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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.

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.

OMG! Texts R Public!

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.

 

I Before E?

Yeah, you’ve got this nailed. It’s “I before E except after C,” and that means spelling is no problem. Well, how about this:

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.”

Unintended Consequences

Yesterday morning after outlining our 2012 PR plan to senior managers at The Management Trust – the largest community management company west of the Mississippi – I got a good lesson in the unintended consequences of bureaucratic meddling.  It wasn’t from one of the TMT guys – it was from a food vendor in the parking lot.

He was one of those guys who calls on office buildings with a cooler full of goodies.  His employer is a business that ‘s been around for at least 20 or 30  years, as I remember them from my early days in the public affairs / public relations business in Orange County.

He said there were only three of these businesses left in the county, not because they weren’t good businesses – he had hoped to start his own after learning the ropes – but because of the actions of bureaucrats.  Specifically, the Health Department worried that conditions in the coolers might not meet standards set by other bureaucrats further up the government pecking order, so they stopped issuing permits to new from-the-cooler food vendors.  The three existing businesses were grandfathered and continue to operate, dividing the county between them in neat little territories, but no new competitors can enter the market.

Was this move necessary?  I’ve read of dozens, hundreds, of food poisoning cases stemming from food bought in restaurants and grocery stores, but never one about food poisoning from a from-the-cooler vendor.  Why, then, are permits still issued to restaurants and grocery stores, but not to these vendors?  It seems like unjustified bureaucratic over-kill.

Then the vendor complained that his company won’t take ATM cards, which he figures is costing him about 50 percent of his potential sales.  “People just don’t carry cash any more, so they can’t buy my stuff,” he explained.  I was on an American Airlines flight the other day and tried to give the stewardess cabin attendant a twenty for some pitiful food, but she turned me down, saying they only take ATMs.  If American can refuse cash at 40,000 feet, how can this guy’s boss continue to refuse ATMs at ground level?

Could it be that government has created a near-monopoly by eliminating new competitors, thereby removing any motivation for the owner to invest in improvements?  A new competitor taking ATM cards – and thereby taking away sales – would cause the stodgy company owner to rethink and offer services customers want, but there is no new competitor.

It seems no matter where you look, you just can’t find an example to illustrate how replacing a free market with a government-controlled or government-directed economy works out better for consumers.

Crazifornia: Regulating the rockets’ red glare

The following article by Laer appears on today’s Daily Caller website:

It should come as no surprise that the leftist legislators and authoritarian bureaucrats who run California are vehemently opposed to fireworks shows. After all, the shows are always fun and usually patriotic.

And against them they are. The California Coastal Commission has led the charge with a multi-year assault on the Sea World theme park in San Diego, which blasts fireworks over Mission Bay every night. That effort shipwrecked on the rocks of Sea World’s considerable political clout and even more considerable legal budget, so the Commission looked for a more vulnerable, less wealthy target.

(more…)

Wholesale Species Listings Wholly Rotten

We never thought we’d write one of those sophomoric “What do X and Y have in common” leads, but never say never. Here we go:

Nevares Spring naucorid bug

What do the Amargosa tryonia, American wolverine, ashy storm petrel, Big Bar hesperian, black-footed albatross, Brand’s phacelia, California golden trout, canary duskysnail, Casey’s June beetle, cinnamon juga, disjunct pebblesnail, flat-top pebblesnail, globular pebblesnail, goose creek milk-vetch, knobby rams-horn, Lost Creek pebblesnail, Mardon skipper butterfly, Mohave ground squirrel, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, Mono Basin sage grouse, Nevares Spring naucorid bug, nugget pebblesnail, Orcutt’s hazardia, Oregon spotted frog, Pacific fisher, potem pebblesnail, Ramshaw Meadow sand-verbena, Red Mountain buckwheat, Red Mountain stonecrop, San Bernardino flying squirrel, San Fernando Valley spineflower, Shasta chaparral, Shasta hesperian, Shasta sideband, Shasta Springs pebblesnail, Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog, Siskiyou mariposa lily, Siskiyou sideband, Soldier Meadows cinquefoil, Sprague’s pipit, Tahoe yellow cress, Tehachapi slender salamander, Tehamana chaparral, umbilicate pebblesnail, Vandenberg monkeyflower, Webber’s ivesia, western fanshell, western gull-billed tern, western yellow-billed cuckoo, Wintu sideband, Xantus’s murrelet and Yosemite toad have in common?

Answer: They’re all from California – and they were all just pushed forward towards endangered species listings following smoke-filled-room negotiations between America’s premier environmental litigation mill, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (We’ll leave you to imagine what kind of smoke filled that room … maybe it was Vandenberg monkeyflower smoke … maybe not.)

We are familiar with the Red Mountain buckwheat, San Fernando Valley spineflower and the Tehachapi slender salamander through our regulatory communications work. We are also familiar with the Endangered Species Act and how it’s supposed to work. This isn’t it.

The species are among 757 species pushed forward towards listings as a result of an “historic” settlement of one of the Center’s nearly countless lawsuits.  (Why do the big environmental organizations always say everything they do is historic? Are they seeking eternal purpose?) They call it historic; we call it mind-numbing and a travesty.

The Endangered Species Act has a process to be followed for petitioning for a species to be listed, and for the review of those petitions. The members of Congress who approved the Act never imagined such wholesale actions as this, brought about by legal strong-arming instead of scientific analysis.

The Service is supposed to make the decision whether or not to move a species forward towards the listing process based on scientific findings presented in the listing petition, not litigation. Affected parties are supposed to weigh in on the petitions as interested parties – but were they in the smoke-filled rooms? No.

The CBD has become very adept at forcing these sorts of actions, which remind us of the mass weddings the Rev. Moon puts on – sure the numbers are impressive, but how deep is the knowledge all those brides and grooms really have of each other? How deep was the knowledge the Service’s negotiators had of the 757 listing petitions before them? How could they be at all familiar with the immediacy of the threat to 26 birds, 31 mammals, 67 fish, 22 reptiles, 33 amphibians, 197 plants and 381 of those cute and cuddly invertebrates spread across all 50 states?

Clearly, the listing petitions didn’t get the attention they deserved, and the public didn’t get the process it is entitled to under our Constitution.

Do we think the Endangered Species Act to ever be implemented through a rational, science-based, fair process? No. We’ve been called upon because of our regulatory communications and public affairs expertise to promote several ESA reform efforts over the years and we know what it’s like to bang our heads repeatedly into a Sacred Cow.  Still, it would be nice if the most egregious excesses in its implementation, like today’s example, would go extinct.

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?

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