Mar 26

Love us or hate us. Just don’t ignore us

I can’t tell you how many times we receive an urgent call from a prospective client with a white hot crisis and a need to hire an agency post haste. When this occurs, we weigh the prospect’s ‘clientworthiness’ as well as our ability to properly staff the need and make a ‘go-no go’ decision.

So we’ll draft a detailed plan, include budget and staffing suggestions, and wait to hear back. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. But, increasingly over the past year or so, we do neither. In fact, we end up hearing nothing from the prospect who was so desperate for our assistance. Not one word.

She or he has seemingly fallen off the face of the earth. We give it a few days, or a week, and follow-up, only to get voice mail. We give it a few more days, or a another week, and send an e-mail, only to receive no response. Eventually frustrated, and more than a little upset, we write off the lead entirely.

I’d like to attribute this sort of poor behavior to the marketing types at start-up technology companies, who are running at 1,000 miles per hour. But, the fact is, we now deal almost exclusively with large, established concerns that, one would hope, are staffed with more considerate and responsive professionals.

Obviously, we’re all busy multi-tasking our way through the crazy quilt business landscape we inhabit. But, do yourself a favor and show the professional courtesy of at least responding to someone who has taken the time and effort to share his or her best thinking in your hour of need. By being too busy or self-absorbed to respond, you’re only accomplishing one thing: undermining your own image and reputation.

Feb 27

How not to win friends and influence people

JetBlue has had its share of advocates and defenders in the aftermath of its Valentine’s Day Massacre. And one can argue all day long as to whether the airline did or didn’t do things well, or will or won’t survive.

But one thing’s not up for argument in my book: JetBlue Director of Communications Jenny Dervin has some pretty unhelpful ideas about who to be blaming right now. Here’s a choice quote from Ms. Dervin from a PR Week cover story: "Those (PR) agencies that felt the need to contact our CEO and the corporate communications department directly, telling us exactly what we were doing wrong, were not helpful, and they are all going to go on a special list that I’m going to share with my colleagues in the PR industry, encouraging them never to do business with those companies."

Holy cow! Shades of the Nixon enemies list of the late 1960s and the Hollywood blacklists of the 1950s! Can you believe Ms. Dervin is threatening to hurt the reputations of ANY PR firms that called her, her office or the CEO during the crisis? Aren’t there more pressing matters at hand for her and her company?

Well, Ms. Dervin, I’m pleased to report that we didn’t call you, your department or your CEO. To be sure, we did so some years ago, but didn’t reach out during this crisis. And won’t. Ever.

That said, I do hope that you and JetBlue survive for a very long time. But keep in mind that the PR industry is a relatively small one, where everyone knows everyone else (or almost). Experience shows that people who go out of their way to hurt other people don’t do well in our business (or most others).

So hang onto your job, Ms. Dervin. Else you may find out that others compile their own lists: Executive search recruiters, senior communications executives and heads of agencies all keep lists in their heads of senior staff prospects — good and bad. And while I believe those lists aren’t as mean-spirited as the one being tallied by someone who wants to blacklist PR professionals, it’s a marketplace reality that what goes around can come around.

Feb 07

Where nobody knows your name

Remember the bar on the TV show ‘Cheers‘ where everyone knew your name? It was a warm, inviting place where the regulars shuffled in, plopped down on bar stools and regaled one another with the day’s events. Woody, Coach, Sam and the others knew the customers’ names and life stories, and seemingly picked up on conversations from weeks earlier in mid-sentence. It was a good and funny show and, in its own way, indicative of how great customer service can enhance a brand’s name and reputation.

Now, fast forward to the present and the Lincroft Inn, which is literally right down the street from me and where my wife and I have been dining at the bar/restaurant for years. When we walk in, we always say, ‘Hey Virgil, Hi Micki, Hi Rhonda, etc.’ We even have our own nickname for the manager, a somber looking matron we call ‘the stern taskmaster.’

Anyway, in nine years of frequenting the Inn, do you think any of the employees have even once said, ‘Hey Steve, Hey Angie: How are Chris and Catharine doing?’ or ‘Sorry to hear about Pepper. What a bummer. Drinks are on us tonight,’ or even ‘Hey Steve: a Grgich Hills chard?’ But, nada. Nothing.

We once mentioned this phenomenon to a new bartender who, upon hearing our cheerless ‘Cheers’ tale, swore he would remember our names each and every time we returned. He didn’t.

If the place wasn’t so conveniently located, we’d have stopped going long ago because well, nobody knows our names. It’s a small detail to be sure. But, the best organizations, the best executives and, certainly the best politicians (Clinton was an absolute whiz at this) remember people’s names.

Maybe the next time I drop in on the Inn, I’ll give the lead bartender a boxed dvd set of ‘Cheers.’ Wonder if he’ll get the message?

Dec 06

What’s next? The OJ Simpson School of Sports Management at USC?

Can you believe Florida State University accepted $5 million from the infamous ex-Sunbeam Fsu_1 CEO ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlap to create a ‘Student Success Center’? Unbelievable!

Dunlap was one of the most horrific chief executives in recent American business history. His slash-and-burn management style destroyed countless businesses, not to mention lives. He finally came a cropper when financial irregularities led to his personal downfall and Sunbeam’s eventual bankruptcy. But, like many poorly performing CEOs, Al walked away with a pot load of cash. And, good old Al decided to use a pittance of it to help out a local school.

In FSU’s case, money clearly ‘trumped’ any ethical considerations (pun intended, by the way). When asked why the Florida State web site didn’t mention Dunlap’s sordid past, a spokesperson sniffed, "Our decision was to focus on what this gift will do. We didn’t feel there was anything to be gained by getting into his career." Yeah, sure.

Well, anyway, following the example set by the truly unholy alliance between FSU and Chainsaw Al, how about the following possibilities?

– The Jeffrey Skilling School of Evasive Management at the University of Houston

– The Richard Scrushy School of Creative Finance at the University of Alabama

– The James McGreevey double major in leading double lives at Rutgers University

– The Barry Bonds School of Boorishness at Stanford University

– The James Frey School of Selective Memory at the University of Minnesota.

And so on. And so forth. Feel free to add your own suggestions. Oh, and by the way, if I were an FSU alum, I’d be one royally pissed off Seminole right about now.

Aug 07

The Internet is no excuse for poor manners

Can you believe a 120-person British company decided to terminate one of its employees by a text message? Blue Banana, a body-piercing and jewelry shop based in Cardiff, England, alerted 21-year-old Katy Tanner that she had been sacked via a text message while (or, shall I say whilst?) she was home sick with a migraine. The text message said simply: "We will not require your services anymore. Thank you for your time with us."

Nice. Very nice. Blue Banana Director Jon Taylor said the firm had tried to reach Ms. Tanner "…five or six times" before sending the text message. And, store Director Ian Besbie justified the inhumane corporate behavior because texting has become part of "…youth culture."

Messrs. Taylor and Besbie should be ashamed of their cowardly actions. Regardless of the role of text messaging in youth culture, human beings deserve the courtesy of an in-person explanation when they’re being terminated.

Sad to say, though, I’ll bet this "execution by technology" is not an isolated incident. In fact, we’ve been alerted twice in the past year that we’d not won new business pitches by impersonal "form letter" e-mails. In each case, the prospective client praised the time and effort we’d extended in pursuing their business. In each instance, the prospective client offered to make themselves available to provide in-depth feedback on why we hadn’t been selected. And, in each instance, we were unable to ever connect with the prospect to hear, first-hand, why we’d lost.

Bad manners reflect poorly on not only the individual, but the entire organization. And, if the latter gets a reputation for being cold and impersonal in the way in which it deals with employees, "vendors" and others, then it will find it more difficult to attract and retain the best people and the best customers. Because, in the final analysis, people want to work with people they like and respect. Use of text messaging and e-mail to communicate bad news is just plain bogus.

Jul 18

First impressions can, indeed, last a lifetime

There’s a great article by Sara J. Welch in today’s NY Times (subscription required), entitled, "Traveling with the boss." It’s chock full of useful tips from experts on what to do and not do while traveling with the one’s boss. The bottom line is that a junior employee is "always on" when traveling with a boss, and should act accordingly.

The article brought back a flood of memories for me, both on the sending and receiving end of things.

I remember traveling with a client many years ago to attend a sales retreat. I was about 25 at theTraveling  time, and made sure to ask the client in advance how I should dress for the Sunday afternoon flight to Phoenix. He responded by saying, "dress casually." I took that as an opportunity to wear jeans, t-shirts and sneakers to the airport. Imagine my surprise when, upon conecting with him, I saw the client sporting a blue blazer, blue button-down shirt, khakis and loafers. He immediately pulled me aside and said, "Steve, there’s casual. And, then there’s casual. Don’t let this happen again. Your appearance reflects on me as well and makes me look bad in front of my management." Lesson learned.

The Welch story also advises junior staff to be mindful of what they say to their superiors when traveling on business, and to not be too casual or engage in inane or inappropriate conversations. The latter admonition reminded me of a more recent incident in which I was traveling with one of our newer employees. Up until the point, I’d never really had a chance to speak with her with the exception of a few e-mails, etc. So, as we sat back and relaxed, I told her to go ahead and ask me any question about myself, the agency, or the industry. She became flustered, and was obviously at a complete loss as to what to ask. Knowing that the firm had recently rented a midtown Manhattan apartment for use by our senior executives and visiting clients, she finally blurted out, "So, what does the corporate apartment cost?"

That was it. That was her sole question of me. I answered her question, she nodded her head and then dove headlong into a book she’d brought along. Needless to say, I wasn’t very impressed. And, needless to say, she no longer works with us (not to imply that that comment cost her job. On the contrary, she simply didn’t work out).

Here’s one final, more upbeat travel saga. A group of us were recently traveling to the Midwest, and had encountered endless, weather-related delays. In fact, our late afternoon flight was eventually cancelled and we were forced to stay overnight at a godforsaken Newark-airport hotel, and grab the first flight out the following morning.

Beaten bedraggled and brutalized by the experience, our little quintent shuttled over to the terminal at five am. Once we checked in, we discovered that one of our group had been upgraded to first class. It wasn’t me. But, guess what? The woman who had been upgraded selflessly gave me her first class seat. She’ll forever be a hero to me and today, sits in my partner Ed’s office (only kidding). I may, in fact, remember her in my will.

Business travel, and comporting oneself in a professional manner while traveling, is a subtle, but critical, part of one’s overall professional development and career path. Ms. Welch’s column should be made mandatory reading in all college and university business programs.

Jul 05

People. You can’t live with them. You can’t live without them (although there are a few I could do nicely without, thank you very much)

People are strange beasts. Some can be so warm and engaging. So ready to go out of their way to help.

Others, though, can be unbelievably self-centered and insensitive. And, on this dark and gloomy day, I thought I’d focus on the latter group.

In just the past few weeks alone, I’ve sat alongside friends, associates and acquaintances, all under the guise of "getting together to catch up." Instead of catching up, though, it seems I always end up listening to a one-sided, never-ending litany of what’s new with them, their jobs, their kids, their ailments. You name it. They seem to love to update me.

Yesterday, for example, I sat through an endless progression of high school and college memorabilia trotted out by a friend of my wife’s. While it was interesting to a point, it just went on and on. And, not once did this guy ask me one question about me or what was going on in my life. This seems to happen to me all the time. Maybe I have that, "Hey, tell me your life story" look on my face.

Moving right along to insensitivity, our agency was just informed we didn’t win a piece of business we’d been pitching for god knows how long. The prospect was totally disingenuous throughout the process. First, she told us they wanted to work with us. After the initial meeting, she asked for proposal and budget, saying they wanted to get started asap. So, we submitted the plan and waited. Weeks passed. We checked back in. The prospect said they still wanted to work with us, but now we had to sit on a conference call with a bunch of senior players who had questions about the plan we’d submitted. So, we did. The senior players proceeded to shoot the shit out of the original plan (which the prospect had loved btw). Needless to say, the prospect didn’t defend us or the plan during the call. Based upon the new direction, we were asked to revise the plan and present it in person. Wary of the changing weather patterns, we asked if we were still the lone agency. We were assured we were. So, our team went to the prospect’s office and gave the presentation. As our group was leaving, we bumped into another agency’s pitch team. Nice. Very nice. And, today we got the call saying the other firm had gotten the business because they had brought a larger team. Oh brother.

I’m a firm believer in the adage, "what goes around comes around." This prospect will undoubtedly "get hers" one day down the road. As for the boorish people who ask to get together to "catch up," but instead talk only about themselves, maybe I should tape the conversations and send them, along with a cover note saying, "It was great to catch up. Let me know if you’d like me to elaborate on any of the points covered in the cassette."

Jun 23

Be careful what you say. The bridge you burn may be your own

Dan Rather’s parting shots at CBS were probably not the most graceful words the legendary Drather_1 journalist  has uttered in his nearly half-century-long career. He lamented the network’s treatment of him and said he would not accept the offer of an empty office and no assignments on which to work. You really can’t blame him. And, considering the fact that his days as a major network anchor are over, Rather probably didn’t burn any bridges with his potshots.

That said, one does have to be very careful about what one says about a former employer or co-worker, especially in such a relatively small field as public relations where everyone knows everyone else. In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit to being guilty of violating this credo, having often shared my very negative views on the CEO to whom I once reported. While I was (and am) wrong for badmouthing the guy, many others who have come in contact with the Neanderthal agreed with my feelings (and often have better, even more insane anecdotes than my own).

Badmouthing a former employer can come back to bite you in the butt in the least expected way. Recently, for example, we were competing for a piece of new business against several other firms. At the end of our presentation, the prospect pulled my partner aside and told him that a former employee (now with a competitor) said she had been our best publicist and that, since her departure, we no longer had any top-flight media relations people. The prospect told my partner he’d automatically eliminated the firm because of the unprofessional comment. And, needless to say, that particular individual won’t be welcomed back to our office any time soon.

So, think through what you’re going to say before ‘dissing’ someone. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book about the Lincoln cabinet called "Team of Rivals," Honest Abe would always write a "hot letter" to himself listing the transgressions of someone who had really ticked him off. Having vented his anger, Lincoln then proceeded to discard the letter. That sounds like a great way to deal with negative feelings about former employers or co-workers.

Hat tip to Dandy Stevenson for this idea.

May 02

The clothes make the man (or woman)

Joe Sharkey’s NY Times travel column today covers an interesting subject: proper business attire. In Sharkey’s piece, he recounts the style gaffe he’d recently committed by wearing a light colored business suit to a mid-Summer meeting in Tokyo. That’s a no-no, says Sharkey, who advises readers to always wear dark, traditional suits when conducting business in Japan.

Sharkey’s piece got me to thinking about some of the fashion disasters we’ve had over the years at Peppercom. For example, there was:

1) the Jimmy Buffet-type media specialist who loved to sport his Hawaiian shirts, jeans and flip Flip_flops flops in the office. This guy was a great publicist, but we cringed at the thought of bringing him to client meetings (not that he didn’t have very attractive feet mind you).

2) the management supervisor who wore a New Jersey Devils jersey and cap every Friday. Now, I’m a big fan of casual dress codes, but managers simply shouldn’t wear baseball caps in the office (unless, of course, they actually work for a sports team).

3) the female manager who wore low riders and oh so visible thongs. I’ll never forget the shocked reaction of our then-consultant when he spotted the fashion gaffe. This woman was so oblivious to the distraction she was causing that we had to enlist our human resources manager to do an intervention.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to dress in the office. Sensing what’s right and what’s not is a key part of building one’s image and reputation within the organization. While it won’t make or break a career, flip-flops and low riders can definitely slow down its progress. When in doubt, though, follow the dress codes of your supervisors (unless, of course, they’re wearing ice hockey jerseys or showing too much of their anatomy).