had this Boomer/blogger executing a classic double take.

In sum, the article says that, even though TV ratings are collapsing, media stocks are failing and core cutting is accelerating, major advertisers are CONTINUING to pour billions and billions of dollars into, get this, broadcast television.

In fact, major marketers just plunked down a cool $9 billion dollars to sponsor shows on ABC, CBS, ABC and Fox. This, despite the fact that TV’s number one show, ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ has a median viewing age of 55.

So, why do smart CMO’s, whose average mayfly-like lifespan is shorter than any other member of the C-Suite, continue to dump mega dollars into a medium a Pivotal Research analyst described as “…archaic as water flowing through pipes”?

There are several reasons:

– Network sales directors correctly point out that they, and they alone, provide premium content that is professionally produced, vetted and won’t be an issue for your brand to be associated with (a biggie considering the flak Facebook in particular has received after allowing live videos of murders and suicides to appear right alongside digital ads).

– While digital may be the darling of the day, it still trails traditional advertising spending by a whopping 11 percent. So much for the mindset that ALL THINGS MUST BE DIGITAL RIGHT NOW.

While I can understand why advertisers prefer TV to digital, especially when it comes to reaching Boomers, I must tell you I despise commercials.

I don’t watch a single “live” major network program; I opt opt instead to DVR my favorite cable programs, and view them when I can. And, when I can, I immediately fast forward EVERY, single commercial.

So, for now, there remains a colossal number of Boomers (and their younger brethren, the so often overlooked Gen Xers), who still watch the mediocre mix of recycled:

–  ‘CSI: Benton Harbor’ spin-offs

–  Oh-so-predictable ‘Bull’ courtroom dramas

–  Moronic sitcoms and reality shows.

I can tell these network advertisers one thing for sure: their days are numbered.

While “the base” may still enjoy “Dancing with the Has-beens and Never Were”, their Millennial and Generation Z kids aren’t going anywhere near TV sets.

And, discerning Boomers and Gen Xers will continue to DVR their favorite shows and blow past commercials faster than the White House disavowed Trump’s sharing top State secrets with visiting Russian diplomats.

Network TV is reaping the rewards of the final days of the horse-and-buggy era. While they can still count on money pouring into their coffers in the short term, the handwriting is on the wall (or on the i8. Take your pick).

Digital is coming. And, guys like me are leaving.

The sooner Boomer bloggers like me die off (or descend into senility), the sooner networks will have to face facts: The Big Bang Theory, and the advertisers who support it, will disappear.

It’ll be a Big Bang of advertising. And, it’s coming soon to a theatre near you.

Hello digital. Bye-bye broadcast.