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Communications Lessons from Kim Jong Il

Our sympathies go to the North Koreans we’ve seen on YouTube bawling inconsolably at the passing of Kim Jong Il, their “Dear Leader.”  We truly hope some day they will have a chance to understand how duped they were by the man who drank $700,000 worth of cognac a year while they slaved and starved.

That said, we found out we do owe a debt to ol’ K Jong – he bequeathed the world with ten management secrets, detailed very humorously by Constantine Von Hoffman in Inc.  We were particularly amused by the dictator’s second secret:

Communication is overrated. He only made one broadcast to his nation. In 1992, during a military parade in Pyongyang, he said into a microphone at the grandstand: “Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People’s Army!” Even so, North Koreans wept on the streets like Elvis fans when they heard of his death.

As with all things K Jong, this management principle is just a tad extreme.  We recommend it only for leaders who own all the media outlets in their entire country and have legions of creative publicists inundating the entire populace with propaganda, like the claim he played a 36-under-par round the first and only time he played golf.

Most of us face a different reality, so it’s not likely our communications will have quite the effect Dear Leader’s had.  But still, there is something to be said about holding back the chief, so when he speaks he’s listened to.

We learned the power of this approach while ushering a very controversial project in Moreno Valley through seven Planning Commission and six City Council hearings .  The project manager, Steve Eimer, sat throughout nearly all of the 13 hearings without saying a word, always deferring to his consultants – until the last minutes of the last hearing.

Just before voting, the City Council added a new very expensive and utterly unreasonable condition to the project.   Eimer stood up, walked up the podium, waited to be recognized, and quietly said, “If you require that, we will not build the project.”

He returned to his seat without saying another word, and the City Council members started thinking about their re-election prospects if all the jobs and money the project would bring the city disappeared.  Then they quickly withdrew the provision and voted to approve the project.

So, yes, a few carefully chosen words delivered at just the right time can be very powerful communication tools.  K Jong got one thing right. But only one thing.

Are Water Agencies About to Drown in Positive Polling?

A recent survey conducted by the Municipal Water District of Orange County found that 93 percent of the 500 respondents feel Orange County’s water supply is somewhat reliable or very reliable.  That’s big news to us in the business of influencing public behavior, because a similar question asked in the agency’s 2008 survey found that only 27 percent felt OC had a reliable supply.

So can us communicators take credit for the nearly four-fold jump in public perception?  After all, our water supply is just as reliable today (or unreliable depending how you look at it) than it was three years ago.  We humbly say, “not so fast.”

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Millennial Tweet

Laer Pearce & Associates’ Twitter feed on water-related items, @LPAWater, just got its 1,000th follower.  (Actually, it now has 1,001 followers, but that would make headline writing more complicated.)

We’ve learned some lessons along the way.

  • Tweeting can be good for business.  We have one new water client from our tweeting – without those tweets, we would never have met each other.  And we’ve helped a number of water districts develop their social media strategies.
  • Tweeting can be good for your brand.  A state senator recently told me he loves @LPAWater’s tweets, and at this week’s ACWA conference, many folks complimented me on @LPAWater.  Our followers include many clients, potential clients and water industry opinion leaders.  What does that mean?  It means people recognize that Laer Pearce & Associates stays on top of water issues and has a fun time doing it – which is exactly what we want our brand to communicate.
  • It’s not easy being “Tweet.”  Our @LPALand and @LPAGov Twitter feeds never found an in-house champion (ahem!) like @LPAWater did , so they’ve languished, with 200 and 156 followers respectively.

@LPALand will eventually find its pace, I’m convinced, but in retrospect, we probably launched @LPAGov before we should have.  Yes, we follow government stuff as closely as we do water, and yes we want to expand our brand recognition in that portion of our practice.  But there are so many questions about our ideal position in that segment that it’s never been clear enough what should be tweeted at @LPAGov.

On the plus side, at no cost, Twitter showed us an area where we have some branding work to do.  That’s one of the wonderful things about social media – you can experiment, adjust and improve without have to throw away 1,000 brochures that no longer mesh with your identity.

As one of Orange County’s leading public affairs communications firms, our own experience with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media has helped us to realize the good, the bad and the under-realized power of the phenomenon, and that’s made us much better at designing social media strategies for our clients.

A Missed Message

The folks behind the Sacramento Delta water conveyance tunnel have a new message out that has a familiar ring:  Jobs. Heard that much lately?

Drilling large tunnels to divert water around the Delta would create more than 129,000 jobs, almost all of them during the seven-year construction period, according to a recent analysis.

The report by a University of California, Berkeley, economist does not examine how the peripheral canal or tunnel plan might create or destroy jobs in other ways, such as the proposed conversion of tens of thousands of acres of Delta farmland to wetland habitat. (Read more here)

We’ve used that UC Berkeley economist, David Sunding, ourselves and we know his work is solid and these are numbers that will stand up, come testing time.

But there was a powerful and timely message missed here, and that’s too bad.  We’ve all heard stats recently about the cost per job of jobs created by the federal stimulus – from the hundreds of thousands of dollars each to over $1 million for every shovel-ready (or crony-ready) job generated.  A little quick math here – the $12 billion estimated cost of the tunnels divided by 129,000 jobs … wow, that’s just $93,023 per job, which is pretty darn cheap when you consider the number of attorneys that will be working on the project.

Lesson:  When talking about jobs generation, whether it’s about tunnels or anything else, dig a little deeper. Put the numbers in a context that’s current and more people will remember more of what you said.

Baseball story shows businesses how to compete with less

Moneyball hits theaters today.  If the book is any indicator, you’ll enjoy the movie and it will increase your baseball I.Q. – and your business I.Q. as well.

The story reminds me of the political campaign adage “if you can’t win at chess, turn the board over and play checkers.” That’s essentially what the Oakland A’s did in the 2002 armature draft.  They turned the board over and turned baseball on its head.

Money – or lack thereof – was the A’s problem (sound familiar?).  They simply could not afford the top-ranked talent.  Instead of accepting a fate of losing, they embraced an entirely new formula for evaluating baseball players.

For example, traditional scouts love 6’ 3,” left-handed high school pitchers because they could envision them becoming the next Chuck Finely.  But these kids did not have a track record for the team to study and often flamed out – flameouts the A’s could not afford.

Instead, the A’s took a research-based approach. They hired “computer geeks” to scour the records of college pitchers who had a track record of success. Short, overweight right-handed pitchers ranked higher on the A’s board because they were undervalued by other teams – meaning they required less money to sign.  Similar contrarian approaches applied to shortstops, outfielders and every other position.

The result:  the A’s acquired great talent in the 2002 draft at a fraction of the price other teams paid.  These other teams, who first ridiculed the A’s approach, soon hired their own geeks.

Like the A’s, Laer Pearce & Associates has had to turn a number of traditional practices over to compete and win with smaller PR budgets.  Glossy newsletters are now standard letters, and social media have replaced ad buys in some instances.  Changes like these have upped our wins and made us more effective for our clients.

One disclaimer:  Moneyball includes plenty of classic – well, tasteless – baseball humor that could cause you to lose the few of the I.Q. points you pick up from the business side of the story!

Blacked-Out Blues

Last Thursday, some poor sap in Yuma flipped a switch and the power went out for millions of Southern Californians. Water systems, which of course are heavily reliant on power, got through the crisis in pretty good shape thanks to lots of emergency drills  – although several water districts had to issue notices to their customers warning them to boil their water before drinking it. That, too, passed.

All this made us think: How do you alert people to a crisis when their TVs, radios and computers are down? On our water Twitter feed, @LPAWater, we tweeted the following answer:

Tweet #1:  How do you notify people of a boil water notice when power’s out so no TV, radio or internet? Answer: Reverse 911, tweets, blast emails,

Tweet #2:  … posted notices, sound trucks, Facebook, police/fire liaison + the usual. Crisis calls for creative solutions.

For more on Laer Pearce & Associates creative solutions to crisis situations, check this out.

For Clarity, Look to the Source

Airwaves over the weekend were choked with name-calling, blame and recrimination regarding Standard & Poor’s downgrading of US debt, and the clatter is only going to get louder as stock markets around the word suffer big losses today.

There is no clarity when fingers are stabbing, tongues are wagging and ears are closed.  At times like this, our experience as one of Orange County’s leading public affairs firms tells us to go to the source, and get a sense from there about where the truth may lie. Is the Tea Party’s intransigence to blame? The President’s inexperience? The Congress’ polarization?  Let’s look and see what we find. Here is the statement Standard and Poor’s issued Friday evening:

We have lowered our long-term sovereign credit rating on the United States of America to ‘AA+’ from ‘AAA’ and affirmed the ‘A-1+’ short-term rating.

We have also removed both the short- and long-term ratings from CreditWatch negative.

The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.

More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.

Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government’s debt dynamics any time soon.

The outlook on the long-term rating is negative. We could lower the long-term rating to ‘AA’ within the next two years if we see that less reduction in spending than agreed to, higher interest rates, or new fiscal pressures during the period result in a higher general government debt trajectory than we currently assume in our base case.

The statement obviously has been carefully worded to make general points, not specific ones, so all the pundits have been free to use it for their own ends – which has done little to nothing to put us on a path towards winning back our coveted triple-A.

But let’s take a closer look at what S&P wrote.  Not surprisingly, the words “Tea Party,” “President,” “Democrat” and “Republican” do not appear. Nor do the words “tax increase.”   However, the words “less reduction in spending” do appear, and they appear in the form of a threat: S&P may lower the US credit rating to “AA” if the agreed-to level of spending cuts agreed to fails to materialize (and/or if interest rates go up or fiscal pressures result in U.S. debt increasing). Anyone talking about spending like the U.S. used to hasn’t heard S&P clearly.

The key word in this statement isn’t “spending,” though.  It’s “debt,” so that’s where we should look for clarity. The credit rating agency is concerned that the U.S. is borrowing somewhere around 50 cents of every dollar it spends and wants the U.S. to begin to change that unsustainable debt trajectory.  Revenues from increased taxes could be used to pay off debt, so someone is not out of their mind if they’re talking about raising taxes.  However, recent history tells us whenever DC politicians have raised taxes, they’ve used the revenue to spend more (bad in S&P’s eyes), not to pay down debt (good in S&P’s eyes).

We all know know from our personal finances that cutting spending is the best way to slow the accumulation of debt.  If we haven’t always known it, the last few years of recession has taught it to us, and most of us have tightened our belts. Will the “S&P Shock” help Congress and the President to learn it?

Who Exactly is the OC Watchdog Biting?

We’ll get to that bikini photo in a minute, but first, let’s all wish the OC Watchdog blog  in the OC Register a happy third birthday – even if it has caused many Laer Pearce & Associates clients and lots of others a fair amount of heartburn.  The blog’s mission has been to write on “your tax dollars at work” – or, more specifically, “when your tax dollars aren’t working particularly well, in our opinion,” so we all have come to know what to expect when Teri or one of the other Watchdogs calls.

Watchdog’s obsession with public employee salaries (in part because the data is now readily available via the California Controller) has created a need for clear and strong messages, but we need to remember that we live in an era of transparency, so these articles are to be expected.  This is what the media does, and as traditional media fight for profitability, it’s what they’ll do more and more.  That’s why we counsel full and frank disclosure – along with making sure the Watchdog folks get additional analysis for perspective, like the salaries of private sector counterparts.

But here’s what we really have to celebrate on Watchdog’s third birthday – and it’s what we’ve suspected all along: All those articles on public sector salaries haven’t really created huge ripples.

The proof is in Watchdog’s birthday party post, which includes a list of the top ten Watchdog articles over the last three years, based on total number of clicks the articles receive.  Not one of the top ten has anything to do with public employee salaries.  Ferrets and DA fiances rank higher, as did (not surprisingly) consultants in bikinis. (It was a tough choice between the ferret and the consultant for this post’s illustration, but we figured the bikini pic would lead to more random Google hits.)

All this is not to say public agencies should be cavalier about the sort of coverage OC Watchdog provides – but it does mean you should approach your next inquiry from them with the proper perspective, and that shouldn’t involve sweat dripping off your palms.  Calm down, gather your thoughts and supporting information, and go forth with pretty darn good assurance the resulting post won’t be the end of the world.

The blog’s birthday brings to mind one of the key public relations and public affairs messages we preach: It’s important to establish your own media, because you can’t depend on others’ media to tell your story as you’d like. You’d rather talk about the good your agency does, the money it saves, the people it helps – but the mainstream media will always be more interested in your mistakes and misspending.

Blogs, eblasts, social media, brochures, websites, newsletters, direct mail pieces,  public outreach – these are your media and they will tell your story better than anyone.  But are they?  An audit of the effectiveness of your media is the first step toward finding out, so you might want to give us a call.

“Turn Off the Water When You Brush” Just Ain’t Enough

All around California, updated Urban Water Management Plans (UWMPs) are appearing, as required by state law.  Here’s the lead of a news story that ‘s typical of many we’ve seen in the last few weeks:

LAKEWOOD – The city is reminding residents to stop watering sidewalks and conserve water for outdoor irrigation in an effort to meet the state’s 2020 goal of 20percent water reduction.

Conservation was part of the message at Tuesday night’s City Council’s meeting, where the council approved the Urban Water Management Plan Update 2010.

The updated plan is required every five years by the state and includes plans for water supply, water shortage contingencies and achieving the state’s goal of 20percent reduction in water use by 2020.

Of necessity, the “20 by 2020″ water conservation goal (and its companion “15 by 2015″ goal) from 2009′s epochal water legislation is at the core of all new UWMPs, and it seems the plans’ authors have rounded up the usual suspects when discussing how they’ll achieve those goals:  Incentives, seeking funding for new conservation-oriented programs, education and outreach.

To which we say, great, nice start, and good luck with that. You’re going to need it.

It’s not that those sorts of efforts haven’t proven effective. They have. We know because we’ve helped many districts communicate programs like that.  It’s just that more will be needed. As the headline says, alluding to the most famous of the old way of promoting conservation, “Turn of the water when you brush” just ain’t enough.  Not enough people will listen, fewer still will change their habits, and even if they did, not enough water will be saved.

Let’s get more aggressive

We’ve been thinking about new ways to attain the sorts of water savings that will have to be achieved to keep water providers out of the penalty box when 2015 and 2020 roll around. They include:

  • Re-think the water bill - We’re most excited about the missed communication opportunities on water bills, especially ebills.  Bills are the one document customers read regularly, but they’re a confusing mess and a messaging nightmare. We’re developing some great new ideas – let’s set up a meeting with your billing service.
  • Coalesce and conquer - Ever heard of an advertising coop? It’s when a bunch of businesses, like the individual car dealers in an auto mall, join forces to buy more ads than they could ever buy on their own. We have developed ideas and themes that a “communication coop” of several water providers in a region could mutually hit a home run with.  Who’s going to step up to the plate?
  • Water budget based rates – Yes, this is a really big idea and you’d have to start  now to get them in place in time to get some years under your belt before the deadlines hit. So get started – and let us help you manage a successful Prop 218 campaign, as we’ve done for many water providers. In district after district, the penalty rates for excessive water use have educated customers more about what constitutes an efficient level of water use than a blizzard of statement-stuffers ever could.
  • Expanded programs - The new money that comes from those penalty rates can fund an unprecedented level of conservation outreach, including rebates, audits, consults and new communications tools … like the new bills we want to help you develop.

Unlike much of what comes out of Sacramento, California actually needs the 20 by 2020 goals the Legislature set for us.  Of course, the Legislature didn’t give you the tools or money to go along with the mandate, so it’s going to take a real commitment and really creative thinking to meet the goals. Let’s talk.

Bin Laden Gives Us a Crisis Communications Lesson

Osama bin Laden took an immeasurable amount from America, so it’s paradoxical that in his death he actually gave us something valuable – besides the value of the joy we have in him being dead, that is.

The valuable lesson he gave us is this: In the ongoing story of the significant  inaccuracies in the White House account of how the raid was carried out, we see clear justification for the most basic strategy we employ when counseling clients who are in crisis – don’t say anything that hasn’t been verified as true.

In a New York Times article dissecting the communication embarrassments that have dogged the administration since the raid, a military spokesperson is quoted saying, “Everything we put out we really believed to be true at the time.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with crisis communications: What you think is real may turn out not to be real at all.  You think your plant operators followed safety procedures before the explosion, but it turns out that’s just what they said they did and the real picture is something else entirely.  You think the company’s HR policies align with the law, but it turns out the laws have changed. You think your CEO is an upstanding citizen, but it turns out he’s been hiding a securities fraud conviction.

And of course, there are no vacuums in crisis situations that allow for the leisurely gathering of information; instead there’s always a loud chorus of demands for this answer and that statement before this deadline or that broadcast.  Spokespersons are being hounded to provide answers, as the Times article makes clear:

In the view of officials from past and present presidencies, it was a classic collision of a White House desire to promote a stunning national security triumph — and feed a ravenous media — while collecting facts from a chaotic military operation on the other side of the world. (emphasis added)

We in public relations are often frustrated in our desire to respond to the ravenous media because attorneys want to go over every single detail from seven different perspectives before allowing information to be released.  We are right in our desire to get the information out, because the court of public opinion convenes long before any court of law does.  But, as the White House is learning, we’re also wrong when we push out the news too quickly.

In the case of the Abbottabad raid, it’s evident the White House would have been better served by doggedly sticking to a narrow statement, no matter who much the media howled.  The world would have gone on spinning (an action entirely unrelated to White House and Pentagon press secretaries spinning) had the only message to the press corps been, “Osama bin Laden and two or three others were killed in a raid by Navy Seals in Pakistan yesterday. There were no injuries to American forces.  We will provide more details after the brave members of the assault team have been debriefed.”

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