Jan 28

Uh oh, Bill. They brought the Etch A Sketch

January 28 - etch-a-sketch-blank I long ago learned the painful lessons of the bait-and-switch.

It was the earliest days of the original dotcom hysteria (I'm talking 1993, which was way early).

The firm for which I toiled had a solid record in cable and interactive television. Through some high-level contacts, we were introduced to a tiny start-up called c/net (how 'bout that?).

We went into the pitch and dazzled the original founders with our knowledge of TV and this nascent thing called the Internet. Our star was a guy who led the Discovery and Learning Channel accounts and really knew his stuff. As we ended the meeting, we handed them an Etch A Sketch on which we'd written: 'c/net and EPB: partners in a new era of communications.' Or, words to that effect. Since c/net was a pioneer in streaming news on the web, they loved the retro parting gift. We were hired.

Now, fast forward three or four weeks. Our account star, who had been in the midst of moving from New York to Bethesda when we pitched c/net, was gone. Our other team players knew next to nothing about the new medium, the media who were springing up like weeds to cover it or the technology analysts who, we would soon learn, were so critical to the overall communications equation.

Long story short, we were summoned to c/net's tiny offices for a showdown. We were fearing the worst, but hopeful they'd give us a second chance.

That's when the doors swung open and the founders walked in carrying all of our folders. I spied what sat on the top of the folders, leaned over to my boss and whispered, 'Uh oh, Bill. They brought the Etch A Sketch.'

After a mercifully short tongue lashing for misrepresenting our capabilities, we were fired and, as Chris Hansen likes to tell Dateline predators, 'free to go.'

The Etch A Sketch disaster was a great learning lesson for all concerned. Nowadays, we not only make sure we go into a new business meeting with the right team for the prospect's challenge. We also bring the team that will do the actual day-to-day work. We typically end new business presentations by saying, 'What you see is what you get.'

We've lost accounts for other reasons, but no one's ever nailed us for doing a bait-and-switch (or returned an Etch A Sketch either).

Jan 27

Brouillard, Brainerd or just bad manners?

January 27 - stockdown I've received some pretty amazing, unsolicited e-mails over the years. But, two recent ones were exceptional in their sloppiness.

The first came from the editor of a leading industry trade publication, inviting me to submit ideas for a new daily news feed. That was cool, but the editor ended the note by adding, 'And, Steve, please pass along this note to other executives at Brouillard Communications." Ouch. I left Brouillard in August of 1995. Could it be time to update your database, Mr. Editor?

The second came from a job seeker who had seen our recent posting for new hires and exclaimed, 'I cannot tell you how excited I'd be if I got the junior account executive position at Brainerd Communications!' Ouch. Brainerd Communications? Is the job seeker related to the industry trade editor?

Needless to say, neither the Brouillard nor Brainerd notes lived to see another day.

We're all in a rush, but sloppy e-mails are an embarrassment for all concerned. In the case of the trade editor, there's no real damage done since his publication will do just fine without our commentary. But, the job seeker cost herself an interview. And, in this horrific economy, that's inexcusable.

So, the next time you're about to send an e-mail to more than one organization, do everyone a favor: update your database and be sure your note is going to the intended recipient. The job offer you save may be your own.

Jan 26

Old reliable

January 25 The late New York Yankees star Tommy Henrich was known as 'old reliable' for his uncanny ability to deliver clutch hits at critical moments.

In today's scandal-soaked scene few, if any, people, places or things deserve a sobriquet like old reliable. But I've managed to come up with a few that, good or bad, still deliver on reliability:

– Take New Jersey Transit's 7:31am 'express' to the city. Please!

It's never, ever on time. In fact, its consistently bad performance has inspired me to suggest such alternative taglines as: 'Just train bad' and 'Expect less.'

But, I think 'old reliable' is even more evocative since it captures the certainty of massive, ongoing delays.
– The corporate communications executive who insists a $5,000 sales promotion is not only newsworthy, but should be jammed into the lead sentence of a bylined article on thought leadership. 

This member of the old reliable club exists in many PR departments and can be counted on to do what the sales and business leaders tell him rather than what smart, strategic communications would dictate.

– The Mets and Jets. Each teases fans with occasional flashes of brilliance but each always disappoints in the end. Old reliables, both.

– Politicians of all stripes. If there's one thing that's become crystal clear over the past few years, it's this: we can count on the politicians to fiddle while Rome burns. Old reliables, each and every one.

– The technology in ANY new business presentation. Whether it's the laptop, the flash drive, the projector, the video conference or the telephone, something technical will always go wrong in any important new business pitch. Period.

I'm not sure how or why this always happens, but it always does. So, let's add technology snafus to the old reliable list.

These are my old reliables. What are yours?

Jan 25

A marriage made in heaven

Guest Post from Trish Taylor, Peppercom

January 25 - drew peterson In the Chicago area, the name Drew Peterson is nearly as well known as Barack Obama. Drew Peterson gained infamy when his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, went missing in 2007. Because a body was never found and there were no signs of foul play, he was never charged with a crime. But coincidentally his third wife, Kathleen Savio, mysteriously drowned in an empty bathtub in their home in 2004. He is now on trial for the murder of Savio.

It has been a media circus since Stacey went missing in 2007 and every time I see his antics I wonder why the media covers him. He has appeared on Larry King and all the national morning shows. When indicted for Savio’s death he told the media, “I guess I should have returned those library books.”

Well it looks like Peterson was able to finally find a law firm that loves oddball publicity as much as him. This week his legal representation issued a release titled, “Not just another pretty face.”  The defense team now includes a former model turned lawyer who is a single mom of three kids. Why does this matter? I have no idea, either. The release goes on to say that although this lawyer (Reem Odeh) doesn’t normally address the court, they are utilizing her mom skills to interview Peterson’s kids on the stand.

The best part of the release? This line: "Reem wants the public to know that beyond her stunning good looks is a hard-nosed attorney who is detail-oriented and brings keen analytical skills to Team Peterson." 

You can’t make this stuff up. While most law firms want to fly low, avoid the radar and encourage their clients also to keep quiet, this firm wants all the attention it can get. I’m all about transparency, but why add to the PT Barnumness of this trial? Luckily only the Chicago Tribune seems to have picked up the release and I’m pretty sure it was to scoff at the ridiculousness of it all. It seems like Peterson has found a perfect fit for his antics.

If this works out for Peterson, maybe Odeh can be his fifth wife. She fits the bill.

Jan 22

Cease and Desist to Warp Seven!

Guest post by Rob Longert, PepperDigital

“Without freedom of choice there is no creativity. The body dies.” — Captain James T. Kirk in 'The Return Of The Archons' 

For a short while, I had the hope that this year’s “Starship Peppercom” holiday card would be up for an academy award. The acting, stock graphics and stock music was award winning, not to mention the camera work, directing and editing. 

But as you may have heard in yesterday’s post on Ed Moed’s Measuring Up blog, we received a “very polite and tactful” letter from CBS, owners of the Star Trek property, asking us to remove the video from our Web site, and as Ed put it, “CBS has every right to protect its brand rights in Star Trek and clearly its attorney is making sure that this is enforced to the letter of the law.”

But let’s take a step back for a second and examine the situation: 

  • We created a holiday card to show our personality and have some fun… Much like the crew of the Starship enterprise, everyone on our management team has a different personality that meshes together to form a successful group. StarTrek Costume  
  • While we did use the theme of Star Trek and licensed costumes that we purchased online, we didn’t use the original intro music, name of the show, photos of the U.S.S. Starship Enterprise or photos of actors from any of the various Star Trek series’. 
  • The backdrop of the video was Steve’s office and our conference room. Unfortunately, as much as I love our offices, they look nothing like a space ship, and while Park Avenue can seem like a black hole sometimes, it isn’t! 

I am not a lawyer, and I can see where CBS’ “legal eagles” are coming from, but on the other hand, we no longer live in a world where there are strict boundaries in terms of extreme fandom and appreciation and copyright infringement. 

The whole internet thing sort of changed the rules didn't it? Is every Star Trek online forum moderated by CBS? If a fan run forum has online advertising on it, does that fan owe money to CBS? 

Look back to August of 2008, when a number of fans of the hit TV show Mad Men began tweeting on behalf of their favorite characters… AMC’s gut reaction was to file a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) complaint with Twitter, to which Twitter responded by pulling down the Don Draper, Peggy Olson etc… character accounts. This sent fans into an uproar, and eventually AMC came to their senses, and realized that the fan Tweeting was actually just “free advertising” for their show.

As former Gawker blogger Richard Lawson (now with CBS) put it, “I can understand entire episodes being pulled, but little clips here and there seem to increase buzz and to potentially earn the shows some new fans.” 

The new Star Trek movie has over 330,000 fans on Facebook, they have every episode from the original series on YouTube and there are countless Star Trek spoofs out there (including one on the G4 channel called Star Trek 2.0) from TV and the Web, and you can even “Trek Yourself" (see below). But there is one thing missing… engagement from the brand.

Create Your Own

While monitoring so closely for copyright infringement, why not put some resources towards responding in forums, their Facebook page, and on YouTube? Think about the buzz that would be generated if they held a contest for the biggest Star Trek fan, who would represent them in social media circles! The possibilities are endless here…

My question to the Star Trek property is this: Will it hurt the franchise more to curb user generated content or to embrace it and converse with the passionate fans that are potential brand ambassadors?

What would James T. Kirk and Jean Luc Piccard do in this situation?!

Jan 21

Love ’em or hate ’em, procurement types and in-house legal teams are only gaining in power

January 21 I had the distinct pleasure of recently addressing attendees of the Corporate Communications Institute at Baruch College.

Created by Dr. Michael Goodman, the CCI holds executive education conferences twice every year: one in the U.S. and another in the U.K. Attendees represent the who's who of the global 500 and typically carry the title of director of public relations or corporate communications. As might be expected, Dr. Goodman and the 'class' explore everything from shareholder relations to ethics and transparency.

I spoke to them about client-agency relationships and shared some recent findings from the Council of PR Firms. When I reached a Council survey finding concerning the increasing role of in-house procurement in retaining outside firms and legal counsel in message shaping, you'd have thought I'd touched a live wire. Wow. Did this group ever have strong opinions.

With one notable exception, most corporate communicators held procurement officers in disdain ('They slow everything up,' said one. 'Their arcane policies and procedures are scaring away my boutique PR partners,' said another). The sole advocate of procurement actually said she loved the function ('Their background screenings have prevented individuals with past criminal records from visiting our corporate campus,' she said. 'Oh, well, that's nice,' thought I).

The relationship with in-house legal counsel was more complicated. One attendee says she typically wins one-third of her arguments with the corporate legal beagles, loses a third and compromises on the rest.

Everyone agreed that, in these days of full disclosure and massive cost-cutting, lawyers and procurement types are only gaining in importance within the corporate hierarchy.

So, what's a corporate communications executive to do? Best practices seemed to include holding conversations with legal at the very beginning of a campaign so that both parties can raise key messaging goals and potential liabilities.

As for the bean counters, some suggested an attempt to educate the procurement types on the strategic role of communications (i.e. 'Don't treat us or our partners the way you would an office supplies superstore.'). Others merely shrugged their shoulders and said they saw no light at the end of the procurement tunnel (except for the woman who loves it when the CEO of her PR firm pays a visit and has to fill out endless paperwork at the front desk courtesy of new procurement procedures. 'Oh, well, that's nice,' thought I).

What about you? Do you have any best practices for closing the gap between corporate communications and legal? Or, for educating procurement types? I'm all ears. So, too, are the CCI attendees.

Jan 20

My g-g-g-generation

January 20 - tehshow-superbowl Have you noticed how ever since Janet Jackson’s infamous Super Bowl halftime show wardrobe malfunction in 2004, the NFL powers that be have opted for burnt out rockers? Fearful of another prime-time, real-time show-and-tell, the league has brought us Sir Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty, Bruce and, now, the surviving members of The Who.

Don’t get me wrong. I love staying tuned to see what these dinosaurs still have left and, with the exception of Sir Paul’s gig (which I witnessed firsthand in frigid Jacksonville), have really enjoyed the shows.

But, knowing market demographics as well as I do, I wonder what’s going on. Is the average NFL fan an aging Baby Boomer whose idea of cutting-edge music some combination of ‘Live and Let Die,’ ‘Start Me Up,’ ‘1999,’ ‘Born in the U.S.A. or  ‘Magic Bus’? My gut tells me the average fan’s age has to be decidedly younger and, dare I suggest it, skewing towards urban and country tunes. Yet, we continue to see senior citizen rockers playing dramatically shortened, sanitized version of 40-year-old classics.  

And, that’s just fine by me. In fact, borrowing a phrase from The Who’s ‘My Generation’ classic, ‘….I hope I die before I get (real) old…’ and have to suffer through Snoop, Sizzla, Tim McGraw or Faith Hill performing at halftime. I think, instead, I’ll just f-f-f-fade away.

Thanks to Tom Powers for his assistance in researching this topic.

Jan 19

Domino’s gets it right

Guest Post by Ann Barlow, Peppercom

January 19 - dominos-pizza Domino’s has taken some heat (sorry) over the last few days for its new campaign. Were they really the last to know how bad their pizza is? And will new sauce and better cheese solve everything? But Domino’s problems are remarkable only in how widely shared they are. How many auto repair chains have annoyed you? Forget the auto repair shops. How about the manufacturers themselves? Shall we talk about the airlines or consumer electronics?

Truth is, businesses get the fundamentals wrong a lot, and there are plenty of reasons for it: we focus on what’s urgent but not important; we’re more concerned with short-term profit than long-term customer relationships (and so are our shareholders); maybe we’re just bored and lazy. 

But once in awhile, circumstances force us to take a long look in the mirror. (Falling sales when cheap food is popular was Domino’s wake-up call.) When you do, and recognize the truth, you have to be willing to make changes, even if it means completely altering the way you do things.  How many people or companies are really willing to take that step? It takes real moral courage.

When Domino’s looked in the mirror, it wasn’t pretty. That part’s hard enough. But they acknowledged their failings publicly and then – most important – took steps to change. Let’s face it: that’s where most of us fall short. And it’s not any easier to make changes as a company than as an individual. Okay, so was it really that hard to fix the sauce? To use quality cheese?  Domino’s took some snark for what seemed like ‘duh’ moves. But at least they did it.

I applaud Domino’s. This time, they really delivered.

Jan 14

“I will personally dropkick your ass to f***ing Mars!”

A bunch of us piled into front row seats in a large auditorium to witness the first speech of anDragonfire incoming CEO of a major corporation. Needless to say, there was real excitement in the air.

The organization had been struggling, to say the least. It had shuffled CEOs more often than Elizabeth Taylor has husbands. The stock had tanked. Hostile takeover threats were in the wind and morale was lower than that of a NJ Transit passenger facing an indefinite delay.

So, the hundreds in attendance and the thousands connected by video sat on the edge of their collective chairs as the new CEO began. Would we be witnessing a corporate version of FDR's “You Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself” speech? An update of JFK's “Ask not…” clarion comments? We couldn't wait.

And, then the CEO lowered the boom and told the great, unwashed masses that a new, zero tolerance era had been ushered in. The organization would be lean and mean, with an emphasis on the latter. It would no longer be the media's favorite whipping boy. Nor would analysts be questioning each and every move. Most importantly, the CEO would put an end to “leaks” to the press, who had been gleefully reporting the organization's every misstep courtesy of myriad, in-house deep throats. The speech was a no nonsense, take no prisoners riff, more worthy of a Stalin than a Gandhi.

And then came the question-and-answer session. One timid guy in the back of the room tentatively raised his hand and asked: “A few of us engineers have direct relationships with reporters. Is it ok if we still speak with them?”

Oh baby. Duck and cover. First, the CEO screamed, “What a stupid question!” That was quickly followed by a very direct threat: “Speak to the press without permission and I will personally dropkick your ass to f***ing Mars!”

The silence was deafening. (I love that phrase, BTW.)

There were a few, more half-hearted questions and choice responses. But, that was it. The die had been cast. The tone had been set. The new era had been ushered in.

We were dumbfounded to say the least. I honestly hadn't experienced this sort of direct management-by-fear, screaming and cursing session since the mid 1980s when I worked for a CEO who’d once played for the Chicago Bears.

Needless to say, the message had been received. The organization battened down its respective hatches and the purge began. Scores of senior executives vanished overnight. Messaging was tightly controlled and the fear was passed down the organizational food chain until it reached the lowest common denominator: the external agencies.

We walked on eggshells for the 15 months in which we served the company and were routinely beaten up, back stabbed and patronized.

We've moved on and, truth be told, the organization has recovered some of its external mojo. But, at what price? Is living one's life in fear worth a paycheck? Not for me, I'd rather do what's right and work in a culture that allows risk-taking, supports humor, open communication and camaraderie. If that means a one-way ticket to f***ing Mars, then please reserve an aisle seat for me.

Jan 13

Child, please

Controversial Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco (nee Johnson) and his use of the phrase, 'Child, please' has received widespread attention of late. In fact, it's become his brand signature, if you will.

(Note: This video is intended for mature audiences only.)

A cursory glance at urbandictionary.com reveals the X-rated nature of the words but, my sources tell me that ‘Child, please’ can also be used as a substitute for such time worn expressions as:

– 'Gimme a break'
– 'Are you kidding?'
– And 'Yeah, sure.' (Fans of the Jim Bouton book 'Ball Four' may recall the special occasions in which the rejoinder, 'Yeah, sure' was employed. It still brings a smile to my face).

Anyway, it got me thinking. I believe ‘Child, please’ would make an excellent addition to the BusinessSpeak dictionary (right alongside such bon mots as: 'Let's take this conversation off line.' 'I have a hard stop at 2:30,' and 'I'll circle back after I've had a chance to socialize the idea.').

So, in effort to be the professional services equivalent to Ochocinco, I thought I'd serve up various scenarios in which I could see ‘Child, please’ working well in PR, business, and the world in general:

– 'Steve, we loved your team, your ideas and your energy. It was a tough choice, but we're going with another firm. That said, if it doesn't work out, you'll be the first person I call.'. Child, please.
– 'I want to work in public relations because I like people.' Child, please.
– 'We appreciate the hard work (agency name) has given to (client name) over the years, but have decided we need fresh thinking.' Child, please.
– 'Attention passengers on Continental flight 57 to Palookaville. The in-bound flight is running 15 minutes late. That said, we're still projecting an on-time departure.' Child, please.
– 'Recognizing the challenges of the current economy and respecting the long-term nature of our relationship, our law firm has decided not to raise our hourly rates in 2010.' Child, please.
– 'New Jersey Transit trains are running close to, or on, schedule.’ Child, please.
– ‘(Insert name of a recently fired top executive) has decided to pursue other interests.' Child, please.
– 'I did not have sex with that woman.' Child, please.

And, my personal favorite:

'We're only looking at a handful of agencies.' Child, please.

What am I missing? Do you have examples from your world in which ‘Child, please’ would be the ideal response? If we work together as a team and stay focused on the desired end result, we can make this an everyday expression. Child, please!