Feb 14

Commoditizing a commodity with comedy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about mayhem!

Feb 13

Novartis needs to listen harder


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feb 10

Unintended consequences


The best bloggers listen to their readers in order to create content that will not only be highly relevant and useful, but also espouses a distinct POV on the subject in question.

Columnists follow the very same approach. Which is why, when I was fortunate enough to be named a weekly columnist by Inc. Magazine in November, I spent a considerable amount of time reading other columns and engaging in lengthy conversations with my editor. I wanted to make sure I understood my readers.

And, I'm pleased to report that my columns have been moderately successful. One, in fact, generated so many re-tweets, direct e-mails and glowing praise, that I momentarily felt quite humbled. The operative word in the preceding sentence is momentarily.

The column in question was entitled, 'You don't know Jack about PR.' It addressed a common misperception among many Inc. readers: small business owners don't grasp the fundamental differences between advertising and PR. So, I penned a PR 101 column and the blogosphere positively lit up with accolades.

That is, until the column spread to the wonderful world of public relations. That's when a good friend, superb professional and mediocre cyclist named Gini Dietrich decided to write a blog that shredded my column.

The gist of Gini's 'Spin Sucks' blog was this: my analysis was equal parts myopic and parochial, and did PR a disservice by speaking solely to the difference between paid advertising and media relations. She rightfully pointed out that PR is much, much more than clippings. And, many of her readers agreed. And, so do I.

But, Gini made a fundamental mistake in slamming my column. She either forgot (of chose to forget) that the column wasn't written with PR people in mind. It was penned for busy owners of small companies who also worry about payroll, overhead expenses, sales, human resources, inventory, and god knows what else. If I'd waxed poetic about the intricacies of PR, one of two things would have happened:

-My editor would have rejected it out of hand as being too dense for readers

-My readers' eyes would have glazed over as I rambled on about crisis communications, social media content, event planning, etc.

Gini was obviously well intentioned, but she drew her gun and fired too quickly. I posted a comment to that effect saying, 'While I applaud your POV, I ask that next time you pause before shooting the messenger and think first about his intended audience.'

That said, my gunfight at the O.K. Corral with Gini the Kid was a GREAT learning lesson about the unintended consequences of content creation.

When one crafts a blog, Tweet, FB post or, in my case, a column that strikes a nerve, it will be spread far and near. And, sometimes it can be spread to an audience you weren't addressing in the first place. And, that my friends, is when a vigilante such as Gini will pull out her six-shooters and begin blazing away. 

Feb 09

The kiss of death

Reference checks are a joke. You know it and so do I.


The average job seeker provides the names of three former associates who not only wax poetic about her multiple talents but volunteer that, given the opportunity, she'd be able to transform water into wine and walk on water as well.

That's why the best firms go beyond the references provided, dig deep into an applicant's past and make inquiries among friends and associates with whom the candidate worked.

This just happened with two former Peppercom employees. Both were finalists for significant positions and both had undoubtedly provided the requisite three references who sang their praises. But, two diligent individuals, one another agency owner and the other a smart recruiter (now, there's an oxymoron for you), called me directly.

The first asked me about Jane Doe. I was startled, and asked my fellow CEO if Ms. Doe had given my name as a reference. 'Nah,' he said. 'But, I know she worked for you and wanted to know the real scoop.'

In the second instance, the recruiter had really done some digging. She called me and prefaced her question by stating, 'John Smith is being seriously considered for a very senior position at Widebottom, Top Heavy & Partners. As you know, he was director of PR at Artery Clogging International when Peppercom was the agency of record. So, what can you tell me about John?'

And, that dear reader, is when I used the code words that every senior PR executive and recruiter recognize as the kiss of death. I responded by saying, 'All I can tell you is that Jane worked at Peppercom for three years.' Or, in John's case, I stated, 'All I can do is confirm that he was, indeed, our client for 18 months.'

Invariably, those comments are first met with deafening silence and then a sigh. 'That's what I suspected,' the CEO replied, 'I knew something wasn't right.' And the recruiter said, 'You're the second person I've called who wasn't provided as a reference and used those very same words. That's all I needed to know.'

I've been schooled to never, ever denigrate a former employee or client. But, if another professional calls and tells me they're about to hire someone who was either a washout as an employee or an abusive, anti-Christ of a client, I'll confirm the dates of our mutual association and offer nothing else. That's code that every other professional immediately cracks. It means, 'Stay away. This person is positively toxic.' In effect, it's the kiss of death in PR.

Public relations remains a very small industry where everyone knows everyone else. So, it's wise to never, ever burn bridges with an employer or abuse the agency if you're on the client side. Because, sure as rain, someone, some day will call the head of that agency and say, 'So, we've got Lisa Farthing-Penny-Farthing in our reception area and are thinking of making her an offer on the spot. Figured I'd do one last check with someone whose name she didn't provide. What can you tell me about her time at Peppercom?'

Feb 08

Culture check

Happy days are here again. Or, so it would seem according to the latest jobs and unemployment news. The economy added nearly a quarter of a million new jobs and unemployment levels dipped to 8.3 percent.

I know lots of small and midsized PR firms are hiring, but I doubt the big guys are (as I noted in last week's blog).

We're looking to fill any number of slots in financial services, social media and general PR. But, as our culture has evolved, we're being extra careful to make sure we don't:

– Make an offer to the social media prima donna who, no matter how gifted, believes she is the only one who understands the medium and refuses to play nice with others.
– Hire that really nice guy who seems to be everyone's best friend, constantly pats you on the back, praises everyone and everything, but ends up contributing next to nothing to the work product.
– Employ an erstwhile holding company middle manager who, halfway through her first week, storms into our president's office and demands to know where the research department is located (er, ah, you are the research department).

I undertake my own culture check with prospective senior level hires. By the time they get to me (and are about to be interviewed by Ed), I know their work ethic and accomplishments have been fully vetted. So, rather than ask the asinine, 'Where do you see yourself in five years' or 'How would others describe your management style' questions I probe, instead, to see how seriously they take themselves.


We have a very informal culture that is driven by our insistence that every employee be trained in stand-up comedy. We don't do it to torture them but, rather, to help them improve their presentation and listening skills as well as enhance overall morale. And, it's worked so well that we now provide it as a service offering to clients.

But, back to my culture check. As I'm wrapping up my interview, I'll lean forward and suggest a few tips that will help the candidate with her upcoming interview with Ed. These include:

– Alerting the candidate that, since Ed has lost all of his hearing in his left ear, they'd be wise to sit on his right side and shout their questions and answers.
– Alerting the candidate that Ed worked his way through college as a professional foot model and, if it's summer and Ed's rocking a pair of mandals, they should be sure to compliment his shapely ankles.
– Alerting the candidate that Ed means it when he says he expects our senior executives to roll up their sleeves and do many of the same tasks performed by junior staff. I mention that Ed's incredible work ethic is a direct result of having labored as a coal miner in West Virginia for several years. That one almost always elicits the following response. 'Really? That is so inspirational.'

Anyway, the candidates are quickly told by Ed that they've been set up by me and shouldn't take anything I say seriously. We can often judge how well a candidate will fit in by their reaction to our playfulness. Most take it in stride. Some don't care for it. But, a few get a huge kick out of it and, if everything else is equal, the latter person will be offered the job.

So, what's your firm's culture check? How do you determine if a prospect will fit in? And, for those of you on the job search circuit as we speak, what sort of culture checks have you been subjected to? I'm always looking for fresh material.

Feb 07

Things Anyone Teaching PR Should Know

Today's guest post is by Alicia Moore

The following guest blog was authored by Alicia Moore, a writer for OnlineTeachingDegree.com. I’d like to invite academics and students in particular to read Alicia’s Top 10 list and post your response. Note: I’ll provide extra credit for the best observations. Thanks.

With the evolution of technology, the press relations industry has changed significantly. However, the same basics still apply, meaning up and coming PR students must be taught these skills if they are to succeed as pros in their careers. The following is a collection of the ten golden rules of success anyone teaching PR should know.

1) Words wield power. Thus, it is important for anyone in PR to carefully choose their words, and only use powerful, relevant words to grab attention.

2)Target your pitches. It is equally critical to keep pitches short, or else you risk losing your reader's attention. Often, three concise sentences make more of an impact than a 400-word press release.

3)Utilize the tools of the new digital age. As Online Teaching Degree mentions, there are a number of helpful resources online for students and emerging professionals alike, and it is a mistake not to take advantage of them. Learn trending topics, and use Google Alerts to keep an eye on your name, your competition and new, hot issues.

4) Pitch and attend an interview for a client. Know the entire process, and hold your client's hand during the preparation for that arranged interview. Always be there for assistance, but know when to stop and listen.

5) Know how to stand up to reporters or clients firmly, but politely. Just like anybody else, reporters can be abrupt, testy or even completely rude.

6) Regularly generate valuable content. Learn to identify the lessons and trends that others can benefit from; this allows you to always be the best source of trustworthy and solid information.

7) Teach your own executives and clients on techniques to more effectively undergo interviews. This preparation allows them to feel better in front of a microphone or more comfortable on camera.

8) Make use of handheld cameras. Knowing how to record a breaking news story or a short interview is one thing, but the ability to grasp technology allows you to disseminate it to the great masses. Think about what kind of news breaks on Twitter, and strive to post the next lead you get on the site.

9) Skip the boring questions. Quality inspires quality, bad questions bring you bad information while good questions give you interesting and insightful information. Make sure the people you speak with are thinking, feeling and reacting to what you say.

10) Use links and keywords to give legs to your press releases. The world of PR requires doing your homework on what topics the public is interested in hearing or reading about. This critical information can either break or make your blog and website, and perhaps even your whole business.

Along with these teachings, make sure your students know the most important skill of all: Listen to a press conference, webinar, podcast or a speech. A good PR agent must be capable of pulling just three sound bits from a 30-minute rant or a 5-minute presentation. Not only does excelling in this area allow you to thrive when networking or speaking publicly, but being able to summarize a complex presentation with a single punchy quote is a priceless these days.


Feb 06

Yeah, so, um, we’re gonna go ahead and spend your fee on cyber security instead


Office space

Remember Bill Lumbergh, the out-of-touch, acronym-spewing manager in the classic movie, Office Space? Brilliantly portrayed by Gary Cole, Lumbergh would either preface or respond to any positive suggestion by saying, ‘Yeah, um, so, we’re not going to do that.’ And, as every Repman reader knows, corporate America is chock full of Lumbergh-types, both male and female. And, they account for the massive inertia that hamstrings many of America’s best-known organizations.


We recently sustained a head-on collision with a Lumbergh who toiled in the middle management ranks of a client organization.

We’d been working with the client for some time and, if I do say so myself, producing Silver Anvil Award-winning work. But then, one day out of the clear blue, Lumbergh called our day-to-day account manager and said, ‘Yeah, so, um, we’re gonna go ahead and spend your fee on a cyber security upgrade instead.’ Say what? A cyber security upgrade instead of continuing a breakthrough image and awareness campaign? Talk about institutional creep.

We’ve fired, and been fired by, clients for myriad reasons over a 16-year period, but this was a first. I’ve met C-suite executives who don’t understand the strategic importance of public relations and chosen, instead to invest in a sales force expansion or build an in-house corporate communications function. But, I’ve never, ever, seen the plug pulled on communications and diverted to technology.

The decision was so unexpected and positively primordial in its thinking that even this garrulous blogger was left speechless for a time. But, I’ve rebounded and, instead, now see this as a cautionary tale for any Arthur W. Page, Council of PR Firms or PRSA Counselors Academy member who remains convinced that PR has earned a permanent ‘seat at the table’ and no longer need to justify our strategic role.

There are still plenty of Bill Lumbergh-types controlling the budgets of Fortune 500 corporations and ‘Yeah, so, um, if you think PR is bullet-proof then, so, um, yeah, we’re just gonna go ahead and spend those fees on a landscaping upgrade instead.’


Feb 03

Agencies look for rising stars, not waning ones


Advertising Age's cover story about 55-year-old creative director Dave Shea's trials and tribulations in finding full-time employment should be a cautionary tale to any reader of any age.

Shea was a successful copywriter and creative director at such blue-chip advertising agencies as the legendary Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, the equally legendary (and the original) Saatchi & Saatchi, Campbell-Mithun and, most recently, Geppetto, a small agency within the vast WPP network (where Ed and I once toiled).

Geppetto canned Shea (and refused to tell Ad Age why) about 15 months ago. He's been high and dry ever since.

Shea's epic odyssey to find full-time employment is a positively spell-binding story. According to Ad Age, no matter how hard he networked or how many cold calls he pursued, Shea simply couldn't get to first base. Every agency ignored him because, at the age of 55, Shea was untouchable. His gray hair was a red light.

Source after source told Ad Age that firms turned a blind eye to the eminently qualified Shea. One summed it up beautifully by saying, 'Agencies look for rising stars, not waning ones.' (Ouch. I hope you have a nice day as well).

The Ad Age article confirmed what I'd already suspected: advertising agencies are positively spellbound by the digital revolution, Mark Zuckerberg and the next, bright shiny object. As a result, they mistakenly believe Millennials are the ONLY ones who get the hottest trends, technologies and talk. As a result, experienced veterans like Shea have no chance whatsoever of landing a decent job.

The article was a show-stopper for me for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Ad agencies STILL don't get that social media, digital, Web 2.0, or whatever one chooses to call it, is nothing more than a communications channel. Guys: Hello! It's not about the technology. It's about the conversation and how best to engage in it. Happily, that's what PR firms do best. It's also why we're winning more and more of the client's overall marketing spend.
  • However gifted and uber cool they may be, Millennials lack the broad perspective and innate understanding that's fundamental to deciding what to say, when to say it and to whom. Sorry kids, but you don't get it. Not yet anyway.
  • Age discrimination is not limited to advertising agencies. There's no doubt in my mind that PR has just as many 55-year-old Dave Shea-types who have been shown the door by WPP, Interpublic, Omnicom or Publicis, and find themselves permanently unemployed. PR trade publications simply choose to ignore it:

Reporter: 'We really should do a Dave Shea-type story.'

Editor: 'Age discrimination in PR? No way, Jose.  So, how many new accounts did Edelman win this week?

Reporter: 'The usual. One every 13 seconds.'

Editor: 'Great. There's our headline!'

I count my blessings that, unlike Dave Shea, I decided to bid adieu to my holding company mother ship in 1995 and, along with Ed, build my own thing. If I hadn't, the odds are good I'd be just like Mr. Shea; mailing my resume, placing phone calls and sending e-mails to headhunters and holding company recruiters alike. And, there's no doubt I'd receive the same response as Shea: deafening silence.

A quick after word for my Millennial readers: you'll be dealing with your very own age-related issues faster than you can say Father Time. So, enjoy your time in the sun while you can.

As Sir Mick & The Boys once sang, 'Time waits for no one, and it won't wait for me.' Or, you either.

Feb 02

Render unto Caesar



There hasn't been much buzz about the significant downsizings announced this week by many of the major holding companies.

Most of the big guys are slicing and dicing their staffs despite year-long announcements about quarterly growth and major wins. The CommPRO.biz article cites a continuing desire by the aircraft carrier-sized behemoths to 'be nimble' as the reason for the bloodletting. But, I don't buy it. Not for one minute.

As a recovering holding companyaholic, I can tell you the downsizing is occurring for two reasons:

– Despite news to the contrary, many big ad agencies are having one heckuva hard time abandoning their old, antiquated 15 percent commission model. As a result, they simply haven't been able to provide the same amount of jet fuel needed by the hungry engines propelling their Boeing 777-sized parents.

– Because, like Mitt Romney and all Mormons, firms owned by a holding company MUST tithe a percentage of annual profits to their respective Sir Martin's. This fact of life squeezes every last penny out of the advertising, PR, interactive, research and design shops within the holding company. As a result, they're left with no other recourse than downsizing.

I'm surprised there hasn't been more analysis of the holding company dichotomy. Trade journals gleefully proclaim Ogilvy's third quarter gains, Interpublic's positive half-year results and Omnicom's ever-expanding war chest.

But, there's been no speculation as to why, after a seemingly solid year, the pink slips are being handed out faster than speeding tickets near the Montclair exit on the Garden State Parkway. (Note: that's an inside joke. My business partner is the Richard Petty, Jr., of PR and is routinely nailed with scores of tickets.)

One final note: how come clients don't rail at being forced to pay a holding company's fee when they receive their monthly invoices? I remember when I 'ran' Brouillard Communications (link to BC blog), we routinely added a two or three percent surcharge ON TOP of each and every invoice and labeled it a 'management fee.' That money went directly to Sir Martin who, unless I missed something, not only never spent time counseling our clients, but didn't even know our firm existed within his vast empire.

Our CFOs logic was also a tad warped. I remember her saying, “Clients don't mind paying premium prices for premium services. And, we're a premium brand within a premium holding company.” Right. And, the Florida housing market is white hot at the moment.

I guess what I see as a troubling trend is either being overlooked by journalists and clients, or they see it as a 'don't ask, don't tell.' Either way, I don't get it.

In the meantime, though, people's careers are coming to a screeching halt at holding companies everywhere because, as the vassal states did in ancient Rome, the Ketchums, Bursons and MSLs must render unto Caesar what is his.

All of which makes the independent firms' value proposition even more attractive in a weak economy. Hail free enterprise!


Feb 01

Louisville: Everyone’s last stop



Two published surveys suggest that Louisville, Kentucky, is to be avoided at all costs if one wants to stay young and fit.


RealAge.com recently made available the results of their survey ranking America’s largest 50 metropolitan areas as Cities for Staying Young and Cities for Aging Too Fast.

RealAge.com factored in such criteria as cholesterol, smoking, marital status, eating habits, stress, employment, social life and alcohol, and ranked Louisville as second only to Knoxville as the top American city for Aging too Fast.

So, like, are Kentucky and Tennessee in some sort of perverse death match to see which can play host to more funerals?

(San Francisco finished first on the list of Cities for Staying Young, which surprised me since I consider it a haven for aging hippies, Jerry Brown and the anti-Christ himself, Barry Bonds).
In a similar, but unrelated survey, good ol' Louisville (with ol' being the operative word in this case), Prevention Magazine said the home of the Cardinal had one of the highest rates of heart disease in the country. And, here's why:
Louisville contains more McDonald's outposts per capita (39) than any city in the country. It also features 20 Arby's, 17 Dairy Queen outlets and 19 Papa John's, according to a Daily Beast/Newsweek report. 

And, as many of us already know, Louisville also plays home base for the original obese plantation owner, Colonel Sanders himself. Louisville is home to the Papa John’s franchise, as well as Yum Brands… which isn't just KFC but also Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. In other words, it's ground zero for fatty, disgusting, artery-clogging food.
All that said, I think city fathers should embrace their unique status. Why fight an irresistible force? Americans are losing their battle against obesity and Louisville is leading the Rebel forces. One might even liken the city to the Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and every other malady associated with a sedentary lifestyle and fast food diet.
I don't think Louisville has an image and reputation problem at all. What I see is an opportunity for such things as:
  – Hosting the TV series 'America's Biggest Loser'
  – Creating a catfish, ribs and grits competition that would pre-empt Nathan Hot Dogs oh-so-nasty Labor Day eating contest
  – Adding up all of Louisville's citizens' combined weight and, instead of listing population figures on signs as one enters and leaves the metropolis, proudly proclaim instead: “Louisville, established 1791. 33 trillion pounds, and growing.”
 And the city's advertising tagline? 'Louisville: everyone's last stop.'