Aug 17

And smoking cigarettes is good for your health

Ske_couch_potato_lgRonald McDonald must be smiling from ear to maniacal ear after reading a truly bizarre new  report from the York University School of Kinesiology & Health Science.

In the York study, assistant professor Jennifer L. Kuk says obese people who are otherwise healthy live just as long as their slim counterparts. And, get this, Kuk's study showed otherwise healthy obese people are even LESS likely than lean people to die of cardiovascular disease! Who funded this research, White Castle?

Dr. Kuk hypothesized that “…trying and failing to lose weight may be more detrimental than simply staying at an elevated body weight and engaging in a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity and a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.”

Now, hold on there, partner. If an obese person engages in a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity and a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, he'd no longer be an obese person! What am I missing here?

I don't buy Kuk's premise for one minute (or calorie, for that matter). In fact, I'd point her to an equally obtuse, just-released study from a slightly better known institution: Yale University's School of Medicine.

In that study, Yale's Dr. David L. Katz determined that people who watch six hours of television a day lose a full five years off their life. Why? Surprisingly, it's not the horrific programming. Instead, says Katz, a couch potato's lifestyle leads to “…a greater risk for obesity and the chronic diseases it tends to anticipate, notably diabetes, heart disease and cancer.” Put that in your Whopper with extra cheese and smoke it, Dr. Kuk.

Still, if Kuk can find a silver lining in obesity, I have to believe she'll be swamped with corporate funding offers from such merchants of death as R.J. Reynolds. I could see them paying her a cool (Kool?) mil to say smoking two packs of cigarettes a day actually improves one's heart and lung functions. And, I wouldn't be surprised to see Dos Equis underwrite a Kuk study that says downing a case of their swill once a week will enhance liver functions.

The sky's the limit for a woman who I'd label as the mad professor of death.

But, hey, if things don't work out for you at York University, Dr. Kuk, I know a great, new place for you to settle down: Evansville, Indiana. I'll bet the town fathers would welcome you with open arms and expanded waistlines. Heck, they'd probably even insist on building the "Jennifer L. Kuk Center for the Advancement of Obesity."

And a tip o' RepMan's hat to Sir Edward Aloysius Moed and Greg Schmalz for this idea.

Aug 16

An editor’s POV

Jimmy_Olsen059-30 There has been something of a tempest in a teapot of late as to the success of journalists who cross over to the dark side and become PR pros. Poynter said ex-journos didn't fare so well. PRSA president Rossanna Fiske, a one-time journalist disagreed.

As is my wont, I took a different slant and posited my views on the importance of a degree in journalism as preparation for a PR career.

Seeking the truth (as I always do), I decided to go to the horse's mouth as it were and asked Peppercom's editorial director, and former editor of Worth Magazine, Matt Purdue to weigh in. Here are his thoughts:

"In her recent blog post, Rosanna Fiske, CEO and chair of the PRSA, makes some great points about why journalists may not necessarily make the best PR professionals. As a former journalist now happily ensconced at Peppercom Strategic Communications, I’m fortunate enough to say that—so far—I’m an exception to her suggestion.

Sadly, I’ve seen some of my former journalism colleagues flame out when they tried to make the jump from reporting to PR. There’s the ersatz magazine reporter who made a client cry during a media training session when he asked, “So, tell me why no one in your industry likes you.” Then there’s the former newspaper scribe who would verbally abuse clients who didn’t understand why he typed “-30-“ at the end of every bylined article he wrote. And there’s the former broadcast journalist who thought our company’s P&L stood for “pistachios and liquor.”

But, with all due respect, I think Fiske is missing a key point that needs to be made very clearly: the difference between reporters and editors. I agree wholeheartedly that many reporters are going to provide limited value to most communications companies. Yes, they can sniff out news angles, write press releases and work their media connections. But few of them can really drive business for a PR firm.

That’s where editors come in. Editors tend to be reporters who have grown up. A senior-level editor at a legitimate news outlet is going to have all the skills of the reporter…plus the talents that can take communications companies to the next level: the ability to handle multiple projects and manage subordinates; the people skills to relate to clients at all levels, from interns to the CEO; a sense of how to package a story using traditional and digital media; and even a working knowledge of how business decisions affect the bottom line.

Many PR agencies hunt for reporters to buy themselves a competitive advantage. Fortunately for them, you can’t swing a dead cat today without hitting an out-of-work reporter. But smart PR firms are willing to trade up to editors. Yes, editors tend to require a larger investment, but, in many cases, can provide a much higher return…even if I do say so myself."

Do you agree? Could any editor with five year's worth of experience breeze through PR as Matt suggests? I have my views, but I'd like to hear what you think.

Aug 15

Would Gaga go to war?

I'm flying through “Our Mothers' War”, a brilliant examination of the roles of women on the home  front and abroad during World War II.
01-women-working-poster-us-wwiiWritten by former New York Times reporter (and Peppercom consultant) Emily Yellin, the book shines the spotlight on a completely overlooked aspect of the Second World War: what women did and how profoundly their actions changed society. It's also an inspirational read that examines an American society that was united as one in its fight against the Axis Powers (a far cry from today's pathetic, polarized, soon-to-be second-class successors).
The book is chock full of fun and little known facts, such as:
– Betty Crocker, the ultimate role model for American housewives in the 1930s and '40s, was a fictional character. Her surname came from a General Mills executive and another employee, who thought Betty was a bright, cheerful name. Most Americans never knew she was ersatz, though, and often wrote long and compassionate letters to Betty asking for advice. In 1943 a Fortune magazine poll named her the second most famous woman in America, after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

– Captain Ronald Reagan sent a photographer out to search war factories and plants in Southern California for attractive Rosie the Riveter types to feature in the war effort's propaganda program. At a parachute factory, the photographer stumbled across an 18-year-old housewife named Norma Jean Dougherty, who stopped him in his tracks. He asked, “Where the hell have you been hiding?” Norma Jean agreed to pose for a few photographs. Those, in turn, led to a few more. All of which led to her divorcing her husband, dying her hair blond and changing her name to Marilyn Monroe.

– While I knew all about Bob Hope and the countless shows he arranged for front line troops, I had no idea how many A-level Hollywood actresses did the same thing. Marlene Dietrich, a German born actress who was despised by Hitler and actually placed on his hit list, courageously followed Patton's army as it plowed through Europe. Carole Landis, Martha Raye. Mitzi Mayfair and Kay Francis, all A-level actresses and performers, toured North Africa and actually sang for the troops in a makeshift bunker as they were being blitzed by bombs from Nazi planes.
I was amazed not so much by the image and perception of women 60 years ago but, rather, by their willingness to roll up their sleeves and pitch in (especially the Hollywood stars). Betty Grable, Bette Davis, Clark Gable and Tyrone Power all did their bit. Carole Lombard died on plane flight back from selling war bonds. Jimmy Stewart served as an Air Force colonel and flew scores of bombing missions over Germany.
Can you picture Lady Gaga, Britney, Lindsey, Leo, Johnny, Brad or any of today's superstars not only putting themselves in harm's way but, like their predecessors, actually serving coffee and food to the troops (and cleaning their pots and pans afterwards)?  Unlike Carole Landis for example, those that have gone have not had to duck into bunkers to avoid bombing runs.
Yellin's book chronicles a major flash point in the evolving role of women in American society. And, as she points out December 7, 1941, was very likely the start of the feminist movement in America.
Our Mothers' War is a great read for women or men interested in history. But, it's an even better read for public relations and marketing executives who study image and perception. The greatest generation clearly earned its moniker. Today's sorry lot should be called the slacker generation.

Aug 11

Carpe diem, Evansville

Evansville, Indiana, was just named America's fattest city

According to the survey, 37.8 percent of Evansville's population is obese. That's more than one in three people. Absorb that shocker for a moment: more than one in three!
090220101283431391Fat People
That means the starting line-up for every Evansville high school basketball team has two obese members. So much for the fast break. It also means three members of every Evansville Little League team probably can't go from first to third on a hit-and-run. Maybe they should call it a hit-and-waddle, instead? And forget about the city's football wide receivers running the fly pattern. Maybe they rename it the slug?

I'm joking, but Evansville's obesity is a sad, sick joke. And, since the odds are good that residents aren't going to be giving up their Big Macs and supersized fries anytime soon, why not embrace a huge marketing opportunity?

For starters, I'd change the city's nickname to Obeseville, USA. I'd advertise plus-sized friendly theme parks, movie theatres and public transportation. And, since weight-challenged folks are also supposed to be jolly, why not host a comedy festival? And, I'd do away with any and all overt signs of fitness or wellness (i.e. cover over hiking, jogging and bicycle trails, close down health clubs, etc.).

I think Evansville has a chance to do something very special here. It can simultaneously become synonymous with heft AND, a la Xerox and Google, become a verb ("You Evansvilling me with that extra cheese?”).

City fathers should challenge local chefs to come up with a signature cheeseburger to mark their accomplishment. I'd call it the 37 Special. The branding opportunities are as limitless as the waistlines are large.

Here's one final thought: Evansville should challenge residents of America's fittest city, Boulder, Colorado, (where a mere 12.9 percent of the population is obese). They should engage in a multi-event competition that would favor neither town but still capture the imagination of a recession-weary populace (i.e. A 26.2 marathon followed by a Nathan's Famous type hot dog eating contest). How cool would it be to see which city would come out on top? Of course, there's an excellent chance that one in every three Evansville competitors might keel over from a massive heart attack during even the most sedentary event but, hey, what better way to die than in the service of one's home town?

So, don't hide your collective heads in shame, Evansville. Take a deep breath, let out that 48-inch belt a little more and embrace what you, and you alone can own: the unrivaled claim to being America's fattest city!

Carpe diem, Evansville. Carpe diem.

Aug 10

Great whites need not apply

Jaws_6 Here's a sure sign the economy is picking up (at least for PR firms): large holding companies are  once again poaching fast-track managers from fleet-footed, independent shops such as mine.

It happened during the dotcom era, again in those zero interest rate, “Hey honey, let's buy a house even though neither of us has a job,” pre-market crash days and, blossomed again this spring and summer.

Sure as rain, one of our senior executives will stroll into Ed's, Ted's or my office and announce, “(Weber's) just made me a great offer.”

We'll sigh, ask about the particulars and, frankly, depending on the individual's real value, either wish them well or ask for time to prepare a counter. Sometimes they'll stay. Other times they'll split for what holding company executives tout as “the big leagues.” That line always makes me laugh.

I mention all of this because we're recruiting right now for various positions. But, guess what? We never (well 99 times out of 100) poach from holding companies. They'll take our senior people, but we won't touch theirs with a 10-foot pole. Here's why:

– Holding company executives are used to working within multi-layered, multi-department offices. In other words, they're great administrators, but depend on minions to do the heavy-lifting for them. I'll never forget a recently hired H&K alumnus innocently asking me where our research department was located. I told her SHE was the research department. We bid her adieu within three months.

– Large agency executives are incentivized, first and foremost, for serving the C-suite executives at WPP, Omnicom, Interpublic and Publicis. We need folks who live, eat and breathe the business of our clients' business.

– Last, but certainly not least, big agency types are political sharks. They have to be in order to survive. Political astuteness is a prerequisite to success (whereas it's a ticket out the front door at Peppercom). We should actually add a line to our help-wanted ads: 'Great whites need not apply'.

So, we know Andy and Richard and Patrick and Ray have unleashed their recruiting types into our waters. And, we know we'll probably lose one or two fast-trackers. But, that's the price we pay for developing smart, entrepreneurial-minded executives.

Aircraft carrier-sized firms need P.T. skippers to help them at least try to inject some innovative thinking. Whereas, staffers from the S.S. Enterprise almost always flame out on the Good Ship Peppercom.

And, that's a fact more clients and more trade publications should note. Agency recruiting is almost always a one-way street. And, great whites need not apply to our lagoon.

Aug 09

S&P should stand for scare and provoke

Badly burned for not warning investors about the last market crash, Standard & Poor's has done everything in its power to assure it's at the forefront of this one. And, that includes igniting the flame to set it off.
I'm not a market watcher, but I do know a little about image and reputation. And, it's crystal clear to me that, despite a $2 trillion miscalculation in its math this past Friday, S&P decided to go ahead and issue its ratings downgrade anyway. They did so citing political polarization as their rationale  . But, that's pure posturing on their part. S&P knows as much about politics as this blogger knows about nuclear fission.

It was image and reputation repair that drove their reckless decision. Now, as a result, they've got an even bigger image and reputation problem than ever.

Back in 2008, S&P was asleep at the wheel. In 2011, they were responsible for stepping on the pedal and accelerating to 120 mph around a hair-pin turn.

Long after the market recovers and the economy improves, S&P will be remembered for botching two separate crises. In fact, if I were writing a book about the first, I'd borrow a page from Jack Kennedy's inaugural tome and entitle it, 'Why Standard & Poor's Slept.' As for the second, I'd opt for 'Why Standard & Poor's scared and provoked.'

BTW, S&P also has a very good shot at becoming synonymous with the term 'knee-jerk reaction'. Someone within that organization was hell bent on downgrading the country's rating. And he (or she) wasn't going to let a little thing like facts get in the way.

So, I ask you dear reader, what's worse: fiddling while Rome burned in 2008 or lighting the torch that set it ablaze in 2011?

And a tip o' the hat to Edward M. Ted "The Bastard" Birkhahn for this idea.

Aug 08

So many books, so little time

Summer-reading-533 In an attempt to always take the road less traveled, I thought I'd wait until mid-August to  recommend my summer reading list.

Unlike others, my list is short on fiction and long on history, biography and narrative that delivers a veritable mother lode of unexpected image and reputation insights. So, here are my top three summer reads:

– "Empire of the Summer Moon" by S.C. Gwynne It was the Comanches and not the Sioux who gave the U.S. Cavalry the greatest fits as whites literally stole away the Native Americans' country from beneath them.

And, it was Quanah Parker not Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse or Geronimo who should be remembered as the greatest Indian chief of all. Suffice it to say that Parker, who led “the finest light cavalry the world had ever seen”, was unstoppable. That is, until the U.S. Cavalry finally figured out the Comanches were helpless without their horses. How Quanah Parker was finally captured and, in an even more fascinating twist, how he later reinvented himself to become a silent film star, a confidant of Teddy Roosevelt and, literally, the toast of turn-of-the-20th century America, makes for riveting reading (especially for those politicians who find themselves in need of image repair).

1861 by Adam Goodheart. Think Lincoln wanted to free the slaves? Think again. Think he believed blacks were his intellectual equal? Wrong. Think there weren't countless attempts by Northern and border state Congressional leaders to keep the Southern states from bolting right up until the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter? That's three in a row.

Finally, in a real Civil Rights curveball, might the now obscure James A. Garfield have become one of our country's greatest presidents had his life not been snuffed out after only a few months in office?

'1861' provides a whole new perspective on the last months of peace leading up to the worst war in American history (while shedding new light on one of only two periods in our country's 230 years when Congress simply refused to compromise for the greater good. Quick: can you name the other time?).

– 'In the Garden of Beasts' by Erik Larson. If you liked 'The Devil in the White City', you will adore In the garden of the beasts. It chronicles the true story of U.S. Ambassador to Nazi Germany William Dodd, his wife, son and daughter as they settle into Berlin just as Adolf Hitler consolidates his power.

The story is a real page turner as Hitler, Goebbels, Goring, Hess and the other hoodlums of the Third Reich attempt to curry favor with the critically important American ambassador. Dodd will have none of it, though (hugely displeasing his direct reports in D.C. who, like their counterparts in Britain and France, turned a blind eye to one Nazi outrage after another in the name of appeasement).

The book's real breakout star, though, is Martha Dodd, who is equal parts Britney Spears, Mata Hari and Heidi Fleiss as she cavorts and sleeps with everyone from Hitler's driver and a Russian KGB agent to the head of the Gestapo and a French diplomat.

I found the parallels in 'Beast' to our current global dilemma striking since some would suggest we've turned a blind eye to foreign transgressions whenever it suited our political needs (i.e. The Diem regime in Vietnam, the shah in Iran, the early Hussein in Iraq, Qaddafi circa 2002, Pakistan for the past four decades, etc.).

I'm not sure who first said, “Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it,” but one wishes these three books had been absorbed by W., Cheney and Rummy before they entered office in 2001. Consider how different things might be today without Iraq, Afghanistan and a free-wheeling and irresponsible Wall Street. Or, for that matter, how 1861's lessons might have prevented the rise of a polarized political system that just prompted Standard & Poor's to drop our country's rating and probably kick start another recession.

Oh, well. At least, there's still another month of summer to lose oneself in a good book. Surf's up!   

Aug 05

A journalism degree is far superior

News-Reporter This may upset more than one PR professional, academic or student, but I believe a journalism degree trumps one in PR when it comes to succeeding in my industry.

The thought occurred to me after reading a blog by Debra Caruso, a former journalist who now runs her own PR firm.

Caruso lists the following reasons why journalism majors and former journalists make the best PR pros:

  • They have a nose for news.
  • They craft press releases and other copy that is more clear, compelling and accurate.
  • They understand a journalist's life, know when to pitch or not pitch and will score more placements as a result.
  • Former journalists know how to follow a reporter, understand her needs and can help her put together a piece to sell to the editor.

That's good stuff. But, there's far more to it than that. I majored in journalism and had the good fortune to work as a newsclerk at The New York Times, a reporter at WGCH in Greenwich, Ct., and as a newswriter at CBS Radio in Boston. The jobs were part of my five-year co-op curriculum at Northeastern University.

So, at the tender age of 19, I rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest journalists of their generation at the Times. At 20 years of age, I was a sports and news personality who was on-the-air five times a day and hosted an hour-long monthly talk show. And, at the relatively advanced age of 21, I was writing copy for breaking news stories that was then read live by top CBS anchors.

I lived, ate and breathed journalism 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I understood what made news and what didn't. I mastered the art of meeting constant deadlines. And I was provided an invaluable sneak peek into a newsroom's quirks, eccentricities and demands.

So, when I washed up on the shores of Hill & Knowlton as a 22-year-old junior account executive, I knew exactly how to pitch stories and deliver results.

Today's PR graduates do just fine when they hit the agency or corporate worlds. But, there's no substitute for majoring in journalism or working in a newsroom. Both provide an intrinsic understanding of news and newspeople that no PR undergraduate or graduate degree can match.

A journalism pedigree also assures fewer typos, better writing and less reliance on mass e-mails to pitch a story. And, trust me, that's something every senior manager in a PR firm can appreciate.

Aug 04

I wouldn’t pitch ‘The Pitch’ either

Looking to cash in on its breakout hit, 'Mad Men', AMC is scrambling to create a new reality show called 'The Pitch'. It's intended to be a behind-the-scenes look at real ad agencies pitching real   pieces of new business.

No pitch There's only one problem: AMC can't find ANY agencies to participate in the reality show. Securing marketers hasn't been a problem though. Two tarnished brands, Yahoo! and Kodak are champing at the bit to get some positive exposure.

But, Madison Avenue's top players have shown no interest in becoming a real life Don Draper. To date, BBDO, TBWA, DDB, GSD&M, Mullen, DraftFCB, Carmichael Lynch, Gotham and Hill Holiday among others have all turned thumbs down.

Agencies say they're worried about having their creative ideas stolen or an existing client catching them pitching a larger, conflict brand (yes, Virginia, these things do happen).  Then, of course, there's the issue of allowing the entire business world to witness the utter chaos that is a new business pitch.

The latter would be my greatest concern. While most advertising and PR firms would like clients to think they have a definitive, proprietary, state-of-the-art new business creative process, the facts are quite the opposite.

New business presentations are almost always an 11th hour, all hands on deck fire drill that sometimes come together beautifully at the last second, or completely crash and burn. We've had classic examples of each:

– For a large technology company, we were scrambling right up until the last moment, changing creative strategies, arguing with one another about approaches and even disagreeing about who should be on the presentation team. I still recall Ed saying, “This is going to be a disaster.” But, it wasn't. We rallied, came up with a great idea, made a superb presentation and won the huge account.

– For a leading retail brokerage company, we were heading to the Midwest for the final presentation knowing we'd totally impressed the prospect through the early stages (a fact later confirmed by the CMO, who said we were “the firm to beat”). But, we were beaten because the final presentation was completely overhauled during the flight and was so jumbled that we ran out of time during the pitch. We lost.

I love the thrill of the chase. And, there's nothing more satisfying than beating an Edelman or Weber for a significant piece of new business. But, there's no way I'd ever open Peppercom's doors to a behind-the-scenes reality TV show. I know I speak for most PR firms (and ad agencies) when I say the process for arriving at a final presentation is a steaming pile of sh*t that is best kept under the covers.

Aug 02

Customer (dis)Service at its finest: Direct Loans

SarahAndersonphotoToday's guest post is by Sarah Anderson, M.A. Corporate Communications College of Charleston '10 (pictured) 

I am 23, fresh out of graduate school, happily starting my career and enjoying the non-ramen food groups that come with a steady paycheck. Then—bam— it’s June and my six month grace period is over for student loans. I knew it was coming and had prepared (or so I thought). I paid off my interest so it wouldn’t be consolidated into my principal, set up an electronic debit account (EDA) to lower my interest rate and waited for the bill.

On June 7, nine days before my grace period ended, I received a letter stating that my first payment would be auto-drafted on July 21. Seven days later I received another letter saying my debiting had been temporarily suspended.

I called up Direct Loans to find out why my EDA had been stopped — and proceeded to have one of the worst customer service experiences of my life (oh honey, it’s about to get worse). The girl repeatedly tells me that my grace period doesn’t end until mid-June, so I can’t set up EDA until July. I tell her I understand this, but that I need to know if I have a payment due in July still, as well as how to pay it since they’ve closed down my EDA. As we talk, she gets shorter and shorter with me, cutting me off in the middle of questions.  I point out to her that I know it is frustrating to have to answer so many questions, but that this is a lot of money and I’m concerned about missing a payment. At which point she tells me that she’s already “validated my question,” and promptly hangs up on me.  Did you know that if you owe money, you’re not allowed to ask them more than twice when it’s due or how you can pay it?

Frustrated, I called back to speak with a manager. After a heart-to-heart about my previous phone call, she told me I would have to make my July payment manually. By the way, the girl who hung up on me told me I didn’t owe any money until August— thanks for that— almost went into forbearance my first month in.

Dutifully, I go online July 1 and begin paying Uncle Sam back. Six days later, on July 7, I get a letter saying that my EDA had been re-instated and would draft on July 21. Frantically, as I had only planned to pay them ONCE this month, I call Direct Loans and am assured by an exasperated “Rita,” that EDA won’t kick in until August. I note the date, time, topic and person I spoke with, and go on with my life, happily unaware that the customer service rep on the other end made no such notation.

On July 27 I check my bank balance for the end of the month and am shocked to see an unexpectedly low, girl-you’re-almost-broke number. What do you know— electronic debiting worked in July after all.  I call up Direct Loans (they’re on my speed dial by this point), and am told that they have no record of me calling on the 7th, therefore I have no proof that I didn’t know I would be charged.  Not only that, but after submitting an APPLICATION for a refund, I have to wait four to six weeks, and that is IF my request is granted.

The manager very (un)helpfully tells me that I’ve now paid off more of my balance, which will reduce my interest. Yay! My loan is getting paid off, but I can’t make my rent next month! Maybe my company will let me sleep under my desk…

I’ve had poor customer service experiences before— only this time, it’s not an incorrect coffee order I’m dealing with. This is my life, my credit, my livelihood. To be honest, I’m confused— Direct Loans had been helpful until now, and this isn’t their first student loan rodeo. The first time I called, I dealt with a very professional, knowledgeable young man. It seems that the professional customer service team with which I had previously talked has been let go for a cadre of clueless, moody teenagers attempting to keep me from asking too many questions by misusing big words like “validate,” and when that fails, resorting to hang-ups or giving me misinformation.

So, Direct Loans, here’s my question. Customer service is important in every industry— every job. It has the power to serve as a positive or negative touch point for a brand or company. But it’s so much more than that when it comes to people’s finances. Your inability to handle a customer who had “too many” questions, or give out correct information, is on the brink of putting me in a seriously nerve-wracking financial situation. Don’t you realize that while to you it’s just a job— to me it’s my life? Or, perhaps, do you just not care?