May 06

The best teacher in history

Ask most successful people if a single teacher had had a profound effect on them and you'll undoubtedly receive a resounding "Yes!"

Fowler_boatIn my case, that teacher was William M. Fowler, Jr., Distinguished Professor of History, at  Northeastern University, (pictured left.)

Here's what made Fowler so instrumental in my future success:

1) He brought classroom lectures to life. Whether it was discussing the deadlocked 1876 presidential election between Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes or the rise of Marat and Robespierre in revolutionary France, Fowler BECAME those protagonists. He literally took on their personas and acted as he believed they had in the heat of the moment. It was spellbinding to say the least.

2) He was entirely accessible and welcomed commentary. So, instead of waiting for questions at the end of a lecture, Fowler would pause, mid sentence, and say something like, "Mr. Cody, is there something about what Samuel Tilden just said that concerns you?"For a shy, introverted student who had never been encouraged to participate in classroom discussion in grammar or high school, Fowler's 'method' provided me with a safety net with which to begin voicing my views in public.

3.) He encouraged and rewarded creativity. For one final exam, he asked us to imagine three great figures from the Civil War getting together and discussing the political scene of the late 1970s. I had a blast creating a two-act play featuring dialogue from Frederick Douglass, Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln positing their views of then President Jimmy Carter's response to the Iran Hostage Crisis. I was thrilled with the A-plus grade I received and still have the little blue exam book in my files.

Fowler's impact on me was enormous. I entered the workforce confident of my views and unafraid to speak up in a Hill & Knowlton conference room crowded with far older, much more seasoned PR professionals.

I don't know a better way to thank Professor Fowler than to dedicate this blog to him. Oh, and by the way, if you have a story about a teacher who made a huge difference in your life, please share it on the Repman blog. It's not a stretch to say that without Fowler, there'd be no Repman (which may, or may not, be a good thing).

Mar 14

And Gettysburg citizens should be proud of their contributions to the oil and gas sector

Like the late, great Wall Street firm, Merrill Lynch, Tea Party candidates are a breed apart. They provide a steady stream of malaprops, mangled grammar and misinformation that make me laugh, cry and sigh.

The latest Tea Partier to demonstrate an utter lack of knowledge about U.S. history is Michele Bachmann.

Speaking before a group of supporters in Concord, New Hampshire, Ms. Bachmann praised them for living on the hallowed ground where the fabled “shot heard 'round the world” was fired. There was only one thing wrong with her comment. Bachmann was in the wrong state. The opening salvos that touched off the American Revolution were fired in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, not New Hampshire. Oh well, who cares about a minor thing like historical accuracy when one is a high-profile, elected official advocating for the  dismemberment of, among other things, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which provides American citizens with the type of daily information necessary to learn such tidbits as where this country of ours  began.)?

But, far be it from Tea Party types such as Bachmann, Christine O'Donnell and Alaska's momma grizzly to let things like facts and figures get in their way. Since they believe they're re-writing history, why should they need to learn it in the first place? And, why stop with things like misunderstanding the First Amendment (O'Donnell), or, being unable to name one newspaper she'd recently read or Ms. Bachman's geographic blunder?

Even though they're consistently wrong in their facts, street smart Tea Party candidates know two key facts about their public gaffes:

A) They create news and
B) They really don't matter much since their adoring fans know less about history and geography than they do.

In analyzing the 'gaffe potential' of the various primary states, I'm pleased to report the upside potential is literally limitless. Among other  opportunities, Tea Party candidates can:

– Congratulate J.P. Getty for saving the Union in 1863 when he defeated
 Robert E. Lee on a battlefield subsequently named him.
– Visit Christ's birthplace in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
– Tour the site of the actual witch trials while campaigning in Salem,
 Oregon.

America hasn't experienced a more inept, more out-of-touch political party since the 1850s when Nativists did their very best to prevent further immigration by Irish Catholics.

Knowing the average Tea Party candidate, though, she'd probably embrace the “Know Nothing” moniker as a badge of courage: “I may know nothing about history or geography, but I do know how to undo collective bargaining for unions, strip funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and accuse an entire religion of fostering terrorism. With accomplishments like those, who needs to know where the shot heard 'round the world was fired?'

Feb 28

PR girls gone wild

I recently attended a board meeting of the Council of PR Firms (www.prfirms.org).  Pict_20090305PHT50992

As one of the original members of the now 10-year-old trade association, I'm one of its biggest supporters. I've often urged owners of midsized and smaller firms to join, since the Council not only represents the creme de la creme, but provides invaluable guidance and input to members. And, unlike its more staid siblings, the Council isn't afraid to tackle some of the industry's biggest issues.

Case in point: Kathy Cripps, the council's president, is one of the few industry leaders to address the diversity issue. But, unlike her peers, Kathy doesn't limit her definition of diversity to the color of one's skin. Like me, she recognizes the inordinate gender imbalance that threatens our industry's future.

Kathy recently wrote about this imbalance in The Firm Voice, the association's blog. Sadly, though, when she raised the 'G' word at the recent board meeting, it was given amazingly short shrift. That's probably because it's a bit of a political football (after all, PR was rightly seen as an old boys' club for many decades and the women who have risen to positions of power aren't about to undo what's been accomplished to date).

That's a shame, because gender imbalance is becoming a big, big problem in PR. I see it every time I lecture on college campuses. Almost without fail, the PR and communications classes are 85 to 90 percent female.

The end result is to simultaneously alienate an entire generation of young men while attracting a plethora of star struck Hollywood wanna-bes.

I was recently interviewed about the gender gap and asked how I'd solve it. “Easy,” I said. “Raise millions of dollars and begin an awareness campaign aimed at young men in high school.” My tongue-in-cheek response was half serious. We'll never raise the monies necessary to change kids' perception of our field, but the battle needs to be fought in high schools. By the time they've reached a college campus, young women have already decided the lifestyles portrayed on ‘The Hills,' Kell on Earth' and 'Sex in the City' are way cool. At the same time, most 'guys' have washed their hands of what they see as a 'girls-only' profession.

We haven't experienced the full repercussions yet, but we will. Any industry that doesn't reflect the rapidly-changing demographics of 21st century America will soon find itself behind the proverbial eight ball.

PR is doing all the right things in terms of recruiting at historically black colleges & universities, as well as reaching out to Asian and Latino communities. But, we've done absolutely NOTHING to connect with young men.

The time will come in the not-too-distant future when marketers seeking to reach a young male audience will look across the conference room table as team after team of female-only PR agency team pitch their business. They'll shake their heads and say, “Sorry, ladies, but we need to engage with firms who 'live' our target audience's lives. Advertising and digital firms are doing a much better job of gender balance, so we'll just partner with them. Thanks for the time and effort, though. And, good luck with tonight's red carpet movie premier. Let us know if Johnny Depp shows up.”

Jan 28

Comedy, Internships, and PR

Today's guest post is by Peppercom intern Nick 'the Knife" Light.

Recently my boss, Steve “Repman” Cody, was generous enough to treat me and several of my young colleagues to a night of stand-up comedy. The comedian? None other than Steve Cody himself.

Steve Steve explained to me and my young colleagues that attending one of his stand-up gigs is “a rite of passage.” But, I was thinking that there could be a potential for this “passage” to be more like that of a kidney stone than the kind where a young man emerges a proven warrior (or any other similarly awesome passage). (Note: The drawing to the left is not Steve Cody. I imagine someone like this to be at an awesome rite of passage ceremony.)

Don’t get me wrong, contrary to what people say about Steve, he is actually a pretty nice guy. But, other than fun-yet-safe office humor, I had never heard Steve’s jokes, and had no idea if he would be funny. Would that have been a problem? Not really. The potential negative was simply the lack of a positive: if Steve proved himself under the stage lights, I would confer secret points upon him as a boss.

Here is the part of the post where I tell you that I am a newly-hired PR intern at Peppercom. Why does that matter? Although I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it, the situation seemed to hold the potential for some kind of teacher-to-pupil imparting of lessons. You know how it works. If I study the comedy routine hard enough, I’ll see some stroke of genius either in the message or the act of the performance.

I’m not going to pretend to know more about PR than I do. I’ve learned a ton so far, the work is exciting, and I hope to continue to learn. But, I have no idea how Peppercom stacks up against others in PR with respect to our professional reputation, work environment, or…… ummmmmm…… remuneration.

I guess what I’m saying is that, right now, it’s good to see that one of the founding partners (of the company at which I landed an internship) sometimes gets on stage and tells jokes. In all seriousness, I think it bodes well for my future, as well as those of others here at Peppercom. If that’s the message Steve was trying to impart to us young minds, he succeeded.  I won’t hold it against him that I didn’t get some of his Jersey jokes. What can I say? Most New Yorkers don’t even think people actually live in the Adirondack Mountains, where I grew up.

Jan 18

All work and no play…

Today's guest post is by  Catharine “Goose" Cody.

I have the best mother ever.  I’ve always known that. But, a recent Wall Street Journal article by Amy Chua just confirmed it. 

Me and mom In her piece, entitled: ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’,  Chua describes parenting customs that are inherent in the Chinese culture, but missing in most Western homes.  For example, Chua says she never allowed her children to attend a sleepover, have play dates, act in a school play, watch television or achieve any grade lower than an A. Talk about all work and no play making Jack a dull boy!

Chua insists these strict rules are the reason why her daughters are successful.  Had she not been such a stern taskmaster, Chua writes, her kids wouldn’t be performing at Carnegie Hall or consistently finishing first in their respective classes.

That may be true. But, in my opinion, the Chua children undoubtedly missed out on some of the best parts of childhood.

My brother, Chris and I, grew up in a fairly lenient household. Our parents encouraged, rather than forced, us to pursue our dreams.  We were permitted to sleep over at a friend’s house, perform in talent shows, and even, dare I say it, bring home grades of B, and lower! 

Chris and I are turned out to be pretty normal kids (at least in my mind). And, we did very well academically.  As far as how we’re doing professionally, I’ve just graduated from Monmouth University and am a full-time production assistant at MSNBC. Chris is pursuing his passion for history, and is in the midst of attaining a master’s degree at Northeastern University.

I’ll bet that, as they mature and reflect on their childhoods, Amy Chua’s kids will feel they missed out on, well, being kids.
I can tell you that performing in grammar school talent shows was probably one of the best experiences of my life. In fact, dancing to ‘No Limit’ provided a once-in-a-lifetime high I’ll never forget.  There I was, at the tender age of eight, dancing on stage in a glitter-and-rhinestone studded costume that most surely would have made Amy Chua cringe.

Chris and I were also pretty big partiers in high school.  We had curfews, but our parents didn’t flip if we came home a little late.  It’s not that they weren’t worried about our safety, they most certainly were. Instead, they trusted us to make our own decisions.  And, that was huge.

If our parents hadn’t let us date during high school, I shudder to think what would have happened when we reached college.  Many of my friends with strict, Chua-like parents, went berserk during their freshman years and, unfortunately, fell victim to alcohol poisoning, sexually transmitted diseases and other setbacks.

My dad writes a great deal about image and reputation in his blog. And, many of us buy into the notion that one of the reasons our country is falling behind is precisely because Asian moms such as Amy Chua are raising baby Einsteins. I think the issue is much more complex. And, while Amy’s kids might be ridiculously smart, are they happy?  Or, will they be happy in the future? Maybe. But, I don’t think so.

Too much of anything is a bad thing. My biggest fear for Amy Chua’s kids is that, one day many years from now, they’ll look back and ask the ‘What if’ question. What if I hadn’t done everything my mom insisted I do and, instead, did what I wanted to do? Chris Cody and I will never be asking ourselves that question. And, thanks for that, Mom.

Jan 14

How many lawyers does it take to pay back a student loan?

Today's guest post is by Greg Schmalz, president of Schmalz Communications.


 The future. No one has a crystal ball as to what tomorrow will bring.  Just ask your local weatherman. There are no guarantees, especially in life. But for teenagers and college students, the one thing they cling to is hope for the future. 

Lasky_Mzzz The value of a good education has been drilled into them by parents and educators. College students pick their majors and then pursue their dreams.  Pretty much like a leprechaun hoping to reac h the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow-  to reap the rewards, there must be some risk. 

And while U.S. News in 1997 painted a rosy picture for future law students, today is anything but rosy with unemployment hovering around 10 percent. An article in Sunday's New York Times focuses on how graduates with law degrees are steeped in debt (some in the neighborhood of $250,000) for schooling, yet are unemployed. Like any other industry, the law profession has been hit hard by the economy. While tuition costs vary, paying in the range of $150,000-$200,000 is not out of the realm.

Sure, once a graduate with a J.D. degree finds employment, salary could be upwards of $150,000 annually.  But how long will these graduates need to sit on the sideline before they get their chance in the real world?

Unemployment checks aren't going to help much when they are overwhelmed with debt. Is the risk worth it?  The only job I know where you start at the top is a grave digger.  Have some of these students who chose law as a profession made a "grave" mistake? 

While there may be prestige in becoming a lawyer, it still doesn't put food on the table if you don't have a job. Many of us have transitioned from one career to another. Students these days are going to have to take a serious look at this profession before determining their career path or at least have something to fall back on.

What suggestions would you have?

Dec 21

The Lion in Winter

I've worked for two lions in winter. 334578-bigthumbnail 

Both were aging CEOs in the twilight of their careers. Both were both named Jim. And, both told me I should be ashamed of myself (but, for dramatically different reasons.)

The first Jim was president of a global consulting firm in the mid-1980s. He was terminally ill with severe emphysema, yet continued to manage day-to-day operations with charm, wit and dedication.

As the consulting firm's first director of global communications, I had my hands full to say the least. Maybe that's why Jim went out of his way to schedule weekly meetings with me (talk about having a seat at the table!).

Despite his myriad responsibilities (and intense pain), Jim always found time to discuss strategy, read my copy and suggest edits. After one lengthy session, I thanked him for his generosity. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Someday, you'll be in my position. I want you to be just as patient with your young employees as I am with you.” That made a big impression on me.

On another occasion, though, he sighed after reviewing an article I'd written about our Brazilian operations. He put the copy down and asked me if I spoke a second language. I shook my head no. Jim said he was ashamed of me, and added: “Every one of the foreign employees you write about speaks English as a second or third language. You should be ashamed you don't speak a second language. In fact, none of our American employees do. It doesn't matter to me. And, it probably won't matter to your generation but, trust me, foreign nationals will run rings around your kids' generation.” Talk about prescient.

The other Jim was the polar opposite. He reveled in intrigue, office politics and negativity. And, he was the antithesis of a mentor. Once, when four or five senior executives were sitting around a conference table, Jim folded his arms and sniffed, “You should all be ashamed.” When one of us asked why, he said, “Because none of you attended an Ivy League school. You lack the intellectual rigor that only an Ivy League education can provide.” We collectively shook our heads in amazement and disgust.

I didn't buy into his ersatz logic, then or now. It isn't where someone goes to college that determines success but, rather, how one performs at work. That's why we recruit from schools such as Marist, Northeastern and the College of Charleston. We don't want people who, like the second Jim, are elitists and think they're better than everyone else.  We want can-do, hard-working, team-oriented people.

When autumn turns to winter for this blogger, I intend to be the second coming of the first Jim.

Oct 25

Name any business that not only rejects the majority of its prospective customers, but also boasts about doing so

That was the question posed by Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun Thursday at a 14_seal meeting of the University's "Corporation", a group of 50 or so alumni and benefactors that I'm proud to say I've joined.

The answer to President Aoun's provocative question is colleges and universities. He spoke specifically about N.U. which, under his guidance the past four years, has skyrocketed its way up the most important national rankings, attracted some of the world's most gifted academics and become a real player among the elite universities. Indeed, of the nearly 38,000 applicants received this past year, Northeastern rejected nearly two-thirds!

But, Northeastern isn't content to rest on its laurels. The President advised us of some serious global competition from China, Korea, Australia and the United Kingdom that's keeping him up at night. The latter two, deprived of government funding for higher education, have become extremely aggressive in their marketing. The former two, supported by government monies, are fast becoming major factors in higher education. China, said Aoun, has doubled its number of colleges and universities in just 10 years (and the average university is the same size as the city of Boston!). Korea, he said, is making a major push at recruiting international students and is competing with our best schools for the very same talent pool.

Northeastern has a distinct competitive advantage over virtually every other college and university in the world. It's called 'Co-op' and stands for cooperative education. It's a somewhat clumsy phrase to describe THE perfect blend of classroom and real world experience. N.U. pioneered co-op more than 100 years ago and has perfected the model, creating deep and long-lasting relationships with such major global employers as General Electric (no school has more alumni at GE than N.U.). As a result, the vast majority of Northeastern's graduates land jobs. In fact, the school placed no fewer than 83 percent of its June graduates in the midst of the worst recession in 80 years. Compare that number with some state and small liberal arts schools that struggle to place 30 percent of their graduating classes (and are just now getting around to formalizing their intern programs).

N.U.'s success is due, in part, to Aoun's contrarian approach. While other schools were retrenching, Northeastern was investing and expanding. Since 2006, it's hired no fewer than 204 new faculty and improved a campus that is now rated, along with Harvard, as Boston's greenest (a huge factor in attracting the best and brightest Millennials, BTW).

Speaking of the best and brightest, Northeastern is making its acceptance standards even more rigorous. The majority of incoming freshman graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes and N.U. now boasts more national merit scholars than ever before.

It's nice to see a real American education success story. It's even nicer to be playing a role in helping President Aoun and his staff take the school to even greater heights.

That said, Steve Cody, Northeastern University class of 1977, wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of ever being accepted to the world class institution that is the N.U. of today.

Oct 18

Wipe the Crumbs Off Your Face or Admit You Ate the Cookie

Today's guest post is by Emily Simmons, a graduate student in communications at the College of Charleston.

He’s famously known as the SEC basketball coach who painted his chest orange in support of the Lady Vols and the first head coach to lead the Volunteers to a #1 national ranking.  Bruce Pearl Ncaa06_mp_t607 led his team into the Elite 8 during the 2010 Men’s NCAA Tournament, the only time in the university’s history.  Now he is the man barely holding on to his job and what’s left of his pride. 

On Sept. 10, Pearl spoke the words that an 'Orange Nation' hoped were not true.  He not only violated recruitment violations, but he lied to NCAA officials during interviews in June.  Although Pearl doesn’t directly admit lying to authorities, he describes his violations as “misleading information.” 

According to the NCAA, Pearl exceeded regulations set for the amount of phone calls coaching staff was allowed to make to recruits.  He is also accused of allowing recruits and their families to extend visits over the 48 hours allotted to a recruit, with each visit being paid for by University of Tennessee’s Athletic Department.  Following his June meeting with NCAA investigators, Pearl reportedly met with UT Athletic Director Mike Hamilton to fess up.  Why then was it not until September that he came clean to the public?

The old saying that a picture speaks a thousand words may be the reason why he kept his mouth shut for a few months.  The NCAA obtained a photo of three prospective recruits in Pearl’s home, catching him with his hand in the cookie jar.  NCAA regulations state that high school juniors are not allowed contact with coaching staff off campus.  Following the photo leak, the coach held a press conference during which he shed a few dry tears and choked over his words while apologizing to his family, the NCAA, his staff, Tennessee fans and of course, his players and recruits.  He admitted to violating NCAA regulations and misleading authorities during their investigation.  But, did he really admit that he was the one who stole the cookie?

He confesses that while he blatantly disregarded national rules, he was only sorry for lying about them afterwards.  Pearl vows to cooperate fully during the continuation of the investigation, but he and his staff have failed to answer any further questions from the media.  While he claims he “learned it’s not ok to tell the truth most of the time, it’s ok to tell the truth all the time,” his lack of transparency during this investigation leaves fans and professionals following the case wondering whether one apology is enough.  Does Pearl need more open communication to stop his fall from grace?

With preparations for the 2011 recruiting season well underway, the UT coach and his staff will have little time to convince these recruits that the Orange Nation is the place for them due to UT’s self-imposed sanctions as corrective action following their violations.  Tennessee has reduced the number of days allotted to recruit from 130 to 104 days.  Official recruit visits will be limited to eight days rather than 12, and it can be certain that Pearl will only allow recruits to stay for their given 48 hours.  The head coach was suspended from recruiting calls for nine days, and his Associate Head Coach Tony Jones will not be charging long-distance bills for the next three months.  In addition, he and his staff have received pay cuts and retention checks have been delayed for three years.

While the self-imposed sanctions are clearly an effort to lighten NCAA-imposed sanctions, it’s also a tactic that many are replicating in their own institution.  For example, on Oct. 8, University of Connecticut Head Coach Jim Calhoun announced violations of NCAA recruiting laws.  Their response?  Self-sanctions, of course.  UConn has placed the men’s basketball team on a two-year probation and taken away one scholarship for each of the probated seasons.  Sept. 27, AnnMarie Gilbert, Eastern Michigan women’s basketball coach, announced her one-month suspension following NCAA practice hours violations relating to the 2009-2010 Women’s Invitational Tournament.  While neither of these coaches has officially been punished by the NCAA, they have followed in Pearl’s footsteps in hopes that a few self-sanctions and slaps on the wrist will save their reputation and their programs.

The upcoming months will be the only way to evaluate these attempts to save not only university reputations, but the upcoming recruiting season as well.  Pearl self-proclaims that he is to “be an example for the NCAA,” but depending on the NCAA’s response, his role as an example could cost him his career and the future success of the UT Athletic Department.  Claiming three head football coaches in three seasons and one nationally scrutinized head basketball coach, Tennessee can only hope that these self-sanctions allow the university to become the phoenix and rise from the ashes.

Sep 13

Hyperbole, superlatives and all that marcom jazz

Lost in the various trade journal hysterics about the rise of public relations and our unique  Grammar_crackers_large ability to play lead dog in the social media explosion is the simultaneous decline in the quality of the average PR practitioner's writing.

Poor writing has been the subject of numerous articles and surveys over the years. It's been blamed on everything from an underfunded primary and secondary education system to the inherent informality in blogging, texting and Tweeting. I'd agree that both have contributed to the mediocre copy many senior corporate and agency executives review nowadays. I'd also add that the word 'copy' itself is part of the problem.

As the traditional lines separating advertising, direct mail, sales promotion, digital and PR have blurred, I've noticed an alarming increase in the use of superlatives and hyperbole once reserved solely for the copy in a full-page print ad.

PR and journalism graduates from the very best schools have somehow forgotten that our press materials need to be written in an objective, factual manner. Instead, I routinely hear industry leaders lament the plethora of poor prose from juniors. They shake their heads and speak of receiving press releases and opinion pieces with endless, run-on sentences that include adjectives ranging from “thrilling” and “remarkable” to “game-changing” and “awe-inspiring.”

It's fine for the advertising and marcom types to use such hype. But, as I wrote in a recent blog ('A Wigotsky in every agency'), the generation of PR editors that included Victor Wigotsky of H&K and John Artopeous of Burson, wouldn't have permitted such an atrocity.

Today's industry leaders are not only allowing poor writing to take hold, we're enabling it. Heck, PR Week actually asked two professionals to debate whether good writing EVEN MATTERED anymore. If our leading trades aren't endorsing the need for a “back to basics, just the facts, ma'am” approach to PR writing, what hope do we have?

It's our responsibility to counsel clients on what is, and isn't, newsworthy. It's also our responsibility to write a release, a bylined article or other communications piece in a classic, objective journalistic style.

The more our product looks and reads like advertising copy, the more likely an organization is to cede control of its overall marketing communications to a digital or direct marketing shop. And, trust me, there's nothing thrilling or remarkable about that possibility. That said, it will be an awe-inspiring, NEGATIVE game-changer if our industry leaders and journalists don't step up and address the issue more seriously. Oh, and there was no hyperbole in that last paragraph. Just facts.