Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

One City’s Drought Communications “Fail”

I just watched a city council adopt a communication campaign that will do a lousy job of informing residents of the new water restrictions and fines it had just adopted in response to state mandates. For Californians to respond effectively to the drought, we’re all going to have to do better than this city did.

“Thanks” to city council input, residents of the San Gabriel Valley city will receive a cover letter and three separate inserts – four pieces in all, competing for attention, over-communicating and creating confusion – all in a bland envelope that will be lost in the day’s mailbox-full of unsolicited mail.

That’s going to be as expensive as it is ineffective.

The city did one thing right. It didn’t use a water bill insert, recognizing it wouldn’t get enough readership in a timely manner. But if you’re going to use an envelope (I wouldn’t!), you’d better print a high-impact headline on it or it’s likely to go out with next week’s trash, unopened.

Here’s a better alternative: Mail two postcards on the same day, one over-sized and one minimum USPS size. Why postcards? Because they get the message out without having an envelope in the way. Why two?

  • The large one would spell out the details, and by limiting the space to a large postcard, there’s much less chance of your message becoming gobbledygook.
  • The small postcard would be the “keeper,” designed with the refrigerator door in mind. All the good stuff would be on one side: Which days they can irrigate on, prohibitions and fines, tips, an easy URL for more information.

Combined with good policy and customer-oriented enactment, this will work.

Messaging That Isn’t All Wet

The grass isn’t greener in Sacramento

The long-awaited and often-delayed California water bond is one of the primary agenda items during the brief mid-summer legislative session in Sacramento. Before August 31, two-thirds of the Legislature must agree to a new bond, or to remove the old bond from the ballot. If they don’t, the old $11.14 billion water bond will go on the ballot with Gov. Brown’s active opposition, and will almost certainly be defeated.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, purveyors of what’s second only to air for 19 million Southern Californians, definitely has a dog in this fight, and that dog has a very well-constructed bark: MWD’s messages regarding what they’d like to see in a water bond are clear, straightforward and strong.

In the interest of recognizing good messaging, here it is:

Water Bond Priorities
Restoring Delta, Reducing Reliance, Statewide Improvements

Public water agencies and business organizations from throughout California that receive supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta are united in their support for a comprehensive Water Bond that achieves the co-equal goals of restoring the Delta and providing reliable water supplies statewide. 

Delta Restoration – Critical for California’s environment and economy
•  
Must provide significant funding for public benefits associated with habitat restoration
•  Must provide significant funding for voluntary flow purchase programs to improve fish conditions

Department of Fish &  Wildlife – Best agency to oversee restoration funding 
•  Has decades of experience facilitating and managing habitat restoration
•  Already subject to direct oversight by Legislature
•  Has successful track record and institutional infrastructure in place to facilitate and manage habitat restoration.

Delta Conservancy – Not best agency to oversee restoration funding
•  Has no experience facilitating or managing habitat restoration
•  Primary focus on economic sustainability could conflict with restoration objectives
•  Five board members represent counties opposed to Bay Delta Conservation Plan, one of the most promising and comprehensive restoration plans in the nation designed to achieve co-equal goals.
•  Habitat restoration projects should be funded based on scientific merits and public benefits, not local politics
•  Was never intended to be sole agency for reviewing or implementing habitat restoration in Delta

Reducing Future Reliance on Delta through Development of Local Supplies 
•  Must provide funding for urban conservation, recycling, groundwater remediation, desalination, watershed management and stormwater development
•  Must provide funding for on-farm efficiency, system improvements and increased groundwater storage
•  Local matching funds should be required, as appropriate

Statewide System Improvements 
•  Must provide funding for public benefits associated with surface and groundwater storage
•  Projects must openly compete for bond funding
•  Local matching funds should be required, as appropriate

That’s it, and that’s about as good as it gets. Why? First, MWD  has taken one of the most controversial and complex issues in California and boiled it down to one page. Then there’s the clear statement of purpose below the headline, which focuses the discussion back at the basics, the co-equal goals. After that comes a structure makes it very easy to get to the topic of the moment, with each bullet presenting a single point as a fact, unencumbered by partisan rhetoric.

Whatever your position on this (and if  you don’t have a position, don’t worry – you’re like almost everyone outside the water wonk community), you should see this as a model of good messaging.

The Craziest Name in Communications?

Are you joshing us, Mr. Earnest?

Admittedly, my sense of humor skews a little toward irony and wordplay, but even if that were not the case, I’m sure  the name of President Obama’s new White  House Press Secretary would give me a belly laugh: Josh Earnest.

He has probably the most difficult job title in the world, and jokes about “joshing about being earnest” certainly won’t make it any easier. Almost every day is a big news day, with plenty of  stories to ballyhoo, for sure, but press secretaries earn their keep by diverting  the media’s attention away from stories the White House doesn’t want to see in the headlines. And that means the press secretary is purposefully kept in the dark on much that goes on where he works.

As a media relations and crisis communications expert, I have done my share of  redirecting stories, but I do it by understanding the full story, not by being purposefully ignorant. That’s not how it works with Josh Earnest, and that makes his name amazingly apropos for the man sandwiched between the podium and the White House seal.

“Ernest Earnest” might even be better. If I ever write a fictional follow-up to Crazifornia, I’ll have to keep that character name in mind.

Masters of Development

The top 50 masterplanned communities in the United States were just announced by John Burn Real Estate Consulting, and I’m extremely proud to have had a hand in the success of numbers 2, 20, 22 and 23 – which together provided 2,539 new homes to families last year.

The Irvine Company was #2 on the list.  I’ve done a lot of work for this visionary company over the years, including helping to secure the approval of Turtle Ridge and winning some of the fundamental regulatory victories that made much of Irvine possible. (See #22 below for more on this.)

Number 20 was Valencia (“Where Awesome Lives“), developed by Newhall Land/Five Point Communities. Besides PR assignments for Valencia, I was deeply involved in securing the approvals for Newhall Ranch, which should be joining the top 50 masterplanned communities in the near future. (That link, by the way, takes you to the website I developed for the project several years ago.)

Coming in at #22 was Rancho Mission Viejo‘s new Ranch Plan communities. For over a decade, I worked with Rancho Mission Viejo, The Irvine Company and others to create the solutions to  endangered species and wetlands issues that helped make hundreds of communities across Southern California possible while preserving hundreds of square miles of valuable habitat.

Just behind at #23 was Kennecott’s Daybreak in Salt Lake County Utah. My assignment here wasn’t the usual regulatory heavy lifting – instead, I helped create the marketing vision and language for all of Kennecott’s proposed developments. It was one of the most creative and satisfying tasks of my career.

I’m also thrilled to see Shea Homes, Pardee Homes, William Lyon Homes, DMB and Brookfield on the list. They have all been great clients at one time or another (and I’m currently working on exciting projects with Shea and DMB), but I can’t claim credit for working  on the masterplans that are on this year’s Top 50 list.

Maybe their next ones ….

Happily Leaving the Agency Model Behind

In 1982, I went into business as a solo consultant with a big mission statement: To do important work for important clients.

Guided by that mission, I set about building one of the largest public relations firms in Orange County. When that was done, my wife/CFO Beth and I transformed Laer Pearce & Associates into the most successful public affairs firms in California, achieving the best win/lose record you’ll see anywhere: 71-4.

Then, in 2011, we set a new goal: To successfully transition back to my roots in solo consulting. Because we did it with client service and our employees in mind, it took us several years to accomplish, but we did, and we discovered something interesting:

As exciting and fulfilling as this transition is for us, it’s even better for our clients.

That’s because the agency model is no longer tenable due to the spiraling and uncontrollable costs employees add, like health, unemployment and Workers Comp insurance premiums, the employer’s share of Social Security and so much more.  The only way to completely protect clients from these ever-increasing costs is to stop having employees. Fortunately, technological advances open ways to continue to deliver strong client service on projects large and small.

That means the focus of all my working hours (and there are a lot of them!) is on my clients, and assures you, my clients, that you’ve got me working on your account. With all those binding agency structures gone, now  you can use me precisely how and when you need to in order to achieve your strategic objectives.

Sure, I’ve liked the “Associates” part of  Laer Pearce & Associates – they’ve been an outstanding bunch! – but not nearly as much as I’ve valued the deep and positive relationships I’ve built with my clients by consistently exceeding their expectations.

So, here I am, three decades later, still doing important work for important clients – and having more fun than ever doing it!

Media’s Failure to Report on Water – Good or Bad?

Even in our dry, drought-prone realm, you’d be hard pressed to find any newspaper with a reporter assigned solely to the water beat.

That’s not a guess. Kate Galbraith, a San Francisco-based journalist, recently wrote in America’s premier journalism publication, the Columbia Journalism Review,

 When I Googled “water reporter” over and over again, [only] one guy showed up. His name is Chris Woodka, and he works in Colorado at the Pueblo Chieftain, a daily based about 100 miles south of Denver.

No one showed up for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, the Phoenix American, the Las Vegas Review Journal or any of hundreds of other papers covering America’s drought belt. Galbrath explains why she thinks this is:

I couldn’t prove it, but I suspected that even as the [Texas] Tribune [which she reported for] pounded away at water stories, and invited the public to panel after panel of discussions about water, the audience was often people who were already engaged. The challenge was reaching ordinary citizens—many of whom might not even know there is a water crisis.

Two polls show the magnitude of this challenge. Last year, a survey by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune found that water lay near the bottom of Texans’ policy priorities, despite the ongoing drought. In California, which is now enduring its most intense drought on record, a 2012 poll showed that 78 percent of respondents had never heard of the river delta at the heart of the state’s water-supply system.

To an editor, water news is neither “dog bites man” or “man bites dog.” It’s no one cares whether the dog or the man bit anything.

This lack of coverage hurts a water community that is trying to increase public awareness of the value of water, the need to conserve and the need to invest in improved supply reliability and infrastructure. But before we lament our inability to call the local paper’s in-the-know, experienced water reporter, let’s consider two things.

First, he or she is not likely to be in-the-know and experienced. The sorry state of the newspaper business has led to high turn-over, especially among the (relatively) well-paid more senior reporters.  Chances are, if you were working with a dedicated water beat reporter, you’d be working with a recent hire who didn’t know much more about water than the 78 percent who never heard of the  Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

And forget broadcast outlets. Their on-camera “personalities” may have a bit more experience, but unless the water kills someone or is really, really cute, they’re probably not going to cover it.

And second, given the pressure on reporters to write stories that generate comments, what do you suppose they’d be writing about? Would it be the need to invest in boring old concrete infrastructure, or a justification of a district’s proposed rate increase?

We don’t think so. In the times a water beat reporter would find exciting, like the current drought, you’d get sensationalism in overkill mode. Galbrath recognizes this, listing “Drought and cattle! Drought and rice farmers! Drought and climate change! Drought and power plants!  Drought and  hunting! Drought and the military!” – with a link to each one!

Such coverage might drive temporary conservation, but the goal of any experienced water communicator should be to change long-time water use patterns, not support come-and-go drought-related conservation.

In less “exciting” times, would you see articles that support a more enlightened citizen view of water? Articles that explain the value of water or the need to conserve it? Sure. Some.

But you would see much more of  sensationalism in non-drought clothing. “Water district expenses out of control! Water quality deteriorates! Widow can’t pay water bill!  Water employees get lush retirement packages! District director takes golf junket!”

So, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all that water communicators must constantly struggle to get the media interested in the only thing on the entire planet that’s almost as essential as the very air we breathe.

 

How Much Does A Reputation Melt-Down Cost?

Let’s say the principal your company was named after said something some time ago some folks determined was racist.  The media happily jumped on the story, the blogosphere lit up and tweets twittered for days.

What’s that going to cost you?

How about $100 million?

“Oops!”

That’s what Najafi Companies, a private-equity company led by the owner of the Book-of-the-Month Club, Jahm Najafi, is investing in the tarnished brand of Paula Deen, the butter queen. Says the Wall Street Journal:

By its own description, Najafi Cos. often invests in business that are “out of popular favor.” Mr. Najafi said he doesn’t see investing in Ms. Deen to be an extraordinary risk. Despite the controversy, he said, her brand has strong, broad support from core fans across the U.S.

Still, if it takes $100 million to reinstate a brand, we’d say, first,  there’s a fair chunk of risk involved, and second, better to not tarnish the brand in the first place. Have good messages, learn them, and stick to them.

That’s why none of our clients has been deep-fried.

What Makes Water Agency Communications Work

LP&A has nearly two decades of experience working with many of Southern California’s most prominent water providers to create programs that educate stakeholders, change public behavior and accomplish strategic objectives.  Over that period, we’ve developed a time-tested approach to successful water agency outreach that is grounded in key principles that we like to call “the Four Pillars of Water Agency Communications.” 

Trust

LP&A believes water district communications require building and maintaining trust.   Trust makes it easier to convince customers to conserve. Trust can protect an agency’s reputation if an accident occurs or if infrastructure repairs are needed.  Trust makes rate increases or changes in rate structure more easily accepted.  And trust makes it more likely legislators and regulators will support an agency’s objectives.  Trust is built through a mix of regular, consistent and truthful communications that explain complex matters in a customer-friendly way, and by providing opportunities for two-way dialogue that allow ratepayers and stakeholders to play an active role in their water agency.  LP&A has helped water districts build trust for nearly two decades.  Our approach protects and builds upon the reservoir of trust an agency has previously amassed, and directs it toward the District’s current objectives.          

Clarity

Water agencies regularly deal with complex issues and regulations, like Proposition 218, the BDCP, SDWA, CEQA, NEPA, ESA, and the Clean Water Act.  The trick is making these topics understandable and relevant to your target audiences.  For most agencies, it can be as simple as clearly communicating the need to conserve while rates climb higher.  Alternatively, it could be as complex as conveying a district’s position on a key issue in a manner that motivates action by regulators or other elected officials.  LP&A’s Clutter In/Clarity Out approach sees that our clients’ strategic objectives are regularly met.  

Perspective

LP&A approaches every communications task by placing ourselves in the shoes of the target audience and asking, “What’s in it for me?”  It’s only human nature for audiences to consider the greater good only after considering how an issue may affect them personally.  It’s also an unfortunate reality that most members of the public and many stakeholders are not heavily engaged in water issues.  As such, we must tailor our messages and strategies in terms of their impact on the target audience.  What are the benefits to them?  What are the impacts?  How will their lives change?  These personal-level issues must be addressed before audiences will be open to considering the bigger picture.  We’re experts in making sure water agencies have the proper perspective in their strategic communications.  

Focus

Water agencies operate using public funds, so they have an obligation to be as efficient as possible.  Without clearly defined goals, public agencies can slip into “communicating for communication’s sake,” squandering staff time and financial resources without achieving sufficient benefit. Communications efforts that are designed to accomplish specific, measurable goals ensure ratepayer-funded communication activities are supportable.  All LP&A communications strategies are focused on seeing that goals and budgets are set and met.             

2014 Budget: Water Funding

Even with a drought declaration looming, water didn’t make the three-paragraph cover letter to the 2014-2015 California budget (education, health care and prisons did). Still, it garnered a mention in the second paragraph of the budget’s executive summary – a sign the governor is giving high priority to the state’s water issues.

Water expenditures of $618.7 million are spread around throughout the budget’s Environmental Protection and Natural Resources sections. Fortunately, a chart on page 120 summarizes the expenditures. The chart and the narrative that follows provide  more detail than we are, but here are the basics:

  • Sustainable groundwater management: $1.9 million
  • Groundwater ambient monitoring and assessment: $3.0 million
  • Groundwater data collection and evaluation: $2.9 million
  • Interim replacement drinking water in disadvantaged communities: $4.0 million
  • Wastewater projects in small disadvantaged communities: $7.0 million
  • Water and energy efficiency (projects that reduce energy use related to the delivery and treatment of water): $20.0 million
  • Restore coastal and mountain wetlands: $30.0 million
  • Protect and restore the Salton Sea: $0.4 million
  • Increase flood protection (Flood SAFE program): $77.0 million
  • Integrated regional water management programs (increasing regional self-reliance): $472.5 million

That last one is the biggie that will garner the most interest from the state’s water providers. The funds will be used for “incentives for both regional integration and to leverage local financial investment for water conservation efforts, habitat protection for local species, water recycling, stormwater capture, and desalination projects.” At least $47.25 million (10 percent) must be spent in disadvantaged communities.

Also of note to our friends in the Northern California water community, there’s another $1.5 million tucked away in the Department of Fish & Wildlife budget to address illegal streambed alterations by marijuana growers. Stopping that will help stop the associated water pollution problems the pot-growers cause.

Remember, this is a budget proposal. We won’t know what the water community will receive – and the related attached incentives and restrictions – until the legislature is through with it.

Apologies Accepted and Not Accepted

The art of apology is largely lost in this new age of “if” apologies, as in, “I apologize if I hurt your feelings.” That’s not an apology.

Neither was Melissa Harris-Perry’s. She’s the MSNBC reporter whose show recently featured a number of comedians mocking Mitt Romney and  his family for having an adopted black child in their midst. Here’s what she tweeted:

The intent of featuring the photo was to celebrate it [and] say positive and celebratory things about the image.

Harris-Perry did not apologize; she lied. No one will believe for a moment that the liberal-leaning MSNB, its liberal-leaning host and the liberal-leaning comedians she had on her show intended for one moment to be positive and celebratory about the image.

Doing much better on the apology front was TV star Natasha Leggero, who may have offended one or two people when she made a joke about a Spaghetti-O’s tweet on NBC’s New Year’s Eve show.

There’s the tweet and the accompanying picture.  Leggero’s on-air comment was,  “It sucks that the only survivors of Pearl Harbor are being mocked by the only food they can still chew.”

We don’t believe any mocking was going on in the tweet, just as we believe Leggero’s response to the kerfuffle this kicked up was a sterling counterpart to Harris-Perry’s pathetic false apology. This was a case where NOT apologizing made sense, and that’s just what she did:

I wish I could apologize, but do you really want another insincere apology that you know is just an attempt at damage control and not a real admission of guilt? Let me just try instead to be honest.

I’m not sorry. I don’t think the amazing courage of American veterans and specifically those who survived Pearl Harbor is in any way diminished by a comedian making a joke about dentures on television. Do we really believe that the people who fought and defended our freedom against Nazis and the Axis powers will find a joke about Spaghetti O’s too much to bear? Sorry, I have more respect for Veterans than to think their honor can be impugned by a glamorous, charming comedian in a fur hat.

That’s not to say I don’t think comedians are a problem in this country, they are a financial drain on the people who date them and talk far too much about themselves. I’m thrilled to see how passionate (death threats against a five foot tall woman are always the height of passion!) people are about our country and our Veterans. I am too. My own father lost his hearing in the Vietnam War so the issue is pretty close to me too. So rather than apologize, let me offer another perspective.

On the one hand you have me, making a joke about how old people can’t chew tough foods very well.

On the other hand you have Veterans who receive inadequate care upon their return from active duty, rampant sexual assault against female soldiers, staggering rates of suicide, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, substance abuse and depression among soldiers and political gridlock that prevents these problems from getting solved quickly.

Where do you think your outrage and action would be better served, calling me a c— or doing something about the above problems?

For those of you that are currently doing both: Kudos!

To our vets: I love you. I truly hope you know that.

To Spaghetti O’s: Let’s do lunch.

To the Elderly: Chew!

To @nealrscott: It’s spelled Human Excrement not Increatment.

To those looking for an active way to address the above problems, do what I’ve decided to do instead of apologize: Make a donation to the Disabled American Veterans foundation.

Ever Yours, Natasha Leggero

Nicely done, even if it does ramble on some.