Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Archive for the ‘LP&A’ Category

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!

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.             

The Wizard of WISG?

 

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!

Mesa Water’s Excellent Rebranding Program

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.

New Senior VPs and a San Diego Office

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.

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.”

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.

Water Weekly 3: Truncated – The Weekly Two

What were the three biggest California water stories of the past seven days?  Well, the news-heads and policy wonks here at Laer Pearce & Associates have compiled them for you here.  You’ll find the Big Three here every week, or you can follow LPAWater on Twitter for up-to-the-minute news and analysis. You can also sign up to receive the Weekly 3 via email here.  This week:

“Results-Based Science” Update

We’ve written before about Judge Wanger’s shellacking of two federal scientists who he thought were more interested in achieving pre-determined results than pursuing good science.  The issue is not going away, as Republicans seeking to dial back federal regulation have pounced on the case as an emerging cause célèbre, and the feds are standing by their science … and scientists. Wow! Could this become an HBO miniseries?

“100% behind them” – read about it here

“Investigate ‘em!” – read about it here

BTW, a Supreme Court appeal was filed on Delta smelt

(more…)

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!

You are currently browsing the archives for the LP&A category.