May 09

How to Stop the Scarlet Bleed

Today’s guest post is by JGAPeppercommer Samantha Bruno.

imagrutgersesAs a Rutgers’ graduate, and the daughter of a Rutgers’ graduate, I am incredibly proud to say I bleed Scarlet red. I became a brand ambassador for the university long before I ever entered PR professionally. I showed the school to prospective students and their families as an overnight and classroom campus host and was a university tour guide and new student orientation leader.  Receiving my diploma only increased my desire to show my Rutgers’ pride. I readily take advantage of any excuse to go back onto campus, including a recent invitation to film a video for their website on behalf of the career center.

All things considered, the past 13 months have been tumultuous for us Knights, to say the least. While making Melissa McCarthy’s hilarious SNL Skit possible, the handling of an abusive men’s basketball coach was extremely unfortunate, only fueled later by drama around the new Athletic Director. Recently, student protests around Condoleezza Rice’s commencement speech had me holding out hope that Rutgers might finally take their head out of the sand and handle a PR situation with finesse. I should have known to lower my expectations. With headlines like “Rutgers’ Ineptitude on Display Again,” Rutgers’ brand ambassadors, including both current and former students, can only do so much to represent the university in a positive light.

Condoleezza Rice declining the commencement speech gave Rutgers an opportunity to shine in the face of increased media attention. They failed. Sure, Rutgers will be remembered in this situation, but primarily for botching their handling of one of Rutgers most beloved figures, our #52. Having walked the same halls at the same time as Eric LeGrand, before his life changing injury while playing football for Rutgers, it’s disappointing.

Eric LeGrand has served as a beacon of hope in a dark moment for Rutgers. The show of support that came in the wake of his injury on campus was overwhelming. It didn’t matter if you knew him or not, everyone joined together in a show of solidarity. I remember getting emotional hearing that Coach Greg Schiano offered LeGrand a contract, however short lived, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This was a family, no matter how extended we were.

It’s not important who asked who to speak at the commencement or who rescinded which offer, the perception is that the RU Screw is alive and well, and after all, isn’t perception all that really matters?

There are times when apologies are appropriate and this is one of them. Publicly apologize to Eric. Apologize to the student body. Apologize to the alumni. Don’t you want the 65,000 current students to serve as a walking advertisement for the State College of New Jersey? As for the alumni, there are approximately 450,000 of us spread out across the country and around the globe. That’s an awful lot of rumpled feathers. When I received the e-mail from President Robert Barchi announcing former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean as the new commencement speaker, I was dissatisfied that the letter didn’t address any of the issues and made only a general announcement. A little transparency could go a long way within the Knight community, but it doesn’t look like the money we paid to attend bought us that courtesy.

Call me naïve, but I am still holding out hope that RU pulls it together.  Scarlet pride runs deep and if they took responsibility for a few mistakes, they would have an army of Knights standing behind them. If I may quote our fight song, Rutgers, give us something to “swim upstream” over.

May 08

You Can’t Do That In PR- Part I

Today’s guest RepMan post is by WALEKPeppercommer Stefan Prelog.

cant do that on tv 9.99 80steesToday’s GenX and Yers may remember the Nickelodeon’s show “You Can’t Do That on Television,” featuring sketches that were used to set up “sliming” a cast member with  green goo when they said, “I don’t know.” This 1990’s show permeated pop culture with its sliming stunt and everyone from ‘The Onion’ to ‘Family Guy’ has lampooned it.

I use this show as an example to highlight the problems with PR stunts. Poorly conceived stunts may generate some short-term exposure, but in the process they risk overshadowing the bigger strategy and the offending company or brand risks getting, well, slimed.  But if a stunt is strategic and properly executed it can become memorable enough to live on in the annals of pop culture  and maybe even history, i.e.,  P.T. Barnum famously led 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in 1884 to squash the growing concern that the bridge wasn’t stable.

So in honor of that unforgettable show, here is the first edition of “You Can’t Do that in PR.” Stunts are rated in effectiveness from one to five slimes.

Snakes in a Taxi
Comedian and former taxi driver Jimmy Failla promoted his book, Follow That Car!: A Cabbie’s Guide to Conquering Fears, Achieving Dreams, and Finding a Public Restroom, by picking up unsuspecting New Yorkers and filming their “holy s*it” reactions as he scared the bejesus out of them with a 10-foot Albino Phython.  The snake was real but the danger wasn’t—a professional snake handler hid in the front seat.  Nonetheless, the freaked out passengers evoked so much venom (sorry, I couldn’t resist) that the videos went viral and got tons of publicity. Failla was allegedly even approached by two producers who wanted to pull the prank in other places. It’s tough promoting a book and, even though the stunt got a lot of attention, it was a ten-foot reach.
One slime for Failla.

A President Between Two Ferns
Our Commander in Chief makes our inaugural list for his appearance on the Zach Galifianakis online video series “Between Two Ferns.”  The appearance was an attempt to encourage people to sign up for health care coverage on the beleaguered government website.   President Obama had the timing and chops to counter Galifianakis’ barbs but you had to cringe watching it.
The appearance received an enormous amount of publicity and gave Republicans more fodder to criticize the President.  The stunt clearly showed the President’s desperation to get people to sign up on the site.
Two slimes for the Pres.

A Close Encounter of the Underage Kind
James Franco is everywhere.  Movies, plays, soap operas, sitcoms, you name it. So when news broke that he had tried to hook up with an underage Scottish girl on Instagram, it looked like exhaustion took its toll.  Almost immediately after the news came out, it was reported Franco’s attempted pick up was part of a viral marketing campaign for an upcoming Franco movie called “Palo Alto,” which is based on a collection of shorts which he of course wrote.  The stunt has not been confirmed.  Franco is either a creepy social media troll or part of a failed movie marketing campaign.   But since he’s just so damn prolific, I have to give him a pass.
Three slimes.

Until next time, keep your brand from getting slimed and when in doubt, lead a parade of elephants over a bridge.  That’s always worth five slimes.

May 07

Continuing Ed with Prof. Buffett

Today’s guest post is by WALEKPeppercommer Dmitriy Ioselevich.

____Buff20y1950aWarren Buffett is known for being many things—a legendary investor, a shrewd businessman, a noble philanthropist and one of the most influential people in the world. But, like anyone, he isn’t immune to criticism.

Buffett was in some hot water recently for not publicly opposing a controversial plan by Coca-Cola to reward its executives with a lucrative compensation plan. The plan was approved last week by Coke’s voting shareholders, with Buffett declining to vote against it.

It was exactly the kind of thing that Buffett, who is one of Coke’s largest shareholders, is known for opposing. He once called stock options “free lottery tickets” and is an outspoken critic of excessive executive compensation and how it represents everything that the general public hates about Wall Street.

But Buffett redeemed himself at the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, saying that he did in fact oppose the Coke plan, but preferred to raise his concerns to CEO Muhtar Kent in private. He didn’t want to “go to war” with a close business partner, pointing out that boards are “part-business and part-social organization.”

It’s telling that Buffett thinks it would be more productive to work directly with Coke’s executives, rather than staging a very public and costly activist campaign—the method du jour of many of his similarly wealthy contemporaries. (Hello, Bill Ackman.) At a time when many professional financiers are willing to use whatever resources necessary to get what they want (even Twitter), Buffett is using the most effective problem-solving technique ever—talking.

His actions have great potential ramifications for the financial industry, where ‘talking’ is sometimes akin to cowardice or weakness, but also serve as a powerful reminder for the rest of us.

Conflicts are an inevitable part of any industry, especially the communications industry. But solving the short-term problem—in this case, Coke’s executives getting a bit greedy—rarely solves the long-term problem. It merely kicks the proverbial can down the road until it’s someone else’s problem. (General managers of professional sports teams are notorious for doing this. I’m already excited to see the Washington Redskins self-combust on live TV tomorrow night at the 2014 NFL Draft).

It’s human nature to be short-sighted, but in the communications world that sort of mentality can be fatal. Clients may demand solutions now, but solutions that are hastily conceived and executed often lead to even more problems. Likewise, Buffett wasn’t as interested in what Coke was doing in 2014 as he was in what they will be doing 10 or 20 years in the future.

Buffett may be the ‘Oracle of Omaha,’ but something tells me that he would’ve done just fine in PR.



May 06

NYC Subway promises and delivers

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer, and co-host of RepTV, Paul Merchan.

f-train-derailment-queensAs my wife and I navigate the NY City subway system with our two-year old, a stroller and a bag full of toddler necessities, we often complain about this sole means of transportation for most New Yorkers. Subway stations date back to the early 20th century and then there are the delays…

But I do think it’s about time I gave our unheralded train system it’s props.

Last Friday, an F train careened off a set of broken tracks and caused the closure of the entire express line running along Queens Boulevard and caused massive delays into and out of Manhattan.

The derailment happened at an off-peak time, thankfully. There were only 19 injuries; it could have been much worse. And of course the damage to the system was tremendous.

Even though the NY MTA promised to have regular service by the Monday morning rush hour, I thought there was no way that could happen. We’re talking about broken tracks, and that’s about as major a problem you could ask for.

Lo and behold, Monday morning came, and not only were express trains running, but it was a relatively smooth ride. Trains ran slower at the damage point, as to be expected, but it turns out work crews DID fix the problem over the weekend. And that was just in time for us regular Joes to avoid a first-world problem – getting to work late.

In my book, that earns the MTA a gold star. Even the way they handled the accident on Friday was on point. The MTA chairman gave a brief but informative interview session just above ground from where the derailment took place. He answered reporter’s questions, was fair and honest, didn’t seem defensive when they questioned the safety of the system, and subsequently issued a promise that he kept.

When it comes to reputation, that’s pretty textbook to me. And when it comes to making it in the city that never sleeps, I think we have a winner.

May 05

TAPS fits like a glove for pugilist and publicist alike

image001I’ve been training for the past two years or so with fitness guru and boxer extraordinaire, Eric Daniels (Note: I highly recommend Eric. You can reach him at

In our many, many boxing sessions, Eric repeatedly has me focus on what he calls T.A.P.S., an acronym that stands for:
– Technique
– Accuracy
– Power
– Speed

In contemplating his recommendation, it suddenly dawned on me that Eric’s acronym works equally well for an aspiring media relations professional (and, yes, Virginia, all the blurred lines notwithstanding, clients still pay BIG bucks for BIG placements by good old publicists).

So, here’s how every media pro (young, old or no longer living) should apply the TAPS acronym to her strategy:

– Technique. I’m guessing the average publicist who disdains e-mail, and actually calls a reporter (gasp!) has about 30 seconds to make her pitch. So, technique is critical. Ask the reporter if he has 30 seconds, frame up the pitch in a problem-solution way and suggest your client is uniquely qualified to provide tips, analysis or the name of a hot, new restaurant.  Any of those three might buy you another 30-seconds with which to plead your case.

– Accuracy. Too many Millennial publicists rely solely on e-mail blasts to pitch stories to the media. That results is several outcomes:
1.) Pissing off any, and all, reporters.
2.) Demonstrating your laziness to your boss.
3.) Ensuring your client’s message will never see the light of day.
Before engaging, take a few minutes to read what a reporter has written and what her passions are. If applicable, link your client’s product or service to the journalist’s beat and it’s just quite possible your accuracy will pay off in an interview.

3.) Power. Once you’ve taken the time to master technique and accuracy, you can bang out a left hook and pitch your story to a Wall Street Journal reporter or CNN producer. Note: these are the crème de la crème, so do NOT test steps one and two on a power player or you may find yourself (and your firm) forever blacklisted from the journalist’s Rolodex. And, that’s killed more than one PR career.

4.) Speed. Now that you know how to frame a pitch, and to whom the story you’ll be pitching should be pitched, you can dazzle friends, co-workers and the local fruit stand guy with your speed. Great publicists can score tens, if not scores, of interviews in a single day AFTER they’ve mastered the TAPS tips.

In summation, make sure you wrap your hands thoroughly before slipping on the gloves and remember to duck. Every now and then, Eric forgets and he WILL nail the unsuspecting pugilist. The same holds true for that Associated Press reporter you just had hang up on you. He might forget about you OR, gulp, he may tell his peers to avoid any future calls or e-mails from Little Johnny Jones (that’s you).

And, then the PR industry will be playing a real-world version of TAPS for your career.

May 02

Ageism in the workplace is getting old

620-age-discrimination-infographicI had lunch with a 61-year-old colleague the other day. While he has a steady consulting gig at the moment, he aspires to be a CCO or VP of PR at a Fortune 500 corporation. But, he feels he doesn’t stand a chance.

‘What company would take a risk on me?’ he lamented. ‘When they see me, they don’t look at my long list of accomplishments. Nor do they see a bright, passionate, experienced guy who can still hit the ball out of the park. Instead, they figure out my age, and end up telling me I’m not a good fit,’ he sighed.

My colleague isn’t alone. I receive e-mail notes with resumes attached from 40-something’s, 50-something’s and, gasp, even some from 60-something’s. They’re all highly qualified and possess decades of experience. But, Corporate America AND most PR firms see them as simply too expensive and/or set in their ways.

According to the AARP, one in five American workers is now 50 years of age, or older (insert infographic below). Two-thirds have experienced age discrimination in the workplace. And more than half believe discrimination begins once one hits the big five-oh.

Ageism in the PR world is YET another unpleasant topic our industry trade media simply choose to overlook (along with abusive workplaces, bosses, clients who change agencies more frequently than their socks, etc.). So, I thought it was time an alleged thought leader spoke up (that would be moi).

I’m in a fortunate position as co-founder and CEO of Peppercomm, a 110-person, $19 million firm. Unless I wake up one day and decide my services are no longer needed, I have the option to work as long as I like.

And, I’m proud to say my firm most definitely DOES NOT practice age discrimination. In fact, our two most recent hires were a director of content strategy and a new creative director who, between them, possess years and years of award-winning experience.

In fact, our junior executives would tell you we have too many seniors at Peppercomm. But, we pride ourselves on providing the best, most strategic advice to clients. And, while there are most definitely exceptions to the rule, wisdom comes from experience. Period.

That’s not to say we won’t fast-track a gifted 26-year-old who’s doing everything right. And, it doesn’t stop us from firing a 40-something who is simply going through the motions (and, having come from a large agency, never learned to roll up his/her sleeves and do his/her own work).

We’re a meritocracy where age is discussed only when we’re celebrating birthdays or work anniversaries.

I do feel for my 50-something peers and don’t envy their search for meaningful employment. Too many CEOs, CFOs and human resource managers are being told to find cost-effective solutions to hiring needs (read: cheap, young talent).

At Peppercomm, age is nothing more than a number.