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Archive for the ‘outreach’ 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.

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.

Is There Such a Thing as Spam? Not with Obama

Now that the election is over, the super-secret inner workings of the highly successful Obama campaign are becoming known, including the email campaign responsible for most of Obama’s $690 million in online campaign contributions. Public relations and public affairs folks – and anyone who uses email to reach target markets – should take a lesson.

Here’s your textbook: Joshua Green’s The Science Behind those Obama Campaign E-Mails at Bloomberg Businessweek. And here are the lessons:

1. Don’t fly blind

The appeals were the product of rigorous experimentation by a large team of analysts. “We did extensive A-B testing not just on the subject lines and the amount of money we would ask people for,” says Amelia Showalter, director of digital analytics, “but on the messages themselves and even the formatting.” The campaign would test multiple drafts and subject lines—often as many as 18 variations—before picking a winner to blast out to tens of millions of subscribers.

2. Take off your tie

It quickly became clear that a casual tone was usually most effective. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people,” Fallsgraff says. “ ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.” Another blockbuster in June simply read, “I will be outspent.” According to testing data shared with Bloomberg Businessweek, that outperformed 17 other variants and raised more than $2.6 million.

3. Under-think the design

Writers, analysts, and managers routinely bet on which lines would perform best and worst. “We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing,” says Showalter. “Every time something really ugly won, it would shock me: giant-size fonts for links, plain-text links vs. pretty ‘Donate’ buttons. Eventually we got to thinking, ‘How could we make things even less attractive?’ That’s how we arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections we wanted to draw people’s eye to.”

4. Fear not

Fortunately for Obama and all political campaigns that will follow, the tests did yield one major counterintuitive insight: Most people have a nearly limitless capacity for e-mail and won’t unsubscribe no matter how many they’re sent. “At the end, we had 18 or 20 writers going at this stuff for as many hours a day as they could stay awake,” says Fallsgraff. “The data didn’t show any negative consequences to sending more.”

A caveat on that last one. President Obama has a wee tad more draw – both positive and negative – than the subject of most blast emails. You might want to dial back this advice from “nearly limitless capacity for email” to “a much greater capacity for email than you might think.”

 

Winning support for apartment projects

A recent event titled Multifamily Building Boom caught our attention.  We haven’t seen the two words – building & boom – used together for awhile, so we bought a ticket to this Building Industry Association program.

It turns out, there is a bit of a boom happening.   Economic conditions and government policies are driving Southern Californians to rent apartments – which is great news for apartment builders.

That’s the good news that was shared.  The tough news was that the entitlement process for proposed apartment communities (typically located on infill sites) can be very difficult.  Opposition from existing neighbors is often so intense that local governments have difficulty approving even the best projects.

Small-group meetings are an effective way to introduce your project to the community in an infill area.

What’s the solution?   Laer Pearce & Associates has developed five guidelines – based on our 20+ years of entitlement consulting – for successfully working with neighbors of proposed infill projects.

  1. Start with a simple introduction: Start small. Send a letter, hold a small group meeting.  Let your new neighbors get to know more about you and your concept.  Be prepared to explain why the existing land use (be it a golf course or industrial site) is no longer viable and why your plan can be a positive alternative.  It’s critical they understand there’s a real need for change other than your bottom line.
  2. Be inclusive and responsive: Create opportunities for two-way dialog with your neighbors so you can get input during the design process, and eventual buy-in on the final plan.  If you can’t incorporate a neighbor’s idea, explain why.  He or she will appreciate that you tried.
  3. Paint the picture: Invest in professional materials that help tell your story through words, pictures, sketches and video.  These materials help neighbors overcome their concerns, and strengthen the opinion of those who want you to succeed.
  4. Build a coalition:  It is important that decision-makers see a strong coalition of supporters from diverse backgrounds.  Your supporters will typically come from neighbors who you’ve built relationships with by starting small and being inclusive and responsive.
  5. Deal with opponents: Opposition groups will form against most infill projects – especially when rentals or affordable housing are involved. You need to be prepared to respond to misleading statements that cross the line.  We add “that cross the line” because it’s important that you do not get distracted responding to every negative claim that’s made.

These guidelines will go a long way in decreasing the duration and cost of the entitlement process and increasing your chances of success.

An Unfortunate PR Lesson Emerges in the Desert

Amid the dark cloud of horror and sadness that engulfed our nation upon last weekend’s unspeakable tragedies in Arizona, there lies a glimmer of pride.  Chaos had erupted and a nation sat on the edge of its seat, eager for even the slightest tidbit of news.  In the blink of an eye, Tucson had become the center of the universe, and the University of Arizona became the public face of one of the most gripping news stories in recent history.

It’s not every day a university’s public relations department manages communications for a crisis of this magnitude.  Every media outlet in the nation simultaneously descended on the U of A, which was thrust into the spotlight because many of the victims of Saturday’s attack, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, were being tended to at the university’s medical center.  With the whole world watching, U of A’s PR team masterfully managed a torrent of information (and disinformation), and executed a crisis response that has impressed an entire industry of its peers.

Around-the-clock press conferences.  A dedicated news wire.  Constant twitter updates.  And a team of all-star doctors equally adept at addressing the media as they are at saving lives.

As an alumni and former employee of the U of A public relations department, I couldn’t be prouder.  (If you saw our recent bowl game, you’d know we haven’t had much to be proud of lately.)  Especially when compared to the efforts of the Pima County Sherriff’s Department and the un-corralable rantings of its top cop.

I’m also proud because, as a veteran of many crisis situations, I understand the challenges U of A’s PR team faced and know that it did things the right way.  It was able to respond so quickly and successfully (on a Saturday morning no less) because it followed rule number one of crisis PR:  Be Prepared.

In my time on the U of A PR staff, planning was a key component to everything we did.  Its current PR team had a strategy mapped out well in advance for incidents just like this and many others…and it showed.

U of A’s motto is “Bear Down.”  Kind of fitting given the performance of its leadership in recent days.  It’s also a great bit of advice for the rest of us PR pros as we lament dusting off our crisis communications plans.

Negative Messages Create Skeptics

Doom-and-gloom emotional messages that paint pictures of the sky falling or the earth burning don’t work well when you are trying to change public opinion.  That’s what a new study by two Berkeley professors found when they studied the impacts of fact-based vs. emotion-based global warming messages.

The professors had one group of subjects read stories that began with facts, but ended with apocalyptic warnings, while the other half read positive stories that focused on solving problems.  Those who read the positive stories were less skeptical than the group exposed to doom-and-gloom messaging.

(more…)

LP&A Creates New LinkedIn Group for Water Policy Professionals

Thanks to Laer Pearce & Associates, professionals that work with water policy around the world now have a LinkedIn group where they can discuss topics related to helping set and navigate water policy.  The Water Policy Professionals group encourages members to discuss legislation, communication strategies, regulations, incentives and news regarding policy on water supply, quality and pricing.  It will also include job postings and other networking functions.

Laer set up the group because he believes idea-sharing and open communications can help to find consensus on highly contentious issues – or at least move the discussion forward instead of having it bog down in rhetoric wars.

The group is a sister to LP&A’s other LinkedIn group, Water Conservation Professionals, which has 513 members. Seven people joined Water Policy Professionals in its first 30 minutes.

LP&A has been working on water-related issues for more than 20 years and is actively involved in helping to set policy for water issues on local, regional and state-wide levels.  We currently serve four water and wastewater agencies and CalDesal, a nonprofit advocating for pro-desalination policies and regulation in California.

Helping Two Water Clients Celebrate the Big Five-Oh

50th anniversaries are big deals; after all, they only happen once in an organization’s lifetime.  And it just so happened that two of Orange County’s largest water providers – and LP&A clients – happened to celebrate their golden milestones at the same time.

Mesa Consolidated Water District honored the occasion with a commemorative history book and decade-themed VIP and employee events.  Moulton Niguel Water District prepared a special edition of its customer newsletter with a pictorial timeline and history-themed display boards that will embark on a tour of local city halls and libraries.  Both districts celebrated their pasts with an eye towards the future, and we were proud to lend a helping hand.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher with Mesa Water's Board President Shawn Dewane

Mesa Water's Board of Directors with time caspule at VIP event

History posters will be on display in MNWD’s lobby through November before going on a tour to local cities and libraries

Each photo board represents a time frame in the District's history, and its accomplishments

LP&A hires Linda Ou to expand reach into Asian communities

We’re pleased to announce that Linda Ou has joined our staff at Laer Pearce & Associates.  Linda spent half her life in China before coming to America at 13, when she seriously got down to the task of learning English.  It turns out she’s an amazingly gifted communicator, as evidenced by her Master’s degree from the University of California, San Diego.

She will serve as a team member on many of our accounts – including our newest client, Great Far East, a commercial real estate and property management firm.  Linda also will extend our community relations expertise into the Chinese and other Asian communities, and is already hard at work on Laer Pearce & Associates’ new Chinese Business Initiative.

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