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Archive for the ‘messaging’ Category

One City’s Drought Communications “Fail”

I just watched a city council adopt a communication campaign that will do a lousy job of informing residents of the new water restrictions and fines it had just adopted in response to state mandates. For Californians to respond effectively to the drought, we’re all going to have to do better than this city did.

“Thanks” to city council input, residents of the San Gabriel Valley city will receive a cover letter and three separate inserts – four pieces in all, competing for attention, over-communicating and creating confusion – all in a bland envelope that will be lost in the day’s mailbox-full of unsolicited mail.

That’s going to be as expensive as it is ineffective.

The city did one thing right. It didn’t use a water bill insert, recognizing it wouldn’t get enough readership in a timely manner. But if you’re going to use an envelope (I wouldn’t!), you’d better print a high-impact headline on it or it’s likely to go out with next week’s trash, unopened.

Here’s a better alternative: Mail two postcards on the same day, one over-sized and one minimum USPS size. Why postcards? Because they get the message out without having an envelope in the way. Why two?

  • The large one would spell out the details, and by limiting the space to a large postcard, there’s much less chance of your message becoming gobbledygook.
  • The small postcard would be the “keeper,” designed with the refrigerator door in mind. All the good stuff would be on one side: Which days they can irrigate on, prohibitions and fines, tips, an easy URL for more information.

Combined with good policy and customer-oriented enactment, this will work.

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.

How Much Does A Reputation Melt-Down Cost?

Let’s say the principal your company was named after said something some time ago some folks determined was racist.  The media happily jumped on the story, the blogosphere lit up and tweets twittered for days.

What’s that going to cost you?

How about $100 million?

“Oops!”

That’s what Najafi Companies, a private-equity company led by the owner of the Book-of-the-Month Club, Jahm Najafi, is investing in the tarnished brand of Paula Deen, the butter queen. Says the Wall Street Journal:

By its own description, Najafi Cos. often invests in business that are “out of popular favor.” Mr. Najafi said he doesn’t see investing in Ms. Deen to be an extraordinary risk. Despite the controversy, he said, her brand has strong, broad support from core fans across the U.S.

Still, if it takes $100 million to reinstate a brand, we’d say, first,  there’s a fair chunk of risk involved, and second, better to not tarnish the brand in the first place. Have good messages, learn them, and stick to them.

That’s why none of our clients has been deep-fried.

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.             

Apologies Accepted and Not Accepted

The art of apology is largely lost in this new age of “if” apologies, as in, “I apologize if I hurt your feelings.” That’s not an apology.

Neither was Melissa Harris-Perry’s. She’s the MSNBC reporter whose show recently featured a number of comedians mocking Mitt Romney and  his family for having an adopted black child in their midst. Here’s what she tweeted:

The intent of featuring the photo was to celebrate it [and] say positive and celebratory things about the image.

Harris-Perry did not apologize; she lied. No one will believe for a moment that the liberal-leaning MSNB, its liberal-leaning host and the liberal-leaning comedians she had on her show intended for one moment to be positive and celebratory about the image.

Doing much better on the apology front was TV star Natasha Leggero, who may have offended one or two people when she made a joke about a Spaghetti-O’s tweet on NBC’s New Year’s Eve show.

There’s the tweet and the accompanying picture.  Leggero’s on-air comment was,  “It sucks that the only survivors of Pearl Harbor are being mocked by the only food they can still chew.”

We don’t believe any mocking was going on in the tweet, just as we believe Leggero’s response to the kerfuffle this kicked up was a sterling counterpart to Harris-Perry’s pathetic false apology. This was a case where NOT apologizing made sense, and that’s just what she did:

I wish I could apologize, but do you really want another insincere apology that you know is just an attempt at damage control and not a real admission of guilt? Let me just try instead to be honest.

I’m not sorry. I don’t think the amazing courage of American veterans and specifically those who survived Pearl Harbor is in any way diminished by a comedian making a joke about dentures on television. Do we really believe that the people who fought and defended our freedom against Nazis and the Axis powers will find a joke about Spaghetti O’s too much to bear? Sorry, I have more respect for Veterans than to think their honor can be impugned by a glamorous, charming comedian in a fur hat.

That’s not to say I don’t think comedians are a problem in this country, they are a financial drain on the people who date them and talk far too much about themselves. I’m thrilled to see how passionate (death threats against a five foot tall woman are always the height of passion!) people are about our country and our Veterans. I am too. My own father lost his hearing in the Vietnam War so the issue is pretty close to me too. So rather than apologize, let me offer another perspective.

On the one hand you have me, making a joke about how old people can’t chew tough foods very well.

On the other hand you have Veterans who receive inadequate care upon their return from active duty, rampant sexual assault against female soldiers, staggering rates of suicide, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, substance abuse and depression among soldiers and political gridlock that prevents these problems from getting solved quickly.

Where do you think your outrage and action would be better served, calling me a c— or doing something about the above problems?

For those of you that are currently doing both: Kudos!

To our vets: I love you. I truly hope you know that.

To Spaghetti O’s: Let’s do lunch.

To the Elderly: Chew!

To @nealrscott: It’s spelled Human Excrement not Increatment.

To those looking for an active way to address the above problems, do what I’ve decided to do instead of apologize: Make a donation to the Disabled American Veterans foundation.

Ever Yours, Natasha Leggero

Nicely done, even if it does ramble on some.

 

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.

The Election – Gee-Whizzer Edition

Say “gee-whizzer,” and most old-line journalists and PR folks will know what you’re talking about. It’s a way of presenting facts, particularly numbers, in a way that gets readers’ attention – so much so they say “Gee Whiz!” – and that helps them to retain the information.

Today it would probably be called  “something meme-able” or “something viral-able.” We prefer gee-whizzer.

ENS Resources, a DC lobbying firm, issued a 2012 election results update this morning with so many gee-whizzers we wonder when their staff slept. Here’s the set-up:  At all levels of government, candidates and SuperPACs spent $6 billion on the November election, and for just the presidential race, they spent $2 billion.  How much is $2 billion? Ah, that’s a question that invites gee-whizzers, and according to ENS, it’s enough to buy:

  • Approximately 3.5 million shares of Apple stock
  • 40 private islands
  • Six Airbus A380 jets
  • An Ohio Class submarine (Definitely what we’d buy!)
  • The college debt of 153,846 students graduating from public universities
  • Or, if given to UNICEF, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and equipment, nutritional supplements, mosquito nets, water and sanitation tools and educational supplies for billions of people in impoverished nations.

As for the election itself, it was anything but a gee-whizzer for California businesses. At this writing, with many absentee ballots still to be counted, it appears the Democrats will hold super-majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. That means tax increases can be passed over Republican objections, and businesses are a popular target of California tax increases.

Nationally, Democrats will have trouble finding a mandate, but in California they’ll have no such trouble. They picked up seats and they largely got their way with ballot propositions. That means no signals were sent by the electorate to cut back on anti-business policies and regulations.

For more on California’s sad state, read Crazifornia, by our founder and president, Laer Pearce. Called “the most insightful book on California’s perilous condition – ever,” it provides insights on how California got the way it is, how bad exactly it’s become, and what the prospects are for redirecting the state.

Crazifornia is an Amazon #1 best-seller (21st Century history) and is receiving mostly 5-star (highest rating) reviews on Amazon.

You can purchase a copy on Amazon or read about more about the book at Crazifornia.com.

 

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.”

(more…)

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.

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