I had the honor recently of becoming a two-time guest moderator at a Water Interest Study Group (WISG) put on by Mesa Water District for its customers. I don’t know if two sessions as moderator qualifies me as a “wizard” quite yet, but what are you going to do with those headline writers? They’re always after the sensational!
This session covered new ways of using groundwater and stormwater to meet local water supply needs, and the WISG class was, as always, engaged, bright and interested. Learn more about Mesa Water’s use of color-tainted groundwater here and Costa Mesa’s new water quality wetland here.
The photo shows me, Laer, with Stacy Taylor, Mesa Water’s community and government relations manager, as the session wrapped up. Let me call your attention to two things.
First, check out Mesa Water’s new logo on the podium (and on the right). All of us at Laer Pearce & Associates are proud of the work we did helping to usher in the district’s new name, new logo and new branding strategy. I’m particularly proud of the logo – doesn’t it look fantastic? It’s bright, it beautifully symbolizes the flow of pure, clean water, and it embodies the district’s brand as a forward-looking, fiscally responsible water provider.
Some anti-desalination activists, who routinely target Mesa Water because of its leadership in efforts to improve the regulatory process for new desal plants, have attacked the district and this firm for this rebranding work. Such criticism comes with the territory, but in reality Mesa Water is very fiscally conservative, with the lowest expenses per capita of any district in the county, and we are very careful to keep spending down when taxpayers or ratepayers are footing the bill. Under Stacy’s direction, we succeeded in moving a new name and new logo through a divided board of directors for a price that’s just a fraction of what such an effort would cost a corporation.
Second, note that Stacy is holding my book Crazifornia, and is saying wonderful things about it to the audience. I think she probably sold a few copies that night – so thanks, Stacy!
Political correctness has struck again, and homebuilders best take notice. It seems the long-used term “master bedroom” isn’t just racist, it’s sexist. So says the Baltimore Business Journal:
The “master suite” is being phased out — not from our homes, but from our lexicon.
A survey of 10 major Washington, D.C.-area homebuilders found that six no longer use the term “master” in their floor plans to describe the largest bedroom in the house. They have replaced it with “owner’s suite” or “owner’s bedroom” or, in one case, “mastre bedroom.”
Why? In large part for exactly the reason you would think: “Master” has connotation problems, in gender (it skews toward male) and race (the slave-master).
This strikes us as OK if a little silly. Not as silly as “mastre bedroom,” but silly nonetheless.
If you, like we, don’t want all sorts of N-words, J-words, W-words and S-words (we’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks) being thrown around, you’ve got to accept that the PC Loons will determine a whole host of words are offensive. Having just watched “42″ and squirmed through the scene where the Phillies manager berated Jackie Robinson with a host of nasty racial invectives, we’re glad we rarely are exposed to such deliberate demeaning of others today. So OK, “master bedroom” it’s not.
But it’s silly because the suggested alternatives, owner’s suite and owner’s bedroom, are just as likely to be attacked by the PC crowd as master bedroom.
For starters, there’s that tricky apostrophe. “Owner’s” suite says we’re single or don’t think much of our mate, both of which, if not true, are offensive. “Owners’” assumes two owners, and that’s … what … singlist? It certainly would make this single parent uncomfortable, if we were a single parent, which we’re not. How could we be if we are “we” all the time?
And then, Mr. Homebuilder (or Ms. Homebuilder, or Mr./Ms. Gender-Questioning Homebuilder), are you implying that one mate “owns” the other, or “owns” their kids? If you use that, you’re demean whomever the owned party is, making you a sexist and a … what … childist? And you’re a classist, too, because saying that we “own” that room obviously is just a code word for disparaging renters and hating the homeless.
Perhaps homebuilders can resolve this quandary by calling it Bedroom #1. No wait. That’s childist, isn’t it? Why should the parent’s/partners’ bedroom rate higher than the child’s? And if Grammy has moved in, then you’re ageist, too.
How about “the larger bedroom with the walk-in closets and the bigger bath?” Yeah, that should do it. If there’s not enough room on the floorplan for all that, just put TLBWTW-ICATBB. Wait. That could get you in trouble with dyslexics.
By Laer Pearce
Orange County Register reporter Mike Reicher is doing what appears to be a solid job reporting hard and breaking news on the Costa Mesa/Newport Beach beat. His recent investigative work, however, isn’t as solid and necessitates this post.
Reicher chose to report on a theme nearly all of our public agency clients have to wrestle with: public scrutiny of agency expenses. His focus was Mesa Water District’s communications program, a program we worked on from 2008 through last December, when our current contract ran out. We hope to keep up our good work once the public relations agency review that will be starting soon concludes.
Criticizing a High-Integrity Process
Before we get to Reicher’s criticisms of the cost of Mesa Water’s communications program, let’s look at the district’s process, because good process breeds good programs, and vice versa. Mesa Water did everything right:
- We secured our contract by participating in a competitive review in which we faced a number of other capable firms. We were selected because we offered the right mix of expertise, flexibility and cost.
- Each element of the district’s communications program had to tie back to the district’s strategic plan. If it didn’t help achieve a strategic goal, staff didn’t bother offering it to the board of directors for consideration because they wouldn’t have bothered passing it.
- After an appropriate period of time, five years in this case, our contract was allowed run out so a new agency review could be conducted. We appreciate this because we realize we are paid with public dollars, and we want those dollars to be spent wisely.
This is a model of good governance and an example for public agencies to follow when selecting a contractor or consultant for a major project, or launching a new initiative. It led to a very successful working relationship and a public outreach effort that received prestigious awards from the California Association of Public Information Officials, the California Special Districts Association and the Orange County chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.
A Justifiable Budget
The article, “Mesa Water’s $500,000 rebranding,” is seriously flawed in its execution, even if the topic is fundamentally legitimate. Newspapers should be skeptical of government expenses and should report on excesses they find. But reporters must be careful not to write a story to support a pre-conceived storyline. If the facts make the story less sensational, they need to write the story that’s there, not the one they wanted to be there.
There is no $500,000 rebranding program underway at Mesa Water, but we will leave it to the district to address most of the story’s inaccuracies, as most are better addressed by them. We are obligated, however, to correct inaccuracies regarding our billings.
In the story, despite information provided to him to the contrary, Reicher reports we billed Mesa Water “nearly $270,000 in total consulting fees,” which overstates our billings by 18 percent. We billed the district $228,573 for our fees.
Over the five years we worked for the district, our billings averaged out to a bit under $46,000 a year and a bit over $3,800 a month. Mesa Water has been a good account, absolutely. But you’d have a hard time making the case that they’re the sort that spends crazily on communications – especially if you compare our $3,800 a month to the $110,000 a month the Great Park’s PR firm billed the city of Irvine.
Also, the rebranding included much, much more than simply redesigning a logo. Mesa Water’s Public & Government Affairs Manager, Stacy Taylor, has the right view of branding: It’s not a logo; it’s what your stakeholders think of you. As such, many wouldn’t consider some of our activities for Mesa Water to be “branding,” but they were: They were the necessary laying of a communications foundation upon which a positive brand could be realized.
An Obligation to Communicate
So all of this raises the larger question: How much of their ratepayers’ money should public agencies spend on communications? Many would answer zero, but they would be just as wrong as someone who answered, “The sky’s the limit.”
Here’s what I wrote in an earlier blog post on this sensitive subject:
Issues are increasingly complex. People are busier than ever and have less time to absorb information. The channels of communication are both broader and more cluttered than ever. This is not a safe place for amateurs. Professional communicators, whether they be in-house or consultants, are increasingly necessary for effective communications.
Mesa Water agrees. The cost of a strategic, two-way, professionally executed program will be greater than the cost of having an administrative assistant put together a newsletter every other month – but it’s worth it because there’s a high price to pay if government entities don’t communicate.
Let’s say for example, a water district with an inadequate communications program proposes a rate increase and is met, as can be expected, with a firestorm of protest. The intensity of the protest leads the district’s board of directors, who all want to be re-elected, to delay the rate increase. This doesn’t do anything to address the higher prices they are paying for water and power, however, and before too long, the district isn’t making enough on water sales to cover its obligations.
Lost revenues and the deferred maintenance that results will cost this water district much more than a good communications program would have. That’s why we believe public agencies don’t just have a right to communicate with their stakeholders, they have an obligation to. Agencies have a companion responsibility to communicate appropriately. Again, from the earlier post:
There’s one more thing, one very important thing. Consultants who work for public agencies need to respect that they are being paid with public money – our money, as taxpayers. That means we need to be careful to use it wisely, which gets us back to [expensive give-aways and programs that are strategically unsound]. Is that where you want your tax dollars to go?
We didn’t think so.
Laer Pearce & Associates has never pursued the sort of high-cost, low-yield, no-bid public agency contracts doled out by the Great Park, and we never will because they are unjustifiable uses of public funds. Just read my book Crazifornia: How California Is Destroying Itself and Why It Matters to America to get an idea of how I feel about excessive government spending.
Dealing with Journalistic Sensationalism
Should Mesa Water even have bothered working with a reporter who by all signs was intent on writing a negative story? One water district communicator told us no, and she has a valid point. If you’re being criticized for your communications budget, why pile up more expenses trying to stop the inevitable, especially if newspapers’ reach and influence are diminishing?
Mesa Water’s long-standing philosophy, however, directed them to talk to the reporter as a matter of openness. That’s defensible if you start, as Taylor did, with an understanding that the end result will likely be unsatisfactory. Given that assumption, here are some pointers for dealing with journalistic sensationalism:
First, you have to know before the story comes out how you will respond.
- Make sure your efforts to secure a fair story are thorough and documented.
- Provide internal audiences that will be asked about the story with what they need to answer inquiries.
- Prepare your website in advance with an FAQ on the subject, then update it as necessary when the story is in hand or as comments raise new questions or inaccuracies.
Once the story is out:
- Respond to customers personally, because newspapers are impersonal. Taylor is inviting customers to call her, which will give her the opportunity to build a relationship – the end goal of all good communications.
- Only request the most important and easy to justify corrections because you’ll have a much better chance of securing them than if you try to get a laundry list of corrections through.
- Prepare yourself for follow-up stories.
- Finally, be measured in public responses because they will keep the story in the news. Concentrate instead on internal audiences, key stakeholders and customers. And remember, even the American Society of Newspaper Editors acknowledges that only used car salesmen and advertising executives (not PR executives, thank goodness!) are trusted less than journalists.
Laer Pearce & Associates has opened a new office in San Diego, and has promoted Scott Starkey and Ben Boyce to Senior Vice Presidents. Both were previously vice presidents.
“We are very optimistic that under Ben’s leadership, we will become one of the premier public affairs firms in the San Diego market,” said Laer Pearce, president. “Ben is a San Diego native with strong connections in the business community there, and we see a strong desire among our potential San Diego client base to have access to a local firm with our strategic approach and tested capabilities.”
Starkey has been at the Laguna Hills public affairs firm for 12 years. He focuses on communications and outreach programs that help the agency’s homebuilder and land development clients achieve regulatory approvals.
Boyce, who has been with the agency for 11 years, recently opened the firm’s San Diego office. He works with water industry clients to help them realize their public communications goals, and also serves land development clients.
Laer Pearce & Associates specializes in outreach, coalition-building and regulatory communications, and also serves business-to-business clients in the land development and water industries. Its record on public affairs campaigns is 67-4, the best of any public affairs firm in California.
A judge in San Jose has ruled in favor of a community activist seeking to close what many see as a flagrant loophole in California’s public record act – the continuing privacy of text messages sent and received by elected and appointed public officials and public employees. Private email accounts were also included in the judge’s ruling.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg ruled that “emails, texts and other messages sent to and from personal devices by Mayor Chuck Reed, council members and redevelopment officials about city business including subsidizing a development in San Pedro Square downtown on property owned by former Mayor Tom McEnery and his family” should be turned over to the activist who filed a Public Records Act request for them. Read the Contra Costa Times article here.
The decision doesn’t have statewide application yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Public officials should not be caught short by this decision – it was bound to happen. California has a strong public disclosure tradition that has morphed over the years in include other emerging technologies – faxes, emails – so any public official or public agency employee who thought their text messages would remain out of the public view was short-sighted.
Our rule of thumb when working with public agencies is that any and every communication may become public, so every communication needs to pass scrutiny of the “What if this was on the front page?” sort. We advise others to take the same approach.
After all, the best way to avoid a crisis is to not do things that could cause one.
Oddly, I was nervous at the podium, something that almost never happens with me. It must have been the responsibility of praying for others, the room’s amazing (and slightly intimidating!) architecture, and all those water leaders tiered around me!
There were no bolts of lighting or wafting smells of brimstone, so all in all it went well. Here it is:
Chairman Foley, members of the Board, thank you for extending this honor to me today. You have allowed me to check off one more box on my life’s to-do list.
Let me preface this invocation with a little background on why Director Dick invited me to be here today. After three decades at the helm of a public affairs firm that specializes in leading clients through California’s regulatory jungles, I wrote a book, Crazifornia, Tales from the Tarnished State. In it, I tell a lot of stories about the foibles and failures that have dulled the shine of California.
There’s plenty in the book about bureaucratic mismanagement, questionable policies, misguided legislation and outlandish ideas, but you can read Crazifornia from cover to cover and you won’t find a chapter titled “California’s Crazy Water System.”
In fact, it’s the opposite. I present California’s water delivery system as a shining example of what California can accomplish when it does things right. Consider the grand visions of the State Water Project, Hoover Dam and the Colorado River Aqueduct. Look at the great successes your member agencies have achieved in promoting water conservation. These are modern miracles.
As with anything, we could do better, but we have accomplished things here in California that would stop others hobbled by smaller visions and constrained by narrower commitments.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s Board of Directors and its staff have always been asked to make the hard decisions and drive the challenging policies that support the California water system. This great undertaking, I believe, is the one of the greatest examples the world has ever seen of God’s gift of intelligence to mankind.
So, with that background, let us pray.
Our Father and Creator, we thank you for the bounty and freedoms we enjoy as Californians and Americans.
We have read how You gave to King Solomon very great wisdom and insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as all the sands on the seashore. We thank You, Father, that you have not forgotten us in Your gifts, but have also planted in us an intelligence sufficient to envision great undertakings, and then to build them, and finally to manage the resources they deliver using the principles of stewardship you have laid down for us.
We ask your guidance on this group of so few people selected from among all of Southern California’s multitudes to direct the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Help them today to apply their wisdom, just as Solomon once did, to the careful stewardship of the treasures entrusted to them, so that your children from Ventura to the Mexican border can awake in the morning and go to sleep at night comfortable in the knowledge that the clean, healthy water they need to live will always be there for them.
As is usually the case nowadays, MWD’s invocation policy asks that no references be made to “Jesus,” out of deference to those whose religious beliefs He offends, and those who become uncomfortable upon hearing His name. I’m OK with that, but know that in my heart I read the last paragraph as, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
I before E except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbor.
We would never run a feisty heist on our weird beige foreign neighbor (We don’t even think he’s all that weird!), but we certainly admit we’ve been caught up in spelling errors ourselves.
Oh, you’ve got spell-check, do you? Great!
Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marks four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a quay and type a word and weight for it to say
Weather eye yam wrong oar write.
It shows me strait a weigh as soon as a mist ache is maid.
It nose bee fore two long and eye can put the error rite.
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it,
I am shore your pleased to no.
Its letter perfect awl the way.
My checker told me sew.
We present all this to make a point. Spelling, as challenging as it can be at times, is simple compared to the communications challenges most of our clients face. Challenges like these:
- A developer needs to make concerned neighbors understand what a traffic study really says about what traffic will be like after a proposed project is built;
- A water district must raise rates and needs to show its customers why the increase is necessary and why water is still an excellent value;
- A public agency, facing complex new regulations from both Sacramento and Washington D.C., needs to explain to its constituencies what will change and why;
- A mall owner needs to reassure shoppers that a mall is just as safe as all the others in town, even though someone was just stabbed in its parking lot;
- An industry group needs to show regulators and the public that the technology they support is safe and necessary, even though opposition groups rail against it.
These are all actual experiences we have dealt with, and in each case, we found communications solutions that worked, helping our clients achieve their strategic goals. That’s why our mantra is “Clutter in, clarity out,” and why we like to say, “If it’s regulated, we can communicate it.”
Now that the election is over, the super-secret inner workings of the highly successful Obama campaign are becoming known, including the email campaign responsible for most of Obama’s $690 million in online campaign contributions. Public relations and public affairs folks – and anyone who uses email to reach target markets – should take a lesson.
Here’s your textbook: Joshua Green’s The Science Behind those Obama Campaign E-Mails at Bloomberg Businessweek. And here are the lessons:
1. Don’t fly blind
The appeals were the product of rigorous experimentation by a large team of analysts. “We did extensive A-B testing not just on the subject lines and the amount of money we would ask people for,” says Amelia Showalter, director of digital analytics, “but on the messages themselves and even the formatting.” The campaign would test multiple drafts and subject lines—often as many as 18 variations—before picking a winner to blast out to tens of millions of subscribers.
2. Take off your tie
It quickly became clear that a casual tone was usually most effective. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people,” Fallsgraff says. “ ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.” Another blockbuster in June simply read, “I will be outspent.” According to testing data shared with Bloomberg Businessweek, that outperformed 17 other variants and raised more than $2.6 million.
3. Under-think the design
Writers, analysts, and managers routinely bet on which lines would perform best and worst. “We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing,” says Showalter. “Every time something really ugly won, it would shock me: giant-size fonts for links, plain-text links vs. pretty ‘Donate’ buttons. Eventually we got to thinking, ‘How could we make things even less attractive?’ That’s how we arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections we wanted to draw people’s eye to.”
4. Fear not
Fortunately for Obama and all political campaigns that will follow, the tests did yield one major counterintuitive insight: Most people have a nearly limitless capacity for e-mail and won’t unsubscribe no matter how many they’re sent. “At the end, we had 18 or 20 writers going at this stuff for as many hours a day as they could stay awake,” says Fallsgraff. “The data didn’t show any negative consequences to sending more.”
A caveat on that last one. President Obama has a wee tad more draw – both positive and negative – than the subject of most blast emails. You might want to dial back this advice from “nearly limitless capacity for email” to “a much greater capacity for email than you might think.”
Here’s Laer’s latest column on California’s crazy regulatory environment, which is cross-posted at CalWatchdog.
For a lot of very good reasons, California’s environmental regulators have earned a reputation for being, well, crappy to the rest of us. Three ongoing California regulatory battles over poop reinforce their already well-deserved reputation.
The first battle is between the California Coastal Commission and the city of Morro Bay over the city’s proposed new wastewater treatment plant. The city, called by some the Gibraltar of the Pacific because the massive Morro Rock dominates its harbor, made the terrible mistake of wanting to do the right thing. It, along with the Cayucos Community Services District, wants to replace an aging wastewater treatment plant with a new facility that will clean wastewater to higher levels and produce recycled water.
Less pollution going into the ocean and less fresh water used to water yards seem like good ideas … except to the California Coastal Commission. The Commission’s executive director, Charles Lester, has decided coastal towns should move their unsightly infrastructure away from the coast, to inland locations. There’s one little problem with this idea: It defies gravity.
Sewage treatment plants are located at the low point of local geography – the coast in California – because it’s much cheaper to let the sewage flow by gravity to the plant than it is to pump it uphill to an inland plant. In Morro Bay, the Commission’s staff, on its own, found a site about one mile from the coast it decreed to be the superior location for wastewater treatment. It is recommending the Commission force the city to build the plant there.
If the eco-bureaucrats prevail, they will turn the three-year project into a ten-year one and raise its cost from $60 million to $90 million. They will also saddle Morro Bay’s 10,000 residents with higher bills, since it takes a lot of money – and burns a lot of carbon fuel – to pump sewage uphill. This fact seems to be lost on the Commission’s staff, which claims it wants to move infrastructure off the coast not for aesthetic reasons, but because of sea level rise caused by global warming … which in turn is caused, we’re told, by burning a lot of carbon fuel.
The matter was on the Commission’s October agenda, but staff pulled it when the city pointed out major inaccuracies and flawed assumptions in the staff’s report.
Then there’s the battle over cormorant, pelican and sea gull poop that’s piling up on the rocks in the tony San Diego coastal enclave of La Jolla. Scenic, rocky La Jolla Cove has become an open cesspool, resident Ed Witt told the Union Tribune, adding, “You couldn’t operate a zoo like this.” The problem started when much of La Jolla’s rocky shore was put off limits to humans, encouraging birds to flock to the rocks, relieving themselves with impressive regularity.
So why not just wash off the poop? That would be fine, regulators at the Coastal Commission and San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board say, but only if the city submits a plan describing every detail of how they’ll do it – what methods and materials they’ll use, how they’ll protect the ocean and how they’ll ensure pooping pelicans and cruddy cormorants aren’t bothered.
If the clean-up plan poses any perceived threat to birds or marine life, then the California Department of Fish & Game, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service stand poised to join the battle.
It’s not even possible to create a timeline for reaching a solution to this monumental problem, since the Regional Water Quality Control Board has deemed it a low priority. Residents and business owners, who fear the smell will drive away tourists, disagree.
San Diego’s Regional Water Quality Control Board – which I fought unsuccessfully when it decreed that rainwater becomes toxic the moment it hits the ground – is the cause of the third poop battle as well.
Because it succeeded in defining fallen rain as toxic, the Board now exerts its authority beyond the prior limits of its purview, the gutter, and reaches into people’s yards. This change is reflected in proposed new regulations that would subject homeowners to six years in prison and fines of $100,000 a day if they repeatedly let dog poop sit un-picked up in their own backyards. Similar punishments would be meted out to those who repeatedly allow their sprinklers to hit the pavement and those who wash their car in their driveway.
The Board’s goal is to cut the amount of bacteria in runoff that reaches the ocean. That reminded me of a study conducted some years ago – in Morro Bay, interestingly enough. Scientists collected samples of ocean water and isolated the DNA from fecal coliform found in it to trace its source. They found it to be overwhelmingly not pet or human in origin, but the DNA of coyotes, rabbits, deer, seals, sea birds and fish.
What will California’s regulators come up with next? Diapers for dolphins?
Say “gee-whizzer,” and most old-line journalists and PR folks will know what you’re talking about. It’s a way of presenting facts, particularly numbers, in a way that gets readers’ attention – so much so they say “Gee Whiz!” – and that helps them to retain the information.
Today it would probably be called “something meme-able” or “something viral-able.” We prefer gee-whizzer.
ENS Resources, a DC lobbying firm, issued a 2012 election results update this morning with so many gee-whizzers we wonder when their staff slept. Here’s the set-up: At all levels of government, candidates and SuperPACs spent $6 billion on the November election, and for just the presidential race, they spent $2 billion. How much is $2 billion? Ah, that’s a question that invites gee-whizzers, and according to ENS, it’s enough to buy:
- Approximately 3.5 million shares of Apple stock
- 40 private islands
- Six Airbus A380 jets
- An Ohio Class submarine (Definitely what we’d buy!)
- The college debt of 153,846 students graduating from public universities
- Or, if given to UNICEF, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and equipment, nutritional supplements, mosquito nets, water and sanitation tools and educational supplies for billions of people in impoverished nations.
As for the election itself, it was anything but a gee-whizzer for California businesses. At this writing, with many absentee ballots still to be counted, it appears the Democrats will hold super-majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. That means tax increases can be passed over Republican objections, and businesses are a popular target of California tax increases.
Nationally, Democrats will have trouble finding a mandate, but in California they’ll have no such trouble. They picked up seats and they largely got their way with ballot propositions. That means no signals were sent by the electorate to cut back on anti-business policies and regulations.
For more on California’s sad state, read Crazifornia, by our founder and president, Laer Pearce. Called “the most insightful book on California’s perilous condition – ever,” it provides insights on how California got the way it is, how bad exactly it’s become, and what the prospects are for redirecting the state.
Crazifornia is an Amazon #1 best-seller (21st Century history) and is receiving mostly 5-star (highest rating) reviews on Amazon.