Oct 26

Why most blogs fail

Bloggeerrrrrrr.The odds of publishing a successful blog nowadays are about the same as finding
any issue whatsoever that Rachel Maddow and Bill O'Reilly would agree upon.
That's because most bloggers commit the cardinal sin of writing about what's
important to them, and not to their audience.

In his seminal, new book on social media entitled, (Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture), my
colleague, Sam Ford, stresses that a successful blog is determined by how
useful the content is to readers. The most relevant blogs (Note: relevance can
be defined in any number of ways including:  funny, insightful, completely
counter-intuitive, etc.) are spread by readers to their circle of friends and
influencers. And, spreadability, my friends, is the currency of the blogosphere.

On those rare occasions when I craft a blog that someone else deems
spreadable, I know I've been successful. The most recent case in point occurred
just the other day when I penned a tome on the Institute of Public Relations'
new online Center for Organizational Communications I thought it
was a significant advancement to our profession's body of work and needed to be
publicized. But, when IPR's president and CEO, Frank Ovaitt decided, in turn,
to spread my blog to his list of highly influential senior communications
executives, (below) I knew I'd struck a nerve.


So, before you sit down to write your next blog, or counsel a client how to go
about crafting one, check your ego (or the client's) at the door. The blog
shouldn't be about you, your hot new product or your state-of-the-art
consulting solution. Rather, it should focus on something of importance to your
target audience. By thinking about a blog from the outside in, you'll stand a
much better chance of creating something that others find important enough to
spread to their audiences. And that, dear reader, is the definition of a
successful blog.


Oct 25

Listening and Empathy

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Sam Ford.*

"Listen. Engage. Repeat." That's our mantra here at Peppercomm. We have recalibrated our agency to put listening at the center of how we think.

2108531675-5That's why we are the proud primary sponsor of an upcoming conference at MIT which will bring together 50 thought leaders on innovation in media, marketing, and storytelling to talk about the Futures of Entertainment. (Full disclosure: it's also a conference that I help organize.)

We've seen time and time again that the ways in which people engage with popular culture eventually help shape and drive how they engage in all their facets of life— not just as fans but also as customers and as citizens. (There will be a panel at the conference that looks explicitly at how engagement with entertainment connects with political engagement via activism.) So we're of the firm belief that keeping up with shifts in popular culture is crucial to anyone in the marketing and communications space.

This year's event— the sixth iteration— launches with a focus on "Listening and Empathy." And, throughout the conference, the participants will explore how listening and putting yourself in the audience's shoes does or should reshape the way companies approach engagement.

Panels focus on truly understanding the role audiences play today in curating and recirculating media content, on how companies must "combat the shiny new object syndrome" by putting strategy before hype when considering new technologies and platforms, and on how the concept of copyright has to be reconsidered in an age where spreadability is a primary way that media texts circulate. And there are particular sessions looking at what lessons might be learned from the innovations made and issues faced by storytellers in sports, video games and public media.

This year, FoE features managers from the Google Culture Lab, the AT&T AdWorks Lab, the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, and Harvard's Berkman Center. It features noted voices on digital culture such as Jason Falls, Maria Popova, Grant McCracken, and Henry Jenkins. It features Xbox co-founder Ed Fries and father of mobile entertainment Ralph Simon, as well as Boston Celtics head of digital Peter Stringer, legendary music producer T Bone Burnett, Continuum Chief Innovation Officer Lara Lee, and The Responsible Business author Carol Sanford. Oh, and they're even letting people like myself and Peppercomm consultant and Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us author Emily Yellin on stage with such luminaries.

We believe that the only way to really stay on top of where our clients' audiences need them to be is to put our focus on listening. That's why we place a premium on understanding what's happening in culture. Peppercomm created The Innovation Mill— a newsletter focused on tracking cutting-edge trends in storytelling and audience engagement across marketing and entertainment that was a finalist in this year's PR News Digital PR Awards.

And one awfully good way to listen to what's happening in culture is to bring together insightful people who have their ears to the ground. Tickets are still available. We hope you can join us! We promise it will be worth your time, and then some.

*Sam is also a research affiliate with the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT and the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University, and co-author of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.

Oct 24

Taglines I’d like to see

Slid111111e1Don't you wish that, just once, organizations told the truth in their taglines?

That novel idea struck me as I perused the latest propaganda from New Jersey Transit. It was a newsletter heralding a new online destination that allows riders to ascertain exactly how long their delays will be. At the bottom of the NJT missive was the dysfunctional rail line's tagline, 'The way to go.'

I shook my head at the sheer chutzpah of the statement. I know NJT is a public service with no competition whose employees are rewarded not by providing superior service but, rather, by punching a time clock. But, even so, the way to go? If NJT's tagline were an authentic reflection of the rider experience, it would be something like: 'When you have no other choice.'

NJT's laughably misleading tagline got me thinking about other organizations that promise one experience in their tagline, but deliver a very different one in reality. So, drum roll please, a list of the seven deadly sinners of tagline world (in which I first list the current tagline followed by the one the organization should be using):

1.) The Republican Party:  Actual tagline: 'We built it.'
Suggested tagline: 'Back to the future.'

2.) The New York Yankees:  Actual tagline: 'Heroes remembered. Legends born.'
Suggested tagline: 'The high cost of underachieving.'

3.) Wal-Mart:  Actual tagline: 'Save money. Live better.'
Suggested tagline: 'Raping and pillaging the local economy, one town at a time.'

4.) ExxonMobil:  Actual tagline: 'Taking on the world's toughest energy challenges.'
Suggested headline: 'Making more money than god himself.'

5.) United Airlines:  Actual tagline: 'Let's fly together.'
Suggested headline: 'Actually, let's stay right where we are.'

6.) McDonald's:  Actual tagline: 'I'm lovin' it.'
Suggested tagline: 'My HMO is loving’ it.'

7.) Comcast:  Actual tagline: 'The future of awesome.'
Suggested tagline: 'The hellishness of today.'

So, how about you dear reader? Any favorite taglines you'd like to see?

Epilogue: When my firm recently re-branded itself and came up with a new tagline, we selected: 'Listen. Engage. Repeat.' I thought 'Not that good' would be more accurate but, as my management team quickly reminded me, that brand promise was limited solely to me.

Oct 23

The highest payroll doesn’t ensure the best results

Spring1As a long-suffering Mets fan, I know quite a bit about losing. So, as you might expect, I was fascinated to read the savage attacks on the perennial winning, cross-town rival New York Yankees in the wake of their total collapse against the lowly Detroit Tigers in the recent ALCS.

I won't repeat what's already been said, but the sportswriters seemed to save the most poisonous invective for Alex Rodriguez (or, A-Rod, if you prefer). The once heavily muscled, steroid-injecting superstar was benched for most of the series while still drawing every penny of his $29m annual salary.

Just about everyone is blaming A-Rod, and his fellow overpaid, underachievers for the Yankees' failure. In fact, a quick review of the past 10-years shows that, despite boasting the highest payroll in the Major Leagues, the Bronx Bombers have only won one title. That's a worse ROI than Bernie Madoff's investors realized.

PR has its own version of the Yankees. They're the world's self-proclaimed largest PR firm in the world. And, they routinely hire free agent superstars who are my industry's version of Number 13.

Typically, a PR version of A-Rod is either a former White House Communications director, chief communications officer of a Fortune 10 corporation or head of the Environmental Protection Agency during President Reagan's second term.

In exchange for being paid ungodly salaries, the PR A-Rod bring three things to the plate:

– Access (she's on a first name basis with Barack, W, H.W., Rummy, Al, Hillary, and other A-level players).
– A gold-plated Rolodex (our A-Rod not only chills with Bill, he also has Jeff Immelt, Jamie Dimon and other corporate gods on his speed dials).
– Gravitas. When the world's biggest firm trots in two or three of these living legends to a new business pitch, the collective jaw-dropping among the prospect's decision-making team is truly awe-inspiring.

There's only one problem with paying top dollars for superstars in baseball and in PR: they immediately raise unrealistic expectations. So, when they inevitably crash and burn (as many do), it's big news.

That's why I just love to see my peer group (i.e. Coyne, Taylor, CRT/Tanaka, etc.) either beat our industry's Yankees in a new business pitch or, as is more likely the case, simply inherit their big name account because the client is SO disappointed with Team A-Rod's performance.

It's interesting that the team with the best record in the American League is seen as a failure. Indeed, most pundits say they need to completely reconfigure the team. All of which prompts my question of the day:

Why do sportswriters cover ALL of the ups and downs of the guys in pinstripes while our trade press seems content with merely re-purposing the positive news being disseminated by our George Steinbrenner?

I'd go on, but we're looking to land a few financial services sector A-Rod's for Peppercomm (and you would not believe the size of the signing bonus these guys are demanding!)

Oct 22

You can look it up

IPR56_1in_cmyk_400ppiFor the past two years, five of our industry’s top professionals have been working feverishly to assemble a single repository for the best practices in organizational communications.

I’m pleased to announce that Keith Burton, Gary Grates, Bruce Berger, Maril MacDonald and Frank Ovaitt have succeeded in creating the gold standard for students, professionals and academics in search of the latest and greatest thinking in internal/employee communications. It’s called the Organization Communication Research Center, and can be found at www.instituteforpr.org/orgcomm.

I recently sat down with my good friend, fellow mountain climber and president of Insidedge, Keith Burton, to learn more about the IPR’s new service offering.

1.) Why is IPR launching the Center now? What particular market need did it fill (since most medium and large-sized agencies and corporate departments already possess their own research capabilities)?

KB: "Our Commission on Organizational Communication (myself, Maril MacDonald, Dr. Bruce Berger, Gary Grates and Frank Ovaitt) started this work more than two years ago. We did so after identifying employee/internal communications as one of the most significant areas that would benefit from expanded research on key topics. We talked with our trustees to get their input and feedback. We reviewed existing research, white papers and materials promoting thought leadership in this area. Ultimately, we centered on three areas of work: Building a new knowledge management repository on the existing Website (the Employee Engagement Research Center). 'Curating' and populating the site with content. And conducting new research on the best-in-class practices in employee communication among leading global companies."

2.) What are some examples of the types of research one would find on the Center's website? Is it 100 percent free? And, is the IPR expecting attribution if, and when, the Center's research is used by a third party?

KB: "We identified more than two dozen major topics, ranging from the benefits communication to employee value proposition to internal branding to organizational culture, for example. There's no cost to those who visit and we encourage efforts to spread the word about our work and to facilitate the use of research-based knowledge by practitioners, academics and students. Visitors using the site for individual non-commercial purposes have our advance permission to reproduce, retrieve and/or use the information and images contained in these IPR web pages provided they don't modify the information in any way and include attribution to the author(s) and to the IPR, with our copyright notice."

3.) Does the Center replace an existing IPR set of research services? If so, which ones?

KB: "This new knowledge management site is not replacing existing research service. It is the first of what we expect will be several new online centers for knowledge in key disciplines, including social media and corporate social responsibility."

4.) I've always associated the IPR with measurement. Does the Center reflect a broadening in scope of IPR's strategic vision?

KB: "As you know – the Institute is recognized for providing the science beneath the art of public relations. Our mission is to focus on research that matters to our profession, providing timely insights and applied intelligence that professionals can put to immediate use." (Note to readers: IPR’s President and CEO, Frank Ovaitt, added that anyone interested in learning more about the Institute’s broad charter and strategic mission can find a veritable treasure trove of information at www.instituteforpr.org.).

5.) Speaking of vision, what are IPR's short and long-term goals? And, how will you measure the new Center’s success?

KB: "The new Center represents our desire to be the leading resource on topics and areas of discipline that are of greatest interest to our profession. And, we’ll judge the new Center’s success by the number of people who visit the site, download and re-purpose our information and, ultimately, contribute new and useful content to it themselves."

6.) Will IPR begin paralleling the Advertising Research Bureau's business model (i.e. selling reports, hosting large galas, handing out awards, etc.?).

Note to readers: Keith handed this final question to Frank, who said, “I don’t see us selling research or reports. We see our mission as getting practitioners to use more research in their work, and academics to produce more research that matters to the practice. Giving the content away seems the best way to accomplish that mission.”

I urge any, and all, Repman readers to visit the new Center and help spread the news about this remarkable new offering. It seems to me the more scientific and rigorous our research, the less likely we are to be call called spin doctors, flaks or any other negative pejorative in the popular lexicon. Three cheers for Frank, Keith, Gary, Bruce and Maril!

Oct 19

LIVESTRONG should stand strong

Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Matt Purdue.

Lance Armstrong a charlatan, a fraud and a pathological liar? Or is he one of
our greatest champions in the fight against cancer? Or both?
LanceIn the end, it doesn't really matter. Certainly there's a mountain of evidence
suggesting that Armstrong doped his way to seven Tour de France victories…as
well as worldwide fame and piles of lucre. But what really matters is that the
charity he helped found, the Lance Armstrong Foundation (aka the LIVESTRONG
Foundation) doesn't suffer for one man's alleged transgressions. Unfortunately,
in our world where public image is everything, I fear it will.

I've been a "cyclist" since I was 8, and I was a very amateur bike
racer for seven years. So from my view in the saddle, if Lance cheated to the
extent so many people inside the sport say he cheated, he deserves to spend the
rest of his days delivering greasy Chinese food in Queens on a rusty

But, in the end, so what if he did? If you bought a Lance Armstrong jersey and
now feel "cheated," too bad. Doping has been synonymous with
professional cycling for decades. You should have known better. And if you're a
Nike shareholder who feels Lance "stole" his fortune in endorsement
money, too bad. Why invest in a grown man who makes his living riding a
bicycle? You should have known better.

But if you want to attack the charity that Lance helped build because of his
alleged transgressions, you need to get your head — and your heart —
examined. Do you disdain Social Security because FDR had an affair with Lucy
Rutherfurd? Do you pooh pooh the Civil Rights Movement because MLK had

Unfortunately, in today's PR-crazed age, LIVESTRONG now has an image problem.
That's tragic. This charity that continues to offer amazing services and
information to cancer patients and their families now has to expend valuable
time and resources fighting a PR battle because its founder might have made
some very poor decisions. There are web-fueled campaigns urging fans to return
Nike LIVESTRONG products to stores.
Hamilton Nolan on Gawker.com is giving us all the okay to trash our yellow LIVESTRONG
bracelets. Thanks for that, Hamilton.

So what would I do if I were
LIVESTRONG’s PR counsel? I’d suggest they tackle the problem head on. Yesterday
I received an email blast from LIVESTRONG CEO Doug Ulman, asking for donations
during a time “when our community has to pull together.” The message was
powerful and heartfelt, soliciting support to show that LIVESTRONG can
“persevere in the face of adversity.” But I think Ulman did his constituents a
disservice by NOT mentioning Lance Armstrong by name. In fact, I’m not really
sure what adversity Ulman was writing about. The fire and brimstone directed at
Lance? The concept that Lance may have lied to the world for years? The
suggestion that Lance fans trash their LIVESTRONG-branded gear?

What, exactly, is Ulman so down
about? What do he and the organization think about the controversy? LIVESTRONG’s
supporters deserve to know. Having a straight talk with them would be the first
step toward making certain that Lance Armstrong’s charity survives his own
personal meltdown. Because if it does not, that would be the real tragedy.

Full disclosure: I know LIVESTRONG CEO Doug Ulman personally. I
have not communicated with him about this situation.

Oct 18

You cannot be serious!

4bce8396a907ettttjpgWhen he ruled the world of tennis in the 1970s and '80s, the abrasive John McEnroe (once dubbed SuperBrat by the British press, BTW) was famous for questioning a linesman's call by screaming at the top of his lungs, “You cannot be serious!”

I had a SuperBrat reaction of my own after reading the comments made by chief marketing officers at the recent annual meeting of the ANA (Association of National Advertisers).

According to Ad Age, the marketers focus du jour is to tell a story that defines their brand while reinforcing its contributions to the greater good. That may work for, say, the United Way. But, for some brands, it's akin to Mitt Romney's trying to convince the 47 percent he really does care about them.

A few mega brand sharpies shared their new, feel-good taglines with attendees. Some were OK, a few were laughable and at least one was patently absurd. To wit:

– P&G proclaimed itself a 'proud sponsor of moms' as the result of the money it shelled out at the recent London Olympics. An Ad Age reporter who covered the ANA conference said the P&G video caused at least one viewer to cry. You cannot be serious!

– J&J's worldwide VP of global marketing told attendees the beleaguered pharmaceutical company is now positioning itself as a brand that “…connects people who are suffering.” That actually rings true, considering all the suffering the corporation's poor product quality control has caused over the past few years.

– The real jaw-dropper, though, came from my personal bete noire: McDonald's. Get this: McDonald's says its role in society is to be a nutrition education advocate. I say again: a nutrition education advocate. You cannot be serious!

Mickey D's SVP and CMO, Neil Golden, justified the new cause-related branding by noting that Ronald & Co. now includes apple slices in Happy Meals. Gee, that really makes a huge difference. So now, after inhaling a calorie-laden, artery-clogging concoction of goo, consumers can feel better about their food choice because McDonald's has tossed in a few apple slices. You cannot be serious!

Corporations can't expect consumers to buy this good guy speak when they continue to peddle bad things.

If McDonald's REALLY wants to be a nutrition education advocate, they should follow the lead of Luta, a sportswear marketing company that told ANA attendees it earmarks 50 percent of its profit to battle youth violence! I'd like to see McDonald's pony up 50 percent of its profit to better educate consumers about proper nutrition.

If they ever did, and if the SuperBrat ever heard about it, I believe Johnny Mac would still scream his signature line, but this time he'd be smiling.

Oct 17

Don’t fear the F word

Failure-alMost CEOs fear failure like the plague. Failure to a CEO means a dip in stock price, a termination note from the board of directors and, worst of all, a huge hit to our hero's ego.

But, more and more, I'm seeing CEOs step up and admit failure. And, I'm seeing more and more CEOs inspiring employees to try and try again AND hire individuals who have failed in the past, and aren't afraid to admit it.

Here are two cases in point:

– Harold Hambrose, founder and CEO of Electronic Ink, a global specialist in user-interface design for business (and Peppercomm client), said he couldn't be happier when “…the designers and researchers at my company…abandon what seems like a promising line of inquiry to pursue an entirely different direction or when they jettison the fifth version of a schematic to create something better.”

– Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, says he asks recruits to “name the biggest, most glorious mistake they've had in their business careers, including all the gory details.” If respondents can't think of any, Szaky shows them the door.

Failure is key to success. Creating a culture that supports risk-taking, failing and learning from failure, is key to attracting and retaining great people.

I'd like to think Peppercomm's willingness to embrace past mistakes and current challenges is a key reason why Crain's New York Business just named us one of the region's top 50 workplaces. It's also why Inc. Magazine named us a best workplaces finalist last year.

We not only encourage mistakes, we own up to the ones we make. So, when I wrote a blog that offended the sensitivities of an uptight client who subsequently fired us, I accepted responsibility and told the entire staff. And, when Ed created a separate dotcom business in 2000 that employed 26 people and went belly-up within a few months' time, he relayed the sad tale to the entire staff.

I'm with Hambrose and Szaky. If you're not interested in risk-taking and failing, then I'm probably not interested in you. Clocking-in at 9am and doing only what's expected of you may work in some cultures and in some industries, but not mine.

In PR, the top executives are constantly pushing the envelope. And, more often than not, they're failing. But, the very best ones own up to the failures, learn from them and move on.

Now, if only our elected officials could do the same.

Oct 16

Breaking News?

Small-town-newsHave you noticed that CNN Breaking News items have become increasingly irrelevant? Not only does CNN routinely report events and occurrences of, shall we say, lesser importance, but they seem positively fixated on the medical conditions and/or death of obscure people and other perfectly mundane information. The multiple breaking news reports of ex-Detroit Lions lineman and occasional actor, Alex Karras’s imminent death are recent cases in the point.

But, and I’m speaking from the heart here, my entire weekend was ruined when CNN Breaking News reported the passing of TV and radio personality Gary Collins at 2.15pm EDT this Saturday. Oh my god, Gary Collins is gone? How will we go on?

If, like me, you sighed and wondered aloud, “Who?”, allow me to provide some filler (as we journos like to say). Mr. Collins was best known for his starring roles in such legendary TV series as ‘The Sixth Sense’ (I knew about the movie, but had no idea there was a short-lived TV show of the same name). And, hang on tight, Collins also starred in TV’s ‘The Wackiest Ship in the Army.’  Wow!

The problem with reporting the deaths of obscure actors and jocks is that is undermines the importance of relaying information about important events. So, the more times I’m pelted with a non-breaking news item such as Lindsay Lohan’s latest misdeed (and, btw, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences really should present Ms. Lohan with a Lifetime Arraignment Award), the more likely I am to overlook, say, a mass terrorist attack in Kabul.

A few PR trade publications do the same thing. My in-box is routinely filled with such breathtaking news developments as:
-    ‘Porter’s Smith moves to Burson to head Global Health Care Practice!’
-    ‘Record number of entries received for 2012 Awards Program (including some 576 alone from Edelman!)’
-    ‘Idaho Potato Board awards $23 million, five-year account, to Barlow Back 40 Communications!’

Such watered-down news items are of interest solely to Mr. Smith, the publication coffers and a few hundred spud farmers, respectively.

Our news outlets need to show more restraint in defining what constitutes breaking news. While I feel badly for the family and friends of Gary Collins, I feel worse for what used to be known as responsible journalism. The Fourth Estate is slowly, but surely, dying of self-inflicted wounds. Bogus breaking news items are just one of the many reasons why individuals and organizations alike have decided to bypass online and offline media entirely. Like me, they want their breaking news to be taken seriously.

Oct 15


– Also throws a bone to Obama –

Lincroft, NJ, October 15, 2012 – Outspoken former U.S. Congressdog Mick Cody today announced he and his 'pack' of advisers stand ready to provide a complete range of psychological, emotional and physical abuse counseling to the dog recently adopted by NFL quarterback and ex-con Michael Vick.

Baying at what he said would be the first in a series of regular 'Fireside Barks' leading up to the November 6th Presidential election, the controversial canine shredded Vick while seated in front of the Cody family fireplace and munching contentedly on a Pup-Peroni.

“The very idea that a man who once tortured and killed scores of my breed is now allowed to own his own dog is beyond comprehension,” howled Cody. “Were I not inside my mom and dad's house at this very moment, I'd lift my leg on the nearest chair leg to illustrate my contempt.”

The disgraced ex-politico said allowing Vick to own a dog is akin to enabling a child molester to adopt a pre-teen. “A leopard doesn't change its spots and neither does an animal abuser,” mused Mick, ripping his dad's handkerchief to smithereens. That said,” he continued, “The Canine Coalition of New Jersey (CCNJ) stands ready to support the Vick pooch in every possible way (Note: Many feline activists have said Mick's Canine Coalition is little more than a slush fund enabling the Congressdog to buy and sell vast amounts of dog treats on the black market).

Endorses Obama
The former Congressdog also announced today he and his life partner, Rooney Cody, would be endorsing the Obama/Biden ticket. “We can't get past the Seamus debacle. In our minds (however blank they may be), Mitt is still a mutt. How can Americans trust a guy who once strapped his family dog to a car roof?”

Before wrapping up his Fireside Bark to relieve himself in the backyard and “munch on some early Autumn foliage”, Cody announced he would be holding an online barking game in conjunction with Tuesday night's second, televised presidential debate. “Every time my followers and I hear Obama call Romney a dirty dog, we'll bark out loud in support. Just imagine the impact 50 million barks will have on those bogus, real-time independent voter polls CNN runs during the election! Dogs can, and must, make the difference in the key swing states.”

Readers will recall that Mick Cody first rose to national prominence by leading a national lift your leg in protest movement against the NFL's reinstatement of Vick as a player. Estimates at the time suggested some 300 million acres of backyard gardens were ruined by the well-organized protest. Buoyed by the response, Cody ran for office and was elected the nation's first U.S. Congressdog. He was later forced to resign in the aftermath of a topless sexting scandal Cody still claims was little more than “feline entrapment.”

Cody concluded his inaugural Fireside Bark by whimpering, “I'm Mick Cody and I approved this announcement. I also approve of going for a walk right about now. Dad?”