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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.             

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.

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.

Murdoch and the Nuclear Option

Tylenol’s epic crisis response has finally been trumped.

The decision by Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson to pull the product from every store in the U.S. after a rash of fatal poisonings in 1982 has stood for decades as the most dramatic response to a PR crisis in history.  On Thursday, Rupert Murdoch leapfrogged past that milestone with a hyper-epic response to the crisis plaguing one of his media properties, London’s News of the World – he closed the paper down.  Forever. One commentator aptly called it “the nuclear option.”

It was hardly like shutting down the Shrewsbury ChronicleNews of the World is England’s largest-circulation Sunday newspaper. It’s been publishing since John Tyler was president (1843, in case you’re a bit hazy on the term of the president mocked as “His Accidency“).  And for 200 employees, it’s pink slips all around.

The cause of all this, in case you missed it, is the tabloid-titled “phone hacking scandal,” which has lead to the arrest of three News of the World senior staffers on charges of tapping voicemails to get stories – not just the voicemails of wayward politicos and celebrities, but of murder victims and their families as well. Charges also have been made that the paper paid the police for inside information.  Torrid and horrid stuff.

Murdoch defended his action, saying “it was the right thing to do,” and calling the alleged behavior of his employees “inhuman.”  We like that choice of word a lot – there’s no mousing around going on here, as tough words follow grand actions.  But are Murdoch’s actions the right actions?

We think so, for a lot of reasons.

  • The News of the World brand has suffered long-term, possibly permanent damage. You can’t repackage a newspaper in ethics-meltdown-proof packaging, so it’s likely most of the publication’s readers and advertisers will go elsewhere.
  • The closure allowed Murdoch to claim some high ground as bad stuff was swirling all around him, an artful feat in a crisis. Whether he’ll hold on to the high ground or not will become more clear as details on the extent of the scandal emerge.
  • It also took some of the wind out of the hacking story. Yes the story is still there and will continue for some time, but with less ferocity than would have been the case were News of the World still publishing.
  • It gives Murdoch an opportunity to build his other London tab, the Sun, into a much larger vehicle.
  • And it shows Murdoch to be a man who is truly horrified by what took place under his watch, and one who is willing to take dramatic action to ensure that such behavior will not happen again.

That last point is the one that made the closure decision a go, in our estimation.  After all, Murdoch is in the final stretches of a $12.5 billion take-over of the parts of Britain’s BSkyB satellite network he doesn’t already own, and the character of the acquirer is one aspect regulators consider before giving such transactions the government’s approval.

Sky is a more valuable asset than just another London tabloid, so Murdoch’s move, while dramatic and controversial, was well-reasoned and sound.

We’re just waiting for some news regarding how the 200 dismissed workers will be treated. Little loose ends like that have the potential to do great damage if not handled well.

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.”

As If We Hadn’t Waited Long Enough

If you’re like us (i.e. obsessive communicators), there’s a good chance you were frustrated at last night’s historic speech when President Obama informed an anxious nation that our brave soldiers took out Osama bin Laden.

The keyword here is “anxious.”  News leaked out over Twitter more than an hour before Obama took the podium.  Cable and network news outlets soon followed, cutting into the Celebrity Apprentice and reruns of the Royal Wedding to bring us this most welcomed breaking story.  Even the Rock knew what was coming.  But the nation waited patiently into the night for our Commander in Chief to officially make the announcement and bring us the harrowing details.

The president reached the podium just past 11 p.m. and opened strong, announcing within the first two sentences that the U.S. had conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.  But then he left us waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

With the world on the edge of its seat waiting for the details of how we killed the man responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans, it took Obama 569 words before he got back to the point of his speech.  That’s 3 minutes and 55 seconds of poetic chronology covering the well-known events of the past 10 years…while everyone is staying up late waiting for him to get to it already.

Call us purists, but we still believe in the inverted pyramid.  Convey your most important messages at the top, and then get into the history and detail.  Everyone knew Osama was dead by the time the president appeared at the microphone.  He knew we wanted to hear the details, and for some reason he made us work for it.  There’s several conspiracy theories swirling as to why, but the last time I checked, poor communication is never a good strategy.  The nation had waited long enough.

Fukushima Fear-Mongering

If there’s one group in America that lives by Rahm Emanuel’s axiom that one should never let a crisis go to waste, it’s the media.

With the nuclear plant accident at Fukushima, the media have two choices: They can use it as an event to teach readers about radiation and risk, or they could use it to drum up readership.  They largely see the two as incompatible, so with some exceptions, they have gone with the latter, publicizing every finding of trace radiation and using terms like “hellish” when referring to the Fukushima site.

When you have the facts – something even more powerful than nuclear fuel – the behavior of the media is regrettable.  Fortunately, some outlets have provided us with good facts. We quoted an LA Times piece earlier about radiation, risk and fear, and the Washington Post ran an excellent story about how NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, has been the voice of calm through the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima incident.

Not so the Post itself, which has a lead story today, Chernobyl, a warning for Japan. In stark contrast, an excellent article in Reason, Nuclear News Meltdown, gives us reason to question the basis of most mainstream media coverage of Chernobyl or any accident at a nuclear plant.  It tells us:

In 1987, one year after the Chernobyl accident, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) compared media coverage surrounding the disaster with scientific opinion on nuclear power. News coverage at the broadcast networks, news magazines, and leading newspapers treated Chernobyl as a disaster for nuclear energy in the United States as well.

By a 3-to-1 margin, news stories concluded that a Chernobyl-style disaster was likely to occur in the U.S. Among sources identified as scientists, those who called U.S. reactors unsafe outnumbered those who called them safe by a 3-to-2 margin. (For example, a scientist on the CBS Evening News delivered this soundbite when asked about nuclear safety: “Anything that can melt down possibly will.”)

Conversely, a CMPA survey of 580 scientists randomly selected from the listings of American Men and Women of Science (the “Who’s Who” of the scientific community) found that those who rated a Chernobyl-type accident as improbable outnumbered those who rated it as probable by a 4-to-1 margin, and those who regarded U.S. reactors as safe outnumbered those who found them unsafe by the same 4 to-1 margin.

Can you conclude from this that the media were profoundly biased in their selection of sources?  Maybe.  More likely, the evidence would show that the well-oiled public relations machines run by anti-nuclear organizations were much more adept than the nuclear science community was at getting sources in front of the media, and the media was profoundly lazy and unprofessional in not aggressively seeking out alternate views. The evident bias in the media coverage may not have been so much in the news coverage itself, but in the selection of sources they used to relay the story.  There’s a lesson in there for public relations and public affairs professionals: Don’t expect the media to come to you, no matter how expert you may be … especially if you’re working for someone other than environmentalists, liberal activists, trial attorneys or Democrats.

Of course, some reporters are more obviously biased, like those who write the OC Watchdog column and blog at the Register.  They have posted a total of nine negative stories on nuclear power since Japan’s earthquake, quoting suspect sources like the Union of Concerned Scientists and legislators promoting anti-nuclear bills. But when your next performance review hinges on the number of comments your posts have received, as is the case at the Register, wouldn’t you opt for sensationalism, too?

The difference between being biased in selection of sources and just being biased is subtle and the end result is identical – a populace that can’t be counted on to make the right decisions because they’ve been shielded from relevant information and swayed by the most sensational of all journalists – the headline writers.  As America faces the critical issue of how we will generate the energy we need, the media has done yet another disservice to rational thought, and rational thought is the linchpin of a successful democracy.

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