Aug 03

An Uncorporate Image

Guest post by Kendyl Wright – Fellow Peppercommer and "Uncorporate" Senior Account Executive

Kickball

When I moved to NYC in 2006, I had big dreams and expectations of PR greatness. I took a job immediately with one of the world’s biggest PR firm and set out to succeed in the corporate world. Since this blog is about reputations, I will say that this firm had one of the best “corporate” reputations in the public relations industry.

The CEO was responsible for giving Coca-Cola the infamous classic tagline. I should have been in PR heaven. But as my resume will quickly tell you, I was not. I left after six months and moved to a midsize, privately owned firm. I was much happier and felt that this firm fit my work style so much better. But as young New Yorkers often do, I was lured back to a big firm almost 3 years later by the client list, the promise of more money and the appeal of running some of PR’s biggest launch events. About 2 weeks in, it clicked. I am UNCORPORATE. 

It would take me 2 more years, another job and a 5 month sabbatical to land at Peppercom. When my friend Rebecca asked to submit my resume, I hesitated. “I don’t want to work at a PR firm. I hate everything about them,” I told her time and time again. After a little convincing on her part, (and a lot on my parents’ part…where I had been “temporarily” crashing during my time off) I decided to take a job at Peppercom. 

We talk about image crises a lot in the PR world, but we rarely talk about the culture image of our own firms. Based on my experiences, and those of various friends and colleagues within the industry, corporate life inside the walls of most PR firms is less than encouraging.

In an industry centered around communication and creativity, there’s little brainstorming, less collaboration and not a whole lot of fun. I have friends that work at agencies big & small all over the country and they have countless horror stories of account management, career support and day-to-day lifestyle. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “I’m just over PR. There’s nothing I like about going to work.” It makes me sad that our industry is so corporate and cold. Why is it that we consistently hear about the creative and inspiring cultures at ad agencies, but PR environments are structured more like banks and law firms?  

Two days after I started at Peppercom, the agency hosted our annual “Uncorporate Challenge,” a fun run followed by a happy hour. The slogan of this challenge is “Peppercom – Keeping it Uncorporate since 1995.” Over the next few weeks, those knots in my stomach about working for another PR firm started to subside – I knew I had found a home. And while the out of work activities we have here are definitely fun, it’s my day to day uncorporate experience that has helped me embrace PR again.

Over the past year, I have learned that just because you have the big client names doesn’t mean you have the best job. I’ve learned that working at a place that values the individual and encourages them to flourish as they are is a wonderful and amazing thing. I’ve learned what it means to have a team, in every sense of the word. What it’s like to collaborate and trust those team members and be proud of the work you accomplished together. There’s very little individual blame at Peppercom, and for an industry that seems to always pass the buck, that’s pretty incredible.

I’ve learned that there are managers who listen to you and encourage growth in the areas you are passionate about. I’ve learned that it is possible for the most senior people at a company to know your name and actually care about what happens to you as an individual. But most of all, I’ve learned what it’s like to love coming to work each day. I do better work, I’m a better person and most of all, I don’t miss “corporate” life at all. 

Feb 14

Commoditizing a commodity with comedy

Sheep_herd

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's a poor substitute for strategy. Take the insurance industry, please!

Geico broke out from the pack long ago with a hip and irreverent campaign that alternated between the gecko and the sad sack caveman. Aflac followed suit with its duck and Progressive wasn't far behind with Flo. Next came State Farm and Allstate.

All of a sudden, a commoditized industry was commoditizing itself again with lookalike, soundalike commercials.

To test my theory that, when everyone says the same thing no one says anything, I asked 10 friends to name their favorite insurance commercial. Nine selected 'mayhem', but only four could correctly identify the advertiser: Allstate.

The pack mentality works well in the wild, when strength in numbers is needed for defense. But, it fails miserably in marketing where a distinct positioning and point of view is critical.

I experienced the pack mentality first-hand, back in the dotcom days. We were being paid $35,000 per month to launch an interactive web designer. When we presented a suggested positioning, the CEO hit the roof. "I don't want to be different. I want the market to see us, and price us, just like Sapient and Scient (two white hot IPOs of the day)." We disagreed, and we're soon shown the door.

Needless to say, the 'me too' dotcom failed. And, while these major insurance companies won't fail, their campaigns will. And the CMOs will soon be looking for new jobs.

Talk about mayhem!

Feb 13

Novartis needs to listen harder

Groupthink

Hats off to Sheldon Jones, head of corporate communications at Novartis, and his boss, CEO Joe Jimenez.

As Jones writes in an informative PR Week Op-Ed, Jimenez recently challenged him to 'enhance the corporation's reputation in its significant markets.'

Jones responded by creating '…the Novartis Reputation Advisory Council, a board of outside members, experts in corporate reputation, healthcare policy, public affairs and CSR from Europe, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.'

NRAC provides guidance on everything from social media engagement and global perspective to telling the organization's story in emerging countries and delivering on their core values.

The advisory board is a great idea, but it suffers from two fundamental flaws:

– The group think that permeates any and all focus groups. Having created and helped managed other advisory councils, I can tell you the meetings are almost always dominated by the most outgoing personalities. As a result, some very real and critical POV's may never surface.

– While they provide a critical external perspective as Mr. Jones points out, advisory councils are populated by incredibly, talented and successful executives. They do NOT reflect the multiple constituent audiences with whom Novartis MUST engage in the most authentic and transparent ways possible.

For these reasons and others, we've created an offering called Audience Experience. We've partnered with an audience advocate, journalist and customer service consultant named Emily Yellin. Under Emily's aegis, we essentially put ourselves in our client's audiences' shoes and experience the product, service or organization in real time, the way an employee, customer, regulator or any other constituent might.

And, we do so online, offline and every other way in which an audience may interact with an organization.

We then compare and contrast those real-world experiences with the brand promises being communicated by the organization's marketing, advertising and PR programs. Sometimes, the gaps are subtle, but have profound effects; others are wide enough for a Mack truck to plow through. The end result, though, is a better alignment of what's being communicated vs. what an audience or multiple audiences actually experience. And, that in turn, enhances trust and reputation.

Jones and Novartis are to be congratulated for taking an outside-in approach to reputation management. But, they can elevate their efforts and fine-tune their results even more by taking the time to walk in their multiple constituents' shoes. As the Chinese proverb advises us: the longest journey begins with a single step."

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Dec 02

When publicists need a publicist

Guest Post by Lauren Begley, Peppercom

Aliwise This past July, publicist Ali Wise was accused of hacking into the voicemail system of her ex’s new girlfriend. Despite these charges and the unflattering light that is now cast on her personal and professional life (her employer Dolce & Gabbana gave her the boot), Wise has refused to step out of the spotlight.

Just last week, she was spotted at multiple fashion events in Manhattan and while she’s keeping mum about the legalities of the situation, it hasn’t stopped her from commenting on her possible jump into reality TV. More recently, this trained public relations professional hired her own publicist—none other than Matthew Hiltzik, who has previously done damage control for Jane Friedman, Don Imus and Annie Leibovitz.

And so we have another front page (or maybe Page 6) story about a publicist gone bad, adding fuel to the fire created by shows like MTV’s PoweR Girls, which depicts young, beautiful women in big cities planning parties, hanging out with celebrities and creating a ‘buzz’ by any means possible.

Even more absurd, a recent story line on Gossip Girl depicted Manhattanite Serena Van Der Woodsen receiving a job offer to work for a publicist based solely on her ability to attract paparazzi—with complete disregard for the fact that her character has no college education and zip work experience.

Could this be why PR is still considered a “dirty word” in some circles, or why the general consensus is that “publicity” is managed by the cliché “PR girls” featured on these programs? I’ve experienced it personally, even in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances. Based on the questions I’ve been asked about my job (“Which celebrities do you represent?” “Don’t you just spin the truth?” “Do you get free stuff from companies like [enter luxury brand]?”). I’m certain that many people outside of the field think of PR as party planning and creating buzz at any cost—a no-brain job for cute girls who photograph well.

I got into the field of public relations for many reasons. I love writing and thinking creatively. I enjoy problem solving and working with teams. I have a vested interest in connecting relevant groups of people, particularly through social media. But these elements of the job are often lost amidst the image and reputation exuded by episodes of PoweR Girls and headlines featuring the likes of Ms. Wise.

So what can we do? We need to be proactive advocates for our profession. We need to value and recognize those female innovators in our field who embody out-of-the-box thinking, sound business ethics and determination to move the profession forward. Only then can we shake the “PR girls” image.

Nov 23

To dream the impossible dream

November 23 - wallpaper_football10 I applaud my alma mater’s decision to end its college football program. Northeastern University’s decision was reached after an exhaustive, two-year study and follows on the heels of cross-town rival, Boston University’s, decision to follow a similar course.

Northeastern is a serious contender in sports such as ice hockey, crew and, every now and then, basketball. But, the football program has always been an also ran. Like many other wannabe’s, N.U. aspired to greater things and actually scheduled an opening match against perennial football powerhouse Boston College. The result was both laughable and predictable.

Now freed from the shackles of climbing a mountain too high (or a bridge too far, if you prefer WWII analogy), Northeastern is free to concentrate on its core athletic competencies while also diverting funding to academic pursuits (an area in which the school is rapidly rising through the ranks).

Northeastern’s David v. Goliath run against BC is akin to a two-person PR start-up competing against Weber-Shandwick in the public relations industry annual awards’ programs. While N.U. may boast the single, most creative tailback or safety on the gridiron, BC’s sheer size and numbers guarantee a lopsided result. Ditto with the industry awards’ programs. Like the NCAA, our industry should create three distinct categories based on size and allow the big guys to compete against one another, midsized firms to engage with their peers and the boutiques to do the same.

What chance did Northeastern ever really have against a major football powerhouse like BC? None. And, what real chance does an unknown start-up have when competing against 11, count ‘em 11, separate submissions from one Top 10 agency in a single category? The fledgling boutique can only afford one submission while the behemoth can lob in one after another.

The awards’ system is broke. And, the PR powers that be see it as nothing more than ‘an old argument,’ that merits no discussion. That leaves little guys with one of two choices: follow Northeastern’s lead and divert whatever disposable marketing dollars you have on something with a higher return on investment or, like the Man of La Mancha, continue to dream the impossible dream.

Nov 16

Dirty Pool

November 16 - awards I've had the opportunity to judge everything from the Silver Anvils and CIPRAs to the PR Week and Big Apple industry awards. And, while I'm honored to be asked, I have to tell you something: the industry awards programs are badly broken.

They're broken in one, fundamental way: big agencies are allowed to submit as many entries per category as they choose. They pay the same amount per entry as does a small, two-person start-up. And, that's unfair.

Let me cite specifics. I'm currently judging the 'digital/social media' category for one of these awards' programs. If you can believe it, there are no fewer than 75 separate entries for one award! To begin with, that's absurd. Who wants to pay serious money for a one-in-75 chance?

But, here's the real issue. Right alongside 11 (yes, 11!) entries from the world's largest public relations firm is one from a start-up I've never heard of. And, a panel that includes me, and probably four or five other time-pressured judges, has to choose the best. What are the odds the start-up will win?

I've actually tallied up the entries. Of the 75 in total, no fewer than 37 come from the top 10 agencies. Talk about unfair competition! Nearly 50 percent of the digital/social media category entries come from four or five PR firms.

So, here's a question to the powers that be at these awards' shows: why don't you price the entry fees by the size of the agency? Instead of charging every agency $375 per submission, why not charge the Webers, Fleishmans and Ketchums double or triple the fee? They're probably a hundred times larger than some of the other competitors.

If the media properties did so, it would lessen the deluge from the largest firms, level the playing field and, probably, raise even more money for their cash-starved coffers.

I'm amazed more small and midsized agencies don't complain about this obvious inequity. It's dirty pool.

Nov 03

Let’s give it six months

November 3 - image_s4 We just marked Peppercom's 14th anniversary. We didn't do anything special to mark the occasion. In fact, we didn't even mention it on the firm's intranet or bring it up at our regular staff meeting. Fourteen is one of those in-between years.

I hadn't given the 14th anniversary much thought until I read Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, 'What the dog saw.' Truth be told, it isn't a book but, rather, a compilation of Gladwell's short stories and essays. Some are quite good. Some aren't. It's illuminating, but it's certainly no 'Outliers.'

One chapter, entitled 'Late bloomers,' got my attention. In it, Gladwell attempts to explain why Picasso was successful at an early age while Cezanne didn't break through until he was well into his 50s. The author cites numerous other dichotomies as well: Keats and Byron vs. Twain and Frost, for example.

Gladwell got me thinking. Why did Ed and I become successful? After all, when we started the firm, we didn't think Peppercom would last more than six months. So, I took a quick dive into my favorite subject: me.

I jumped off to early successes at St. Francis Grammar School, but hit a serious trough in high school. Northeastern set me straight and headed me in the right direction. But, I experienced a series of career ups and downs before running into Edward Aloysius Moed and launching Peppercom at the age of 41.

Did I finally succeed because I needed to experience failure first? Did Ed succeed earlier in life because he was Picasso to my Cezanne? It's scary to think of Ed as the Picasso of PR. Does that make Jerry Schwartz the van Gogh of our field? Is Richard Edelman the Brahms of public relations?

Defining how, why and when someone succeeds fascinates me. In 'Outliers,' Gladwell addresses what he calls the '10,000 hour rule' to explain how such disparate people and groups as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the Beatles succeeded so early in life.

Success means different things to different people. I'd be hard pressed to describe it myself. But, I'm flattered to think others believe I'm successful. More importantly, though, I'm grateful that writers like Gladwell can shed light on the subject.

You see, too many young people are too caught up with becoming a success by a certain age. The beauty of Gladwell's late bloomers chapter is its truth: lots of people find success late in life.

So, here's a note to students, interns, junior account executives and a certain master's student in history: be patient. If you're good and you're persistent and, like me, you're a little bit lucky, you WILL find success. Worst case scenario: you'll find your own version of Ed Moed. And, trust me, that's not all bad.

Oct 26

Look both ways before crossing an intersection and listen to all stakeholders before engaging in social media

October 26 I recently shared a Bulldog Reporter audio conference panel with two corporate communicators and another representative from the dark side (read: PR firms). The topic was social media and, thanks to some excellent moderating by the lovely and talented Brian Pittman, the discussion was rather lively.

I found myself disagreeing with one of the corporate panelists who advised the 150-plus listening audience to engage in social media at all costs, 'Look,' he advised, 'Social media is the future and you might as well engage sooner rather than later.'

I agreed, sort of. I think personal engagement in social media is, indeed, a no-brainer. But, an organization should think long and hard before taking the plunge. The corporate panelist said organizations can learn as they go. Well, yes, but some serious, and potentially devastating missteps can occur during that learning phase.

I likened social media to a busy intersection in a large city. Conventional wisdom holds that one should look both ways before crossing. Social media is the same: organizations should listen to all stakeholders before proceeding. Does each and every audience need/want your organization to engage with them in a social media dialogue? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe information overloaded employees don't want or need a company Facebook page. Maybe long-standing customers prefer the pleasures of a face-to-face meeting over a Don Draper-like scotch and soda. And maybe local community leaders expect a town hall type back-and-forth on issues of the day.

The social media land rush mentality can undermine your organization's image, reputation and credibility if you dive in without listening first.

Brian Pittman asked what sort of questions an organization should ask of its stakeholders during a listening phase. That's easy: the exact same questions neophyte journalists are trained to ask before crafting a news article: who, what, when, where, why and how.

Make sure your audiences want to engage in social media before you decide to flip on the switch. Just because your management wants to, or your competitors are doing it or, even worse, some expert says it's here to stay and you better engage are the wrong reasons.

In the same way rushing across an intersection can be detrimental to one's health, diving pell-mell into social media can be dangerous to one's brand.

Oct 14

So much for the separation of church and state

October 14 Journalists love to rake publicists over the coals when given the opportunity, so it’s nice to be able to return the favor every now and then. Phillip Reed, publisher of the Weatherford, Ok., Daily News deserves a special dressing down for his intentional blurring of the lines between the advertising and editorial in his paper.

Reed is insisting that public relations firms include a product along with any press release they forward to him or his news staff. No product, no coverage. Period.

So, he’s been receiving all sorts of alcohol, coffeemakers, cell phones, etc. And, Reed justifies this ‘pay-for-play’ scam because of the recession. How totally sleazy. Oh, and by the way, he keeps all the free alcohol for himself. It’s good to be the king.

I grew up believing journalism’s role in society was to provide objective news and analysis of people, places and things. How objective can a newspaper be about, say, T-Mobile, when the entire editorial staff has just received new blackberries courtesy of the corporation’s PR firm?

Even worse than the paper’s decision is the comment by Mark Thomas, director of the Oklahoma Press Association, who sees nothing wrong with the publication’s ‘grease my palm’ scheme. It’s nice to see a governing body performing its watchdog role so well.

Demanding that PR firms provide product samples is ethically and morally wrong. And, it extends to newspapers’ image and reputation everywhere. How long before other desperate publishers decide to follow suit and open their greedy hands to such largesse?

I’m sorry, Mr. Reed, but this particular PR guy isn’t going to play by your warped rules. No long-sleeve RepMan-branded t-shirts for you.

Oct 05

Top 10 reasons why David Letterman did a great job of managing his crisis

10.) He was prompt
9.) He admitted fault
8.) He called his actions 'creepy'
7.) He made the announcement on national TV
6.) He apologized
5.) He used comedy, a powerful weapon, in an appropriate way
4.) He made clear he hadn't violated the workplace policies of either CBS or his own company
3.) He made clear that the timing of the workplace liaison predated his becoming married
2.) He was genuine in his remarks, and, drum roll please…………….

1.) He used the right platform at the right time and in the right way to convey the message

October 5 - david-letterman-heart-surgeryToo many CEOs balk at disclosing negative information. Or, they bumble their way through stiff, obviously rehearsed remarks. Or, they stop short of admitting fault and assuming responsibility. Or, they'll have a PR spokesperson handle the media on their behalf. Or, they'll let the lawyers control the message which ends up sounding like pure gibberish. Or, they'll bury their heads in the sand and hope to ride out the storm.

The Letterman story may have additional chapters before it ends. But, in my book, the man handled the image and reputation elements of the communications as well as I've ever seen.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, here's Paul Schaefer and the 'Late Night' Band playing, 'I'm a Man,' by Chicago.