May 30

How does it feel?

download (1)There’s nothing like watching multiple, ongoing crises unfold to make PR bloggers happy. For us it’s like winning the Triple Crown.

First, there was Donald Sterling. Then there was GM. Now, we have the V. A. hospitals’ delays. And, each crisis has multiple, never-ending news cycles. That’s manna for reporters and Repman types alike.

In each of the three crisis cases, we’ve seen horrific responses and worst practice examples of how not to manage an unfolding event.

But, rather than repeat what’s already been said by countless others, I’d thought I’d address the other side of these types of mega-crises: the impact on the morale of the rank-and-file employees of all three organizations.

A serious crisis can be like a cancer that, if left unchecked, can kill an organization from the inside out. Sure, customers will bail. Stock prices will plummet and competitors will scoop up market share, but employee morale and productivity are fundamental to any embattled company’s survival.

I’ve counseled many clients over the years, and ensured that human resources specialists work closely with grief counselors, organizational behavior experts and, when appropriate, even motivational speakers to ensure innocent employees’ needs are addressed.

But many company management teams simply forget their employees when a CNN crew is outside corporate headquarters, a Senate investigation is underway or ESPN is providing 24×7 coverage.

To wit, I remember attending a cocktail reception in the immediate aftermath of the massive, 2008 market meltdown. I happened to bump into a friend who had worked at the now defunct Lehman Brothers. I asked him how he was holding up. ‘I’m ok,’ he said, ‘but my family is taking a terrible beating. My wife’s friends are ignoring her and my kids are being taunted at school. As for me, everyone always asks the same question: How does it feel to have played a part in destroying our economy?’

I’m sure a version of that anecdote is happening right now to the tens of thousands of GM employees who weren’t part of the massive, decade-long quality cover-up.

Imagine what it must be like to work at GM right now. I’ll bet you can hear a pin drop in the corporate offices. And, as far as the factory floors are concerned, you better believe stress levels are overheating faster than a broken down ’68 Buick on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

If GM is to ever turn things around, it’s critical they pay as much attention to the psychological and emotional needs of the employee base as they do to regulators, politicians and the media. Ditto for the VA Hospital. As for the L.A. Clippers, I guess their employees can get away with saying, ‘Hey, I worked for an ass. What can I say?’

So, as the GM and V.A. stories move forward, pay attention to the most overlooked part of any crisis story: employee morale. It’ll be interesting to see how each organization does, or doesn’t, attend to the needs of their most important front-line ambassadors.

If nothing else, management should provide employees with credible answers to the question, ‘So, how does it feel to work for (fill-in the blank).’

May 28

I’ve always been a DQ fan

310962417498My very first job involved standing behind the counter of the Teaneck, NJ, Dairy Queen and dishing out banana splits and vanilla ice cream. I was paid the princely sum of $1.65 an hour.

And, even though the gig only lasted a few months in-between my junior and senior years of high school, I’ve followed DQ’s fortunes ever since.

That’s why I was delighted to read The New York Times profile of DQ’s new marketing campaign. It’s so smart in so many ways:

– The tagline ‘Fan food. Not fast food’ for example, immediately distances DQ from every other competitor.
– DQ doesn’t call their customers customers. It instead identifies them as fans (hence fan food). I like that. It humanizes a churn-and-burn business.
– The new campaign is an impressive amalgam of integrated online and in-store experiences that’s enriching an already impressively large community of fans (8.6 million ‘likes’ on Facebook and 200,000 Twitter followers).
– DQ understands the emotional chord it strikes with fans. It’s where they had their first kiss or went on their first date. It’s also where the coach takes the soccer team to celebrate after a big win. That emotional chord is critical to building a brand strategy and is sorely lacking in most campaigns.
– DQ marketers apply a very cool rigor to any new idea by first asking: Is it fanworthy? Is it something fans are going to rally around? That prevents the brand from straying off-course with ideas that will only confuse the target audience.

I’m genuinely impressed to see how sophisticated DQ has become, especially in the areas of social media and content creation (check out what they’re up to with singer/guitarist Noah Applebaum who’s promoting the S’mores Blizzard).

Last, but not least, I’m a DQ fan because those three months I spent filling cups of Mr. Misty and adding extra sprinkles to some angry, tired truck driver’s chocolate ice cream cone taught me an invaluable lesson; namely that I never, ever wanted to work in a retail environment again.

Now that’s what I call fan friendly.

May 27

CitiFright is more like it

IMG_1158Manhattan’s problem-plagued CitiBike rental program is celebrating its initial year in the Big Apple with a one-day special: free donuts and a $1 rental fee.

The free donut is emblematic of CitiBike’s spotty first-year performance (i.e. Why serve fattening junk food to entice people to exercise? What am I missing?).

Donuts and calories notwithstanding, CitiBike has been struggling to peddle uphill against major financial and service issues. And, now, they must decide whether to unionize their employee base (which is demanding it do so).

But, shifting into a higher, and more important, gear, I think the CitiBikes are a major mistake for Manhattan. I know some city residents, including Peppercomm’s Matt Lester, swear by the Sherman Tank-like blue bikes. But, I’ve had more close encounters of the worst kind with CitiBike riders than Manhattan streets have potholes.

I understand the ecological benefits of more bicycles and fewer cars, buses and trucks but, when one adds in eight million residents, billions of neck-craning tourists and millions of daily commuters, Manhattan street corners and crossings need yet another hazard like Chris Christie needs another traffic jam.

The CitiBike menace grows positively terrifying around peak holiday seasons when totally clueless visitors to our country slingshot their rented cycles along sidewalks, through red lights and in the wrong direction on a one-way street (all the time shouting to passers-by: “You tell me! Empire State. Where is at?”).

While they may make perfect sense in other less congested cities, CitiBikes are a bad idea here in the Big Apple. Frankly, I’m amazed there haven’t been more serious accidents directly attributable to the death traps.

I’m all for a cleaner, more pedestrian, runner and biker-friendly city, but there’s a reason for parks and bike lanes: they’re intended for non-motorists.

It’s time for a Curtis Sliwa-type, anti-CitiBike activist to take up the cause and get these infernal machines off our streets. We need a whole new generation of guardian angels.

Until then, a word of advice: in addition to the normal precautions you’d take when crossing, say, 42nd and Fifth Avenue, keep an eye open for a donut-munching, recklessly swerving tourist dodging cars, trucks and buses as he zips his CitiBike through the intersection at the last second. The medical expenses you save may be your own.

May 21

You WILL be your way!

It took four decades and millions upon millions of dollars in market research and branding fees, but fast food giant, Burger King, just announced a radical, new tagline. Ready for it?

‘Be your way.’

Sounds more like a threat from Vladimir Putin than a brand promise from the good, ol’ king.

And, when BK tells diners to be their way, are they suggesting Americans keep ignoring the health warnings about eating fatty foods that lead to obesity which causes every conceivable kind of health issue known to man? Probably not. But still, there is an unfortunate double entendre at play here.

Say what you will, though, ‘Be your way’ is a risky departure from BK’s old bromide, ‘Have it your way.’ Not!

A BK spokesperson said the new slogan reflects the importance of personalization in society today as well as the chain’s ability to meet the customer on the latter’s terms.

I buy that. But, isn’t that what ‘Have it your way’ meant as well?

Big brands routinely pour millions of dollars down the drain making nonsensical cosmetic changes such as BK’s nuanced new tagline (although, mercifully, the restaurant chain says it’s also spending bucks to upgrade their retail locations; a move that is definitely four decades overdue).

Band-aid branding approaches such as BK’s new tagline NEVER solve the systemic problems plaguing a business. There’s a reason why BK has never caught up to Mickey D’s in the obesity wars. McDonald’s simply has cleaner and neater restaurants, better trained employees and, from what I hear, tastier food.

BK would have been far better served had it invested instead in listening to customers and improving the overall in-store experience. Once the product is fixed, the marketing whizzes can burn through a few more million dollars and devise a new tagline.

How about: “We have ways of making you be your way.”? It has a certain familiarity to it and, if nothing else, the line would certainly play well in Russia and the Crimea.

May 20

Not so happy

140519-mcdonalds-happy-jms-2104_a3215da73bb1e4cd364ed5d51974a5a5Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Dandy Stevenson.

In their latest attempt to turn their sow’s ear of an eatery, (swimming in a pool of fat,) into a silk purse of fresh and healthy food, McDonald’s unveiled their new mascot. Its name is ‘Happy.’  But don’t be fooled by that cheerful name.

He looks like a big, fat front loading washing machine ready to gobble-up poor unsuspecting kids.

This red box with golden arch eye brows and serpent-like arms has terrorizing little Pierre in France since 2009, chomped his way thru Latin America and now has set his beady eyes on the US.
Social media sites are awash with criticism including reports of children having ‘Happy’ nightmares. As a brand ambassador touting McD’s healthy choices, such as subbing apple slices for fries, and milk for sodas, he is an epic fail.

Happy really is nothing more than a grown up Grimace, that original fast food mascot/monster first introduced by McD’s in the 60s. Happy doesn’t REALLY care what your kids eat- he only wants to get them in the door.  And he sure doesn’t care if he strikes fear into the hearts of our children.

It’s hard to imagine that a country as big as McDonaldLand cannot see that no matter what they do, they will not ever change the image on which they were founded. They created the fast food market, and their business model hasn’t changed. They can offer apples, carrots and skim milk till the cows come home, but folks do NOT go to their restaurants for healthy choices. Never have. Never will.

May 19

Five fingers damage five toes (and more)

feet-shoes-2Like many a long-time running aficionado, I was positively smitten by the Christopher McDougall book, ‘Born to Run.’

In short, it’s a tale of an isolated group of Mexican Indians who, wearing little more than sandals, routinely run 50 to 100 miles a day with little or no pain. To test these accomplishments, the author arranged for a group of world-class marathoners to compete with the Indian runners in a 100-mile desert competition. The Indians won, and the fad of shoeless running began.

A company called Vibram jumped on the marketing opportunity, created the world’s ugliest footgear ever, and called them Five-Fingers. As someone who had read the book and wanted to believe, I snatched up a pair, slipped my toes into the duck-like, rubbery, flat soled thingamajigs and took off on my regular, five-mile course.

Ouch. It was brutal. My feet felt every pebble, shard of glass and bump. Worse, within a mile or so, I felt definite pain in both calf muscles. Being a typical male, I suffered through the five mile run. But, I took off my Vibrams and never, ever wore them again.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Vibram’s is in the midst of multiple, class action law suits initiated by runners who say the company’s marketing claims about safer, longer running experiences are completely bogus. Many claim permanent injuries as a direct result of running in the shoes.

Having no evidence to prove the injured runners wrong, Vibram settled to the tune of $3.95 million. That’ll soothe a lot of aching feet, but won’t do much for the permanent injuries. Oh, and by the way, it’s one more example of a business promising one thing in its messaging while audiences experience something quite different when they try the product.

There’s an old saying that warns, “If something is too good to be true, it usually is.’ There’s another one which states, ‘Caveat emptor.’ And, then, of course, there’s the old bromide, ‘Don’t believe everything you read.’

I guess Vibram is the perfect storm of negative aphorisms.

So, tell me. Have any of you tried Vibram Five-Fingers? Are you still able to walk? Wax poetic, especially since you won’t need to use your battered toes to type.

Tip o’ Rep’s cap to Chris and Cat Cody for suggesting this post.

May 16

When Dealing with the Gender Pay Gap, Make it About the Gap Not the Gender

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Jackie Kolek.

Gender-Wage-Gap-2Since news broke earlier this week about Jill Abramson’s departure from The New York Times, there has been intense speculation about the reasons for her ousting.  Internal politics, management style or clashes over native advertising?  Maybe.  But the theory that is getting the most play and creating the most debate is whether she was fired for demanding that she be paid equal to the man she replaced.  According to the New Yorker,  Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and prior to that as managing editor were significantly less than those of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs.  The article states that she “confronted the top brass,” and in turn she labeled as “pushy” and subsequently fired.

The incident has rekindled the debate over equal pay for women and just how much women are underpaid in the same roles as men.  It’s estimated that women typically earn about 75% – 80% of what men do in the same jobs.  And while the debate rages on about how to end the pay gap forever, the key question in Jill Abramson’s case is what do you do when it happens to you?

Many years ago I was promoted to a director at Peppercomm and joined the firm’s management committee.  Serving on the committee meant I had access to all sorts of new information, from who was being promoted to who was being fired, raises and salaries.  Shortly after joining the committee our then CFO shared with the committee a list of all our employees and their salaries.  I was shocked to see that two men who were both a level below me were making significantly more money than I was.

I didn’t know whether to cry or scream.  Luckily I did neither.  I thought long and hard about what to do and how best to approach our managing partner about what I saw as a terrible wrong.  I created a list of points on why I should be better compensated – I had more responsibility, I was managing one of the agency’s largest clients, I was managing a group of people, I was leading large new business efforts.  Then I waited for the right moment. When my team won a prestigious industry award for best campaign I felt the timing was right.

I went into the managing partner’s office armed with my talking points and scared to death.  I laid out my argument. He looked at me and said “Yep, you’re right.  I’m sorry I didn’t catch this and we’ll rectify it right away.”  So what I saw as a potential gender gap was really an accounting oversight that was quickly and fairly corrected.

By no means am I suggesting that the gender pay gap doesn’t exist nor that we should ignore it.  But my experience illustrates that assuming it is a deliberate slight isn’t always correct either.  Chances are that if I went in and complained that a man shouldn’t be making more than me that they still would have given me a raise because Peppercomm is the type of company that simply tries to do the right thing.  However, I was glad that I focused on the value that I was bringing to the agency rather than gender inequality.

May 15

Rubbernecking delays

levsssssy jpgLike just about every executive of every advertising, digital and PR agency, small, medium or large, I stopped everything I was doing (which, if I recall, was nothing at all) to devour breaking news reports detailing the highly-hyped Omnicom-Publicis break-up. It was like a rubber-neck delay caused on I-95 after a truck jack-knifes. The entire marketing world came to a halt for a nanosecond or two.

I wasn’t at all surprised to read that the corporate coupling had nosedived faster than Governor Chris Christie’s ratings after BridgeGate because, in my mind, it was being created for all the wrong reasons. To wit:
1.)    Growth, for the sake of growth, is a very poor substitute for strategy (And, that’s said with all due respect to Richard Edelman’s stated goal of becoming PR’s first $1 billion PR Firm). Richard’s financial goal sure wouldn’t get me charged up and ready to stuff another $1 million account in the firm’s coffers. Nor would it answer the ‘why’ question. (i.e. Why does Edelman exist and why do I, as an Edelman employee, go to work each day? Surely, not to make Edelman the first $1 billion PR firm).
2.)    The merger was designed NOT to better serve clients but, rather, to enable the new entity to compete with Google and other tech/search companies in the rapidly-expanding, and highly lucrative, data gathering world (Think: NSA surveillance).
3.)    Clients of both organization saw, first-hand, what we in the independent agency world have known all along: global holding companies serve one master: the investment community. Sure, they do nice work, but clients’ needs come second and employees’ concerns run a distant third.
4.)    The larger the organization, the bigger the egos. This divorce came down to an ego clash over who would serve as the chief financial officer of the combined entity. That would be laugh out loud funny were it not so sad.

In the aftermath of the implosion, the top advertising trades are already wondering out loud if small is the new black. I’ve read countless pieces wondering if the Omnicom-Publicis divorce will be the straw that finally breaks the back of the symbiotic relationships between global brands and global holding companies. Thanks to the light that was shed on the conversation between Publicis and Omnicom, clients now know FOR sure that their business strategies aren’t what’s keeping the CEOs of holding companies up at night; it’s meeting the latter’s quarterly numbers.

True to course, though, the PR trades are reporting the dissolution with little more than already-stated facts. There’s been no analysis and no hypothesizing about the larger implications. And, that’s because the PR media are scared silly of the break-up because it threatens their business model which, stated briefly, might be best described as: ‘Content of, by and for global agencies and the mega brands they serve.”

Global agencies spend the most money in paid advertising. They also buy the most tables at the countless awards’ ceremonies and, oddly enough, they also happen to win the most awards at every single competition. Talk about a random coincidence.

There has never been a better time to be a smart, nimble independent agency that provides a whole host of integrated solutions. And, there’s never been a better time to put to bed for good all of those PR Week predictions that the future belongs to a few, large global holding companies (Remember the stories they ran after IBM consolidated all of its business with Ogilvy Advertising and a hastily-assembled consortium of Omnicom PR agencies)?

Small is the new black. And, I couldn’t be happier to capitalize on our many strategic advantages over the slow, lumbering aircraft carrier-sized holding companies who not only can’t figure out how to complete a merger, but publicly air their dirty laundry (the worst of which is admitting they place their own financial interests ahead of their clients’ needs).

May 13

Meet Ed Moed

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Dandy Stevenson.

pave a roadMost people know Edward A. Moed as the tough-as-nails, Tony Soprano-like co-founder of Peppercomm. And, he is all of that. But, as Repman managing editor, Dandy Stevenson, recently discovered, today’s Ed was shaped in no small measure by the many (many) jobs he held during his formative years. Read on for a fascinating glimpse into the youthful Ed (aka Repman’s Better Half).

Growing up, Ed’s dad owned a drug store, so he started young— stocking shelves, working the counter and making deliveries. Other positions on Ed’s real life resume would include pizza maker, law firm messenger, art gallery security guard and my personal favorite, The Guy Who Turns the Drew University Gymnasium Lights On in the Morning and Off at Night.

Entering college, family financial demands increased and Ed had to help with tuition payments. He held a dozen different jobs from waiting tables, to tending bar, to selling suits. He said he was “was promoted to bartender because I was such a lousy waiter.” That was more his forte, as you might imagine, and later he parlayed that experience into a job at a liquor store. For reasons that probably need no explanation, he didn’t excel as a haberdasher and when he started his stint at a Home Depot precursor, he “didn’t know a two-by-four from a tee-square.”

Ed said each in its own way, was an excellent experience “for a kid who knew nothing” and gave him an early respect for what it takes to earn a buck (or two.) Most jobs didn’t last more than a month because he was looking for the holy trinity of pre-college graduation jobs:  1) good money, 2) work he was good at, and 3) work he enjoyed (or at least didn’t hate.)

The summer before his sophomore year, he hit pay tar. (That’s pay dirt, only hot, stinky and sticky.) His friend Tony Cashman’s father got them both jobs tarring a section of I-95. “I never worked so hard in my life,” he said, but across that hot summer, the money and life-lessons rolled in.

Ed worked alongside “hard-up, burned-out laborers” who were as happy for the work as Ed was, but for vastly different reasons. The men were just glad to have steady work to pay bills and put food on the table. Ed was working so one day he could be interviewed by one of his 125+ employees at the successful strategic communications firm he co-founded and discuss how he spent one summer tarring I-95.

At one point Ed and Tony decided being flag boys, directing traffic around the work area, was far easier than slinging hot tar when you had a hangover which Ed and Tony did once in a while like every other day because they were college guys for heaven’s sake. All was jake until the morning Ed forgot his up-flag from his down-flag  and four cars collided. No one was hurt, except Ed. Tony’s father was head of the union, and let’s just say Ed saw a side of kindly Mr. Cashman that wasn’t so kindly.

But the highlight of that summer was when Ed, Tony and a few other wholesome guys drove to Myrtle Beach for some wholesome (and non) R&R. Ed said “no vacation could have meant more” because it was “financed wholly with money I earned myself.”

It was a long, hot summer, but not only did Ed earn a bundle of money, he picked up a bundle of life-lessons:

  1. Nothing beats money you earn yourself.  It’s one thing to have someone tell you money is hard earned, it’s another to do it yourself.  You get a sense of pride and ownership, not just of whatever your money bought but in the accomplishment and confidence of doing it yourself.
  2. Hard work is its own reward. Trite but true. Whether you are digging ditches or writing pitches, there is honor and satisfaction in doing a good job.
  3. Success brings responsibility. The directional flag mishap taught him that a job can frame someone else’s life. He said today, “I know individual’s and family’s livelihood are dependent upon my decisions, actions and performance.” A job is never just about yourself.
  4. A good education is paramount. Even though there are jokes about degrees being a dime a dozen these days, you want in that club. And you want to do the best you can, unless hot tar is your cup of tea.
  5. The sooner you learn to fail, and recover, the better. Ed was dismissed from some jobs because, like all teen-agers, he was immature and thought he knew more than he did. Dealing with failure, and recovering, is a big step towards self-reliance, which is a critical component of any responsible adult.

Ed’s three children have all the privileges in life he did not, but they will learn the lessons he did. When they reach college age, they will take out a loan for a portion of the tuition which will be their responsibility to re-pay.  If you grow up without failure, with someone always doing things for you, you cannot be self-confident; you have to know you can take care of yourself.  The road to success is paved with failure. And that journey for Ed started on I-95.



May 12

Is there a Dr. No in your workplace?

whistleblowerI’ll bet you don’t know who Roger Boisjoly is. I didn’t either until I read an excerpt of Megan McArdle’s new book, ‘The Up Side of Down.’

Boisjoly worked for a company called Morton-Thiokol. Does that name ring a bell? It should.

Morton-Thiokol was the engineering manufacturer that produced the rubber O-rings that sealed the joints in the solid booster rockets intended to propel the Space Shuttle Challenger into the stratosphere.

The night before NASA’s disastrous launch of the Challenger in 1986, Boisjoly pleaded with NASA technicians to delay the launch. He was worried the cold weather forecast for the following day would cause problems with the O-rings. George Hardy, NASA’s deputy director of science and engineering at the Marshall Space Flight Center, told Boisjoly and his team, “I am appalled by your recommendation.”

The next day, Hardy made sure the shuttle launched as scheduled. And, sure enough, the O-rings failed, seven astronauts died and America’s space program was derailed for years

McArdle is a big fan of what she calls having a Negative Nancy or a Dr. No within an organization.

In fact, she says every workplace should have someone with the cojones to say, “Stop! This is wrong.”

McArdle says the totally ersatz 60 Minutes/Lara Logan report on the purported eyewitness account of the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, could have been prevented from ever airing IF CBS had had a Negative Nancy in the office who could have questioned the veracity of the sole source.

I see myself as a glass half-full, positive type of guy. But, I’m not afraid to be a Dr. No who points out something that doesn’t seem right to me (either within a client organization, Peppercomm or society at large).

At the moment, I’m playing Negative Nancy with operational and people trends at my own firm that, frankly, I think are going in the wrong direction. Of course, I also happen to be a co-founder, so I don’t have to worry about what happens to most whistle-blowers (Aside from Ed, I don’t think anyone else at Peppercomm can ostracize or black list me).

It takes guts to be a Dr. No. It takes guts to speak up and say “Now, hold on there, professor,” when you see something that seems wrong from a business, moral or ethical sense. And, in many cases, if you do speak up, you’ll end up just like Roger Boisjoly — the answer to an obscure trivia question.

That said I’ll bet if he’s still alive, Mr. Boisjoly sleeps very soundly. He may have paid a heavy price from a career standpoint, but he did the right thing at the right moment in time. As for NASA’s George Hardy, well let’s just say I couldn’t live with myself after doing what he did.

To quote the signs I see posted all around Manhattan, “If you see something, say something.”