Dec 22

Typhoid Mary-types need not apply

I enjoy reading employee e-mails saying they're 'sick as dogs' and will be working from home. Mind Typhoid-mary you, I'm not a sadist. Instead, I'm proud of the fact our employees know enough to stay home, take care of themselves and, critically, not spread their germs like some latter-day Typhoid Mary.

According to the fine folks from HALLS cough drops, though, my POV is unique. A survey they've just released says most Americans will still consider showing up to work when sick. A staggering 44 percent will go to work with a fever while almost a third will show up no matter HOW sick they get. (Ugh. Stay away from this blogger.)

Fear is driving this maniacal work-at-all- costs mentality. One in five HALLS survey respondents feel pressure by their boss or supervisor to head into work when they're ill. One in three say they wouldn't get paid for taking off for a sick day. And, more than 10 percent thought they wouldn't receive their next pay raise, promotion, or worse, if they stayed in bed (how positively Dickensian).

This is insane!

We make a big deal about worker health and productivity, and sometimes have to force people to go home if they're sneezing and hacking. We've actually had to stage interventions with certain maniacal workers who felt it more important to work than rest and recuperate.

I'm not sure if the HALLS results reveal a false perception on the part of employees or a genuine 'work at all costs' mentality on the part of management. If it's the latter, it's shortsighted, destructive and, ultimately, counter-productive. And, it will also adversely impact an organization's image and reputation (“Boy, those people at Moed Pharmacy show up for work even if they've got walking pneumonia. No way I ever work there.”).

So, send your sick employees home ASAP before they can infect the entire workforce. Communicate a stern message that employees who show up sick at work will be summarily turned around and sent home. Or, simply post a sign in the reception area and web site that reads: 'Typhoid Mary-types need not apply."

Dec 21

The Lion in Winter

I've worked for two lions in winter. 334578-bigthumbnail 

Both were aging CEOs in the twilight of their careers. Both were both named Jim. And, both told me I should be ashamed of myself (but, for dramatically different reasons.)

The first Jim was president of a global consulting firm in the mid-1980s. He was terminally ill with severe emphysema, yet continued to manage day-to-day operations with charm, wit and dedication.

As the consulting firm's first director of global communications, I had my hands full to say the least. Maybe that's why Jim went out of his way to schedule weekly meetings with me (talk about having a seat at the table!).

Despite his myriad responsibilities (and intense pain), Jim always found time to discuss strategy, read my copy and suggest edits. After one lengthy session, I thanked him for his generosity. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Someday, you'll be in my position. I want you to be just as patient with your young employees as I am with you.” That made a big impression on me.

On another occasion, though, he sighed after reviewing an article I'd written about our Brazilian operations. He put the copy down and asked me if I spoke a second language. I shook my head no. Jim said he was ashamed of me, and added: “Every one of the foreign employees you write about speaks English as a second or third language. You should be ashamed you don't speak a second language. In fact, none of our American employees do. It doesn't matter to me. And, it probably won't matter to your generation but, trust me, foreign nationals will run rings around your kids' generation.” Talk about prescient.

The other Jim was the polar opposite. He reveled in intrigue, office politics and negativity. And, he was the antithesis of a mentor. Once, when four or five senior executives were sitting around a conference table, Jim folded his arms and sniffed, “You should all be ashamed.” When one of us asked why, he said, “Because none of you attended an Ivy League school. You lack the intellectual rigor that only an Ivy League education can provide.” We collectively shook our heads in amazement and disgust.

I didn't buy into his ersatz logic, then or now. It isn't where someone goes to college that determines success but, rather, how one performs at work. That's why we recruit from schools such as Marist, Northeastern and the College of Charleston. We don't want people who, like the second Jim, are elitists and think they're better than everyone else.  We want can-do, hard-working, team-oriented people.

When autumn turns to winter for this blogger, I intend to be the second coming of the first Jim.

Dec 20

I bet no one’s yodeling at Yahoo these days

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Danielle Rumore.

Sad-yahooWhen I read that Yahoo! had once again done another round of holiday season layoffs, I couldn’t  help but be reminded of Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” You remember the basic messages in that poem – play fair, don't hit people, say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. That type of thing. In today’s fast-paced, competitive world, I think it’s easy to forget or even dismiss the core point of kindness/do-unto-your neighbor in Fulghum’s poem. If you think about it, it really can be a template for how global business leaders should – but too often don’t – do business today.

I don’t pretend to know a single thing about what’s going on inside Yahoo (or at other companies beside my own), but it seems to me that when you lay off 5 or 10% of your staff around the holidays on a somewhat regular basis, something isn’t quite right inside your house. Worse still, companies that are perceived as quick to swing the ax (especially around the holidays) can get a reputation as being heavy-fisted and dismissive of their people without ever really fixing the underlying issues that plague their firms. When my firm represented Yahoo!, we experienced this iron fist mentality first hand. It’s a surefire way to bleed the good talent you do retain (it has happened at Yahoo!), and that leads to worse productivity still, and so on.

Well, maybe that’s just how I see things.

What I do know is that employees don’t respond well to fear or threats. It destroys morale, and scared or unhappy employees translate to poor-performing employees. This post isn’t intended to pick on Yahoo!, but the timeliness of its announcement couldn’t have come at a better (worse?) time.

Now, I’m not naïve nor am I a modern-day Mary Poppins. I’ve worked through two pretty significant recessions – the Dot Com bust and of course our most recent, ugly downturn. I understand (but definitely don’t like) the necessity of needing to cut costs and conduct lay-offs when these dark times come.  But even with these harsh realities and all the attention paid to cost cutting, being “lean” and global competition, I think leaders have lost sight of basic courtesy, kindness and respect for their most important assets – their employees.

My first boss in the PR world, John Bliss, was not only a savvy communications professional and a great teacher, but also a good man. He always said that an agency’s most important asset is its people – which he reiterated to his staff time and time again. He also said goodnight to each and every one of us every day before he left for the night. Every day. It was the little things that made us feel appreciated and also created a loyal and productive staff. That kind of mentality is about as common today as a landline, and it’s kind of sad actually.

To me, there simply is a right way of doing things and a wrong way. Do your lay-offs, streamline your business, reorganize the hell out of the place but then focus on cultivating, breeding and respecting the talent you do have. Treat them nicely, say thank you, recognize and reward good performance, ask them about their families and their interests. Some cookies and milk in the kitchen helps, too.

Most importantly, though, allow everyone to have a voice. Encourage your people to bring some outside thinking to their jobs. You never know where the next great idea will come from – and that great idea may just be the thing that sets your business apart. Then when the tough times come, your employees may just rally around you if they believe you have always had their backs.

Dec 17

Dream a little dream of you

 Peppercom logolarge Dreaming-1721

I'll be dreaming as you read this blog. So will scores of other Peppercom employees. We dream once a year. And, we dream for a full day. But, we're wide awake when we dream. Because, on Dream Day, every one of our employees dream about what Peppercom should do or become or alter in the coming year. We hold Dream Days in London and San Francisco as well.

I ripped off the original Dream Day idea from Google. They give every employee an extra day off each year to dream dreams about Google. I loved the idea, but doubted that any of our employees, including this blogger, would dream about Peppercom on a day off.

So, instead, everyone from receptionist extraordinaire Ray Carroll on up to Sir Edward Aloysius Moed, gathers for a full day of offsite dreaming. We shut down the firm and open our minds. And, in five years' worth of Dream Days, we've come up with great ideas, including:

– Hiring an academic to provide a totally distinct P.O.V. MIT's Sam Ford joined us three years ago, is now our director of digital strategy and has become a social media superstar.
– Our London office re-structured its go-to market strategy and now focuses almost exclusively on mobile. It's even changed its name to PepperMobi.
– Our SF office created, refined and brought to market our firm's first sustainability offering, GreenPepper.
– We've changed antiquated internal reporting and staffing procedures, identified ways in which to work smarter and not harder and taken other strides to improve internal morale.

Dream Day is one of the best things we've ever done. I love it because it enables each and every employee to feel a little more invested in Peppercom's future and to feel as if they're actively involved in shaping it. And, our clients respect us even more for taking a time out to make ourselves a better partner.

Dream Days aren't for every organization (especially those with an autocratic, 'it's our way or the highway' mentality). But, it works for us. So, please excuse me if I don't respond to any comments you may post. I'll be dreaming.

Dec 16

What sets you apart?

85658802 I typically find myself immersed in at least one strategic client positioning each and every month. And, without exception, the CEO or lead executive will say her people are what separates the organization from its competition. They'll say such things as:

– “Our people are totally client focused.”
– “We have deeper sector knowledge than anyone else.”
Or, my personal favorite…
– “Our people are smarter.”

People are an asset but, almost without fail, they are NOT what sets an organization apart from its competition.

6a00d8341c39e853ef0148c67db778970c-800wiIn her most excellent new book, 'The Art of Managing Professional Services,' Maureen Broderick  defines positioning as: “The FOUNDATION of a successful brand. It flows from all other elements of a firm's management: shared vision, values and culture. A focused positioning attracts both top talent and steadily builds a distinct brand.” I'd add two other points: a positioning MUST succinctly describe the unique end user benefit your organization ALONE can provide. And, it MUST ring true.

Here are three examples of what I consider three memorable positionings (all created by a certain strategic communications firm with which you may be familiar):

– “Disrupt your own organization before your competitors do it for you.” (for a strategy firm that helped clients figure out how to re-create their service offerings)

– “At the crossroads of the spiritual and the secular” (for a church that was equally adept at providing spiritual guidance and networking events for Wall Street executives)

– “What sets us apart from our competition is helping set clients apart from theirs.” (for a nascent PR firm run out of a squalid, one-bedroom apartment)

Every now and then, people CAN drive a firm's strategic positioning. Broderick points to law firm Skadden Arps, whose motto is, “Walking through walls for clients.” Skadden, and Skadden alone, commits to a 24-hour call return policy. Employees will not go home until every piece of client business for the day has been completed. The firm insists upon it and clients hire them for that almost maniacal commitment. They do, in fact, walk through walls for clients. That's an end user benefit and it rings true. 

Mostly, though, we run into clients who want their funky work environment to drive their positioning. Others insist upon hyping their past credentials as a differentiator, (i.e. “Our CEO is a builder of businesses.” Gee whiz.).

The single best way to arrive at a strategic positioning is to interview key internal and external constituents and ask them the same question: “What does The Befuddled Group, and the Befuddled Group alone, do best?” Qualify that answer, make sure some competitor, (e.g. Perplexed & Perplexed, Ltd.) hasn't already claimed the strategic positioning and you're off to the races. But, remember, it's a distinct end user benefit, and not the people, that set an organization apart.

Dec 15

The best possible preparation for a career in PR? Being a Mets and Jets fan

A Tip o' RepMan's cap to Sir Edward Moed for this idea.

 Forget about four years of undergraduate study at Syracuse, Northeastern or The College of  Charleston. And, don't stress about landing world-class internships at say, Ketchum, Coyne or Airfoil. If you really want to succeed at public relations, just adopt the New York Mets and Jets as your teams of choice.

2008_12_jetsdolphinsfans 300_thank-god








Here's why: rooting for the Mets and Jets perfectly parallels a career in PR. Both the Mets and Jets were built to disappoint their fans. Cheering for them toughens one up, opens one's mind to the harsh realities of the world in which we live and teaches one to bounce back from the most devastating of failures.

Think about it. PR is rife with ups and downs. And, like the 1969 World Series and Super Bowl victories by the Mets and Jets, respectively, the highs in PR can rival a long hit of crystal meth (that's anecdotal evidence, BTW). But, the unexplained client firings, the unwarranted editorial 'thumbs down' from PR Week's Keith O'Brian in 2006 and the countless serial prospects who pick your mind clean of ideas and then leave you hanging, can transform a Charlie Chuckle to a Debbie Downer in a heartbeat. And, those heartbreaks beautifully mirror the average Mets and Jets' seasons.

Rooting for the Mets and Jets is superb training for PR. I do not exaggerate when I say the resiliency that comes along with being a long-suffering Mets/Jets fan has made me a better public relations executive. I'm able to maintain a steady keel when others tend to panic. I treat small wins for what they are and don't allow myself to hop on the roller coaster ride that is the average day, week, month or year in PR.

I thank the Mets and Jets for toughening me up. That thick skin has served me well for years of 100 percent growth and 20 percent decline. It's also made me increasingly philosophical as I watched an over-achieving 2010 Mets team peak this past June before plummeting in July. And, it's been an invaluable asset as I've winced in pain as the once high-riding, trash-talking 2010 Jets have crash landed in a particularly ugly way.

So, do you want to succeed in PR? Switch your team allegiances now. You'll hate the decades of losing, but you'll thank me one day for the lessons in stoicism you've learned along the way.

Dec 14

The W Deserves an F

Robinsonjack_Tomlin11 Today's guest post is by Ann Barlow, President, Peppercom West.

If you’ve stayed at a W hotel, you know how hard they work to be hip.  I was at one for three  nights this past week, and when I tell you the priority they gave coolness over service wore a little thin by the time we left, I’m being kind. 

was fortunate to go to the first TEDWomen conference in Washington, D.C.  As usual with these things, the conference had ‘deals,’ (there’s no such thing in that neighborhood) in this case at the Marriott, the Willard and the W.  The Marriott was sold out, and the Willard was a little pricier than the W, so I chose the W. 

  When you arrive, the bellmen are all in black shirts and  pants, so initially it’s not easy to spot them.  (I can’t imagine how that could possibly work in NY, where black is the signature color.)  At any rate, we were shown to our room, which looked eerily like the inside of a refrigerator.  White drawers, a bluish brushed glass on shower, white bed. I half-expected the headboard to read ‘crisper.’

The shower is a good example of hip over what’s actually good for the guest.  The bluish, but nonetheless transparent, glass faces the room and entranceway so if you are showering when, say, room service walks in, you’ll be revealing more than your preferences for tea over coffee.  What is the point?

In the bathroom, there are the requisite toiletries, tissues, towels and robe.  There’s a little white bag hanging next to the robe labeled ‘plan B.’ What’s in this mysterious bag?  A roll of toilet paper.  Seriously?  Couldn’t they just put an extra roll under the counter and be done with it?
The worst, though, is when you want to call for anything from a wake-up call to housekeeping to room service.  In what must have seemed like a great idea at the time, some marketing guru decided that the guest should dial ‘1’ no matter what they needed, and they would be served. 

Three problems with that:
1.    They answer with an impossibly cheerful ‘Whatever, whenever! How can I help you?’  Try being greeted that way more than twice and see if your nerves don’t begin to fray.
2.    About half the time, the line is busy, especially since the same people who answer also man the front desks.
3.    Because they wear so many hats, the Whatever Whenever people sometimes forget to do what they said they would for you.  When that happens, the Whatever Whenever greeting makes you want to go through the phone at them.

One of several cases in point:  We asked for a wake-up call at 7 am.  The Whatever lady asked if we would like a 7:15 follow-up call.  I thought that was a great idea, because being on West Coast time (we’d flown in from California), I knew it wouldn’t be easy to wake up.  So I said yes, please.  She asked if we wanted breakfast, and I said no thank you.

Well, they must have taken the Whenever part a bit too seriously, because the wake-up call never came.  We woke up at 9:30.  My husband missed his 10 am meeting in Reston, and I was late to register for the opening day of the conference. If that had happened the second or third morning, the results would have been disastrous. We weren’t pleased. 

I want to point out here that the hotel did its best to make things right, taking $200 off our bill and sending up wine and cheese.  And the next morning when apparently they once again took Whenever a little too much to heart and showed up late with our breakfast, they comped it.

The point is, trying hard to be hip at the expense of service is so 2008.  In this kind of economy – and to my way of thinking, in any economy – why not focus your energies on good customer service instead of being cool?  Turn down the ‘unz unz’ beat in the lobby so that the concierge can hear your question and the bartender hear your drink order.   Let the operator direct my call to housekeeping or room service.  I’ll sacrifice the one-touch saccharine greeting for knowing that my request will be honored.

This is hardly the first time I’ve stayed at a W.  No doubt, the hotel chain will say, ‘whatever,’ but whenever do I intend to stay at a W again?  Never. 

Dec 13

Marching to our own beat

FifteenLove us or hate us, Peppercom has always marched to the beat of a different drum. We've never emulated other midsized PR firms. And, lord knows, we wouldn't want to copy any of the practices of large firms. So, whether it's our service offerings, workplace culture or even holiday cards, we do things very differently.

In the good old days, we'd create radically different holiday mailers that clients, prospects and friends alike told us they kept as mementos. More recently, in this politically correct, ‘everything-must-be-green-or-else’ world in which we live, we've created holiday videos. Some have hit the mark, others not quite so. But, each has attempted to capture our unique, if occasionally warped, sense of humor and P.O.V.

This year's holiday video is no different. A group of us gathered back in October to brainstorm this year’s video. It was a total team effort that encouraged myriad points of view. In the end, we agreed to create a movie trailer for a fictitious flick called 'Fifteen.' We chose the title because, well, we're celebrating our 15th anniversary. And, we partnered with comedian and film director extraordinaire, Clayton Fletcher, to make sure the end product was as good as it could possibly be (considering Peppercommers are communicators, not actors.)

So, if you aren't on our mailing list and have yet to view the end result, click on the video screen below.  And, let me know what you think. While we Hollywood types are notoriously thin-skinned, we do encourage constructive criticism. I’d also be interested in your vote for best actor and actress: so please click on this link, to cast your votes for Best Actor, etc. In the meantime, though, have yourself a happy little holiday.


Dec 10

Names WILL hurt me

Nicknames can be cool. And, deadly accurate.

I'll never forget the nickname my childhood buddy, Dave, pinned on an older bully. He called the goon Red 'You Need Me. I Don't Need You' Adelhoch. It nailed him to a T. Seinfeld-man-hands-heavyweight-cotton-t-shirt_design

I've been known to coin nicknames for friends and family. I've always called my younger brother 'The Youngster' for example. And, I've given friends such sobriquets as 'The Longshoreman' and 'The Audible Breather'. The first swears like a longshoreman. The second's inhaling and exhaling can be heard for miles. And, then there's 'The Mumbler.' He's a low-talking dentist. (Try answering a question you can't understand while being attacked by a high-powered drill. It's no fun.)

Those nicknames are harmless and kind of funny. But, nicknames aren't amusing when they're used in the workplace and bestowed by a person of power. They're especially hurtful when the power broker is a client.

We once reported to a woman who worked in-house at one of the world's largest and most respected corporations. She coined nicknames for each and every member of our account team. And, she would whisper person A's to person B only when the former wasn't present. Nice, no? I'm not sure what her motivation was, but the team made sure not to play along.

She nicknamed one team member 'Hairy Knuckles.' And, she gave an amply-endowed female a suitably graphic moniker. Ed and I knew she'd also coined nicknames for us, but the team mercifully decided not to share them with us.

We were in a bit of a quandary since our nascent firm was still rather fragile at the time, and the client was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars with us.

It was a classic abuse of power and a great example of how an individual's behavior can adversely impact an entire organization's image and reputation. I know it's continued to color how I think and feel about the corporation.

We eventually found a replacement account and the evil client moved on as well. Today, she's a top honcho with a West Coast PR firm. And, she's probably still coining nasty nicknames for subordinates.

I'm tempted to share a nickname that would suit her perfectly but, instead, will sign off with slightly altered wording for an old aphorism: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names WILL hurt me.”

Dec 09

An executive assistant is an underappreciated asset in any organization’s image

I’m not wild about the new monthly edition of PR Week, but I am positively addicted to Don   I_love_my_gate_keeper_mug-p1682737315052565782obaq_152 Spetner’s column. A former agency and corporate guy, Spetner today serves as EVP of corporate affairs at Korn/Ferry, the big international recruiting firm. His columns are always insightful, often funny and, in the most recent instance, a catalyst for today’s blog.

In his December column, Spetner waxes poetic about the important role executive assistants play in the health, well-being and productivity of the corporate chief executive officer. He’s 100 percent right. I’ve had the good fortune to meet and work with quite a few excellent executive assistants over the years and have always been amazed at how effortlessly they handle the most complicated schedules. They’re worth their weight in gold.

Spetner also shares strategies for winning over an executive assistant in order to gain access to the coveted C-suite. Again, his advice is spot on. What he doesn’t touch on, though, are examples of executive assistants from hell, and the impact they can have on an organization’s image and reputation.

For example, I’ve sometimes returned the call of a corporate bigwig only to be given a serious cold shoulder by the palace guard. She’ll (typically, the guard is female) ask what my call is in reference to (they always use that phrase “What is your call in reference to?” Why not a simple: “What up?”). When I say that I’m returning “Don’s’ call,” (I’ll be sure to use the bigwig’s first name to let the assistant know I’m a player), and she’ll ratchet up her attention a tad and ask, “And what organization do you represent?” I typically respond by saying, “Peppercom. But I’m also a friend.” That usually works pretty well. Seconds later, the executive assistant will return and be just as sickly sweet as can be, “Oh Mr. Cody, I am sooooo sorry for making you wait. Don will speak to you right away.”  Not that it matters in this particular instance, but Don doesn’t know his executive assistant has not exactly endeared herself to me. And, in a different set of circumstances (say, an important prospective customer call), her attitude could have been damaging.

Then there’s the power trip move by the CEO and his executive assistant from hell. I remember when one CEO in particular was courting me, he’d always have his secretary call on his behalf. I’d answer the phone by saying, “Steve Cody.” There’d be a pause and then the palace guard would announce in a deep and dramatic voice, “Please hold for Mr. Hugebottom.” Naturally, I’d have to wait a good 20 or 25 seconds before his nibs would deign to join the call. And, naturally, he’d always have me on speaker to further underscore his importance.

I’m blessed to have an executive assistant who does an incredible job of fending off office space brokers (leave me alone, Scott Brown) as well as the boiler room guys with stock tips and the suppliers who just need 30 seconds of my time. Dandy also knows how and when to apply the personal touch with clients and prospective clients. And, when it comes to family and friends, she’ll bend over backwards to make things work. In short, just like Ray Carroll, our superb receptionist, Dandy is a critical component to our overall image.

I’m not sure CEOs think about organizational image and reputation when they hire executive assistants. But, they should. As it turns out, I never succumbed to that CEO’s myriad job offers way back when. Thinking about it now, I believe his executive assistant’s boorish behavior was one of the factors in my turning thumbs down.