Sep 30

The Business of a Client’s Business

"The business of a client’s business." That’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? I sure think so. In fact, we use it as firm’s our signature tagline.

We do so for a reason. Because we have so many more offerings than your average, plain vanilla PR firm, we "touch" a client in many different ways.

One day, we’ll work with a business continuity manager on a crisis/security plan for his organization. On another day, we’ll work with a chief marketer to close the communications gaps between her sales and marketing teams. On other occasions, we’ll liaise with a client’s interactive group to create its first intranet.

All of this adds up to a deeper understanding of the client’s business. And, that’s a big deal. Especially nowadays, with the markets tanking. Clients want to know their PR firms understand the role of public relations within the marketing mix. They also expect agencies to understand the implications of a stock’s rise or fall and meeting or missing the Street’s expectations.

GE CEO Jeff Immelt emphasized some of these points at his recent Arthur Page Society keynote address. Keith O’Brien’s PR Week opinion piece speaks to the need for PR people to "get" business. And, Brian McGee, who chairs the College of Charleston’s communications department, sees more and more students declaring business administration as their minor.
If our industry wants to claim (and maintain) a seat at the table during these times of
rollicking economic uncertainty, we need to know more than just the name of a Wall Street Journal editor, we need to understand what happens on Wall Street itself. Until then, we run the risk of being further marginalized on prices and continuing to be perceived as little more than press release writers, special events managers and party planners.

Sep 29

Sometimes, it’s More Like Facelessbook

Do you ever get "friended" on Facebook by someone you’ve never met? By someone you’ve never, ever heard of?

I’ll get an alert from Facebook stating that "Smedly Q. Armbrister would like to friend me." Huh? Who the hell is Smedly Q. Armbrister, and why does he want to be my friend? 

I’ve received quite a few friend requests from perfect strangers like Smedly. These people not only want to connect with me but, in doing so, want to connect me with their friends, who also happen to be perfect strangers. Great. Just what I need, virtual friendships with people I don’t know and don’t want to know. Facebook

These friend requests are always accompanied by photos of the strangers. Some are happily sailing in their boat. Others are completing a 10k race. Then, there’s the woman holding a cat in her arms. That one always freaks me out a bit. Call me anti-social, but I’m just not into sharing Kodak moments with people I don’t know.

Could you imagine this happening in the "real" world? A woman carrying a cat and stroking its fur walks up to you and says, "Hi, I’m Sally G. Renquist and I’d like to be your friend." Oh baby, get out of my way, because I’m going to be setting a new world record for the 100-meter dash.

So, why do we practice behavior in the digital world that we’d never, ever consider doing in the real one? I’m sure it’s all about networking. But, networking first requires an introduction of some sort. One doesn’t network by walking up to a complete stranger and saying, "Hi, let’s be friends. Can you help me get a job?"

Facebook, LinkedIn and their ilk are pretty cool ways to connect, re-connect and network with people you know. But, I’m just not connecting without a prior introduction. It’s kind of like John McCain’s refusal to meet with the leaders of rogue nations without conditions.

So, here’s a quick piece of advice to all the Janes, Sallys, Dicks and Toms that I don’t know. Save us both some time and friend someone you actually know.

Sep 25

What Fresh Hell is This?

Dorothy Parker, bohemian author, raconteur and member of the fabled Algonquin Round Table was renowned for scanning the morning New York Times headline and exclaiming, "What fresh hell is this?"300_74771

I had the exact same reaction to the latest campaign machinations. At first, I thought McCain’s decision to suspend the campaign and return to DC to help fix the financial mess was pure genius. I thought it boxed Obama in the corner and made him look reactive at best. At the same time, it allowed McCain to point to his campaign slogan and say, "See, we really are putting country first."

Then, I listened to Obama’s response, suggesting that a president needed to multitask and that macro campaign issues could be discussed while he and McCain provided whatever assistance they could to the battered bastards of the Beltway.

And, then, there was Sarah’s interview with Katie Couric. Palin literally couldn’t name anything that McCain had done to warn Americans of the impending crisis or prevent Wall Street from subverting the deregulated markets. She’s such an empty suit.

And what are we, the voters, left with? A shattered economy, a divided country and two politicians who seem more intent on one-upping one another than fixing the mess of the last eight years.

As Ms. Parker would say, "What fresh hell is this?"

Sep 24

An Unhealthy Health Club

Guest Blog by Chris "Repman, Jr." Cody, Newly-minted Junior Account Executive in the Peppercom UK Office

Those of you who are familiar with my father’s exploits in the realm of fitness (Mt. Kilimanjaro, marathons, etc.) will be happy to know that Repman Jr. is a chip off the ol’ block.  I’m what some might consider a health freak (though I do enjoy a pint or three).  So, naturally my first move upon setting up shop in London was to join a gym. 
I require a gym that fits my needs.  I need it to be close to the office, relatively large (yet not so large that it alienates the individual), and, of course, it needs to have copious amounts of barbells and dumbbells.  So, you can imagine my happiness when I found Market Sports Club within two minutes walking distance from the Peppercom UK office that seemed to fit the bill.

After work on Monday, I walked over to the gym and, after a lengthy registration process, I was given the tour of the facilities.  This place was too good to be true.  A huge weight room filled with bench presses and pull up bars was followed by a pool, a sauna and then a steam room.  "This place is jolly good eh what?" I thought to myself in a British accent.

And then the tour ended with the final highlight of the gym:  the tanning bed room.  "Why would you have tanning beds at a health club?" I asked.  Marta, the Polish personal trainer, replied in broken English that they were used to "maintain a healthyTanningbed glow throughout the year."  Rather than argue with this absurd logic, I smiled wanly and quickly wrapped up the tour.  But on the walk home, I couldn’t stop thinking about the mixed messages being sent by this purported health club.  "Have a run on the treadmill, blast your pecs, and contract melanoma. Cheers Mate!"

Sep 23

Who Gives a Shit What I Think?

Mike Barnicle, New York Daily News columnist, "Imus in the Morning" contributor and all-around Beltway pundit was the guest speaker at tonight’s Arthur Page Society dinner. And, I absolutely loved what he had to say. 20070523_arthurpage

The Boston-based Barnicle shared some great Tip O’Neill stories, who he called the Yogi Berra of national politics (i.e. Barnicle and the late Speaker of the House were golfing the day before Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank was to hold a press conference to announce his Gay lifestyle. O’Neill pulled Barnicle aside and said, "Barney’s through in politics, Mike. He’s announcing tomorrow that he’s coming out of the room.").

As funny as the Tip tales were, though, O’Neill couldn’t out-Yogi Yogi. Barnicle told a story about the time he interviewed Yogi and Whitey Ford on ESPN. Yogi said Whitey was his favorite roommate. In fact, he said that, in 40-plus years of baseball, no one else came close to Whitey in terms of being the ideal roomie. Barnicle was impressed and asked Whitey if he felt the same way about Yogi. "Hell, no," said Whitey. "My favorite roommate was Angie Dickinson."

Barnicle also waxed poetic about the current political scene. He called John McCain "…..a great guy up until about eight weeks ago." Barnicle says that McCain’s changed dramatically in the last few months and ascribed it to the White House "…..warping people who get close to winning it." He said McCain is clearly willing to say or do anything now to get into the Oval Office.

Obama’s biggest challenge in the race is race, said Barnicle. "People in the three key swing states of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania still have grave doubts about Obama as to whether or not he’s one of us. And, keep in mind that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other and Alabama in the middle."

Bloggers bug Barnicle. He sees them as a nuisance, and says they tend to write almost exclusively about themselves. "And, who gives a shit about me?" Barnicle asked. "Reporting should be about the man in the street and what’s keeping him up at night, not what’s pissing off some blogger who sits in his cellar typing away on a laptop," said Barnicle.  He said most bloggers don’t think before they type. And most don’t go out and gather news. They just write.

Speaking of just right, Barnicle was just right for what has been a great industry conference. I belong to several organizations, but none come close to Page when it comes to putting on first-class events like the one on Cape Cod.

Where else can you listen to Jeff Immelt talk about the market meltdown on a Sunday night, Larry Foster question the moral compass of Millenials on a Monday morning, hear from Elliot Spitzer’s "deer in the headlights" communications chief on a Monday afternoon and cap it all off with one rollicking Beltway insider story after another from Mike Barnicle on Monday night?

As Beavis and Butthead, two other notable pundits, might say: "The Arthur Page Society rules."

Sep 22

Don’t Forget the Importance of F-to-F

The Arthur W. Page Society inducted Ketchum Chairman Emeritus Dave Drobis into its hall of fame today. That’s no mean feat considering the Society invites only the best and brightest of the industry to become members, and inducts only the creme de la creme into its hall.

In his lunchtime remarks, Drobis reflected on his many achievements and the road he’d taken to arrive at the podium today. It was poignant and provocative at the same time.

Drobis kept returning to the importance of relationships in his career and his life.  He made the point that, amidst all the social media hoopla and its importance in B-to-B and B-to-C communications, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fundamental importance of F-to-F communications (that stands for face-to-face, says Drobis).

Drobis’s remarks are especially important considering the rise of Millenials in the workforce. We have a new generation of employees who have grown up communicating digitally and, in some cases, are less comfortable with face-to-face conversations. And, that could have a profound, long-term impact on an industry and a profession that prides itself on face-to-face contact. 

I think management development programs need to factor "face" time into their training content. For PR agencies, that would mean better preparing our people to succeed in in-person meetings with clients and the media, and suggesting less reliance on e-mail or voice mail.

I think Dave was spot on with his remarks today. I, for one, came away thinking that, instead of sending an e-mail or leaving a voice mail, it might make more sense to go the F-to-F route. That’s the way relationships have always been built. Facebook and its ilk notwithstanding, that’s the way I’d like to think business relationships will continue to be built in the future.

Sep 18

I Don’t Like the Energy Level in this Room

Freelance Publicist Extraordinaire Greg Schmalz often forwards blog suggestions to me. And, more often than not, I act on them.

Today, Greg sent me a fascinating survey undertaken by the Society for Human Resource Management. Unbeknownst to Greg, though, his idea prompted a different blog than the one he intended.

That’s because I have a Pavlovian response whenever I see the SHRM acronym. It immediately reminds me of one of my all-time worst new business experiences.

Back in the early years of this century (sounds romantic, doesn’t it?), I’d nurtured a lead within SHRM’s management hierarchy. I knew they were doing a lot of publicity work and was hoping we might snare some of it. And, sure enough, it paid off. We were invited to pitch a significant program with a sizable budget. The goal: to advance the image and reputation of human resource managers and increase their credibility with the C-suite.
Cool. We can do that.

There was one major hitch, though: we needed a strong public affairs/lobbying firm with whom to partner. And, back then, we didn’t have one. So, we needed to scramble. My partner, Ed, had a college buddy who worked with one of DC’s most powerful law firms. He happily agreed to join our team. We also added Dr. Richard Harte, our strategy consultant, to what we thought would be a presentation dream team.

Instead, it became a nightmare.

To begin with, we were scheduled to present at the very end of the day. As we waited outside the conference room for the competing agency to wrap up, we heard lots of hearty laughing. Ugh. Not good.

Finally, we sauntered in. It was already 4pm. We were tired, but the SHRM people were even more fatigued. Some yawned openly. Undeterred, we went ahead. The first part went fairly well. There was some head nodding and a few grunts. But, then, we came to the public affairs/lobbying part. And, that’s when all hell broke loose.

Not only did the SHRM president disagree with our lobbyist guy’s recommendations but, worse, he disagreed with hers. They actually started arguing with each other. One could cut the tension with the proverbial knife.

And, that’s when Dr. Harte stepped in as only Dr. Harte can. He shouted "Stop!" He told us he didn’t like the energy level in the room and asked us all to stand up and stretch our limbs. Talk about bizarre. If looks could kill, we were already dead, if not buried.

We somehow stumbled our way through Harte’s recess, discussed the budget and a few other items, but it was like attending a wake. In this case, our own.

And, sure enough, the call came the next day. "We really liked what you had to say, Steve, and will be back in touch if things don’t work out. But we’re selecting a global agency partner. Thanks again for your time and effort," she sniffed.

I’ll never forget the SHRM battle or Ed’s buddy. Funny how one experience can color one’s feelings about another person, place or thing. That said, I’m not liking the energy level among my readers right now, so I’m going to ask you to stand up, stretch and share your new business war stories with me.

Thanks to Greg Schmalz for the idea.

Sep 17

Lights. Camera. Action!

We just created a way cool, three-minute video all about Peppercom and our culture. We did so for two reasons:

1) We had to. PR News had nominated us as midsized agency of the year and required a video from each finalist firm.

2) We felt our web site desperately needed something visual to spruce it up.

So, a bunch of us sat down to discuss what our video should look and feel like. This may sound trite but, for a strategic communications firm, it’s critical. After all, we routinely counsel clients on the critical importance of communications accurately reflecting an organization’s culture. No one would believe a warm and fuzzy message from a predatory beast of a company (think: Redmond, Washington). In the same vein, an audience would laugh at a cutting-edge, out-of-the-box communique from, say, a Dundler Mifflin type organization (Sorry Rainn, but Dundler Mifflin Infinity hasn’t changed my mind about your organization being totally antiquated and out-of-touch with the realities of the modern business world).

When we discussed the Peppercom video, we wanted it to reflect exactly who we are: a group that takes our clients’ business very seriously and a group that takes our own business very seriously. But, we’re also a group that doesn’t take ourselves seriously at all. Our culture is fast-paced and furious. But, man, do we ever like to have fun. We like to kid around. And, unlike a few PR firms I can think of, we don’t believe we’re making the world a much better place (we do our bit but, solving world hunger is, sadly, beyond our core competencies).

So, we all agreed on a fun, lighthearted video. Some suggested a Saturday Night Live Weekend Update approach. Others recommended a series of David Letterman-like stunts (maybe tossing Ed out of a fifth floor window?). We settled on Clayton Fletcher’s idea. Clayton is a professional comedian who has helped us with client presentations and management development. He’s a very funny guy. And, he came up with a very funny concept that, we think, nails exactly what makes us unique.

See what you think. Click the link, or search "Peppercom" on YouTube, and let me know if you agree.

Sep 16

Closing the Digital Gap

Sam Ford’s most excellent PRWeek webinar last week was intended to share the best practices of three Fortune 500 corporations that are doing digital right. They are: Sun Microsystems, Southwest Airlines and H&R Block.

While each operates in entirely different business universes, each had to find ways to overcome internal obstacles, close the internal "digital gap" and convince senior executives to embrace Web 2.0.

Paula Berg of Southwest Airlines, for example, said the most important first step to entering the digital world is understanding the organization’s "voice." How do you want to contribute to the conversation and what do you want to say? What tone will you employ and how responsive do you intend to be? Paula also advised organizations to identify and test a small, controlled digital initiative before turning on the master switch. That serves the dual purpose of fine tuning one’s voice as well as calming the fears of internal naysayers.

Paula Drum of H&R Block positioned digital as critical to understanding what was being said about her company’s brand and reputation. While management worried about the inherent loss of control, they were more concerned about not engaging in conversations, demonstrating the organization’s ability to provide value-add counseling and re-positioning the firm as more than just a tax adviser.

Russ Castronovo of Sun Microsystems had different advice since his organization lives, eats and breathes all things digital. That said, Russ overcomes naysayers or perceived internal roadblocks (think: legal) by evaluating an initiative’s cost/benefit ratio prior to engaging. So, rather than pulling the trigger on a Twitter program or a podcast series, he’ll first assess the internal investment versus the anticipated outcome. Castronovo agreed with his fellow panelists that "seeing" what’s being said about the company’s brand is usually enough to engage senior management and gain their approval to move forward.

Berg, Drum and Castronovo are fortunate to work within enlightened corporate cultures. Based upon the research we and others have conducted though, they are the exception, not the norm. Far too many corporate communicators have expressed frustration that their managers believe engaging in digital means losing control, angering potential constituent audiences or placing the organization in some sort of legal or financial jeopardy.

I don’t mean to minimize the risks, but organizations need to begin engaging in the digital discourse soon, or risk the competitive consequences later (Btw, several panelists reiterated that,  just because your firm has a Web site, doesn’t mean it’s actively engaging in marketplace dialogue).

Understanding how pioneers at Southwest, Sun and H&R Block closed the digital gap is a great starting point for making the case for digital communications at your organization.

So, good luck and good hunting. Closing the digital gap at your organization isn’t only good for your company, it’s a smart career move for you as a communications executive.

Sep 15

I’m Happy to have Lost My Virginity

I’m a Continental Airlines guy. I live within 40 miles of their Newark hub, rack up lots of miles over the course of a year and enjoy regular first class upgrades as a result.

And, truth be told, Continental’s not half bad. They still serve food, make a half-hearted effort to show they care and every now and then will actually arrive on time.

But, let me tell you, Virgin Airlines is a whole different experience. I took my virgin Virgin flight last night and, truth be told, it shook my world. Virginairlines21

First-class passengers sit in pods, not seats. The flight attendants swarm over you and, if asked, will hit a button that turns the seat upside down and converts it into a flat, comfortable bed. Virgin even provides a chic, black sleep outfit for passengers. It was amazing.

I’ll still fly Continental on domestic flights (because I have few alternatives). But, if Virgin ever starts providing flights to places like, say, Grand Rapids or Charleston, watch out.

Customer loyalty has almost become an oxymoron in this era of social media, multiple options and horrific service. So, when I have a breakthrough experience, I take notice.

I’m glad I lost my "Virginity" and, although some may think ill of me for saying so, I want more, baby! More!