Archive for the ‘public relations’ Category
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!
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.
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.”
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
Over a century ago, the good people of Chicago undertook an understandable bit of subjugating nature: They reversed the flow of local sewage-choked waterways, including the Chicago River, so they no longer flowed into Lake Michigan, the source of their drinking water. And that was pretty much it for sewage treatment in Chicago.
It took a while, but EPA finally told Chicago to clean up its act and make the city’s polluted rivers and canals clean enough to swim in. That’s definitely not the case now, as bacteria counts of water dumped into the Chicago River at the Reclamation District’s North Side Treatment Plant are, on average, 521 times higher than those in nearby waterways. According to EPA, some stretches of the Chicago River are made up of 70% treatment plant effluent.
EPA says the cost per household of building suitable treatment plants will be about the same as a latte a month – just $40 a year in new taxes for an owner of a median-priced home ($267,000). Given the Feds’ poor track record at cost-estimating, let’s triple that to $120 a year.
So, confronted with a rate increase of $10 a month for his average customer, here’s how Terrence O’Brien, president of Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, responded:
In these difficult economic times when public agencies are facing budgetary shortfalls, people are losing their jobs and homes … it is important … that public funds are spent wisely.
We generally like messages that tie into the economic hardship that’s all around us, but really? What was the Reclamation District doing with its money during previous fat times? Why didn’t O’Brien and his board belly up to their responsibilities then?
And couldn’t some of the money lost to racketeering and other scandals over the years (like this) been used instead to pay the cost of behaving responsibly? Or, since times are so tight, couldn’t the Reclamation District have considered not increasing salaries by more than 30 percent over the last five years?
And why is it that every other major city in America (according to the Chicago Tribune) manages to disinfect its sewage, but Chicago is still behaving like it’s the 1800s?
Finally, after reviewing O’Brien’s campaign ad we have to ask where his campaign promises are now. What about when he said, “It’s my job to clean up our water,” or when he said, “I’ve spent my life cleaning up messes?” Surely statements like that, documented on YouTube for all to see, need to be taken into account when developing the Reclamation District’s response to EPA – or are you just saying it’s politics, promises are just for getting elected?
To put it bluntly, O’Brien’s message stinks. Chicago residents familiar with the ongoing negative news coverage the Reclamation District gets very likely won’t accept that O’Brien is really standing up for them. And since the city’s spent $100 million improving public access to these very waterways, citizens are probably pretty fed up with the Reclamation District’s stubbornness on water quality.
Even if the agency is going to fight EPA tooth-and-nail, a better message would have been one of the need for further study and taking the time to do things right. And as any competent public affairs messaging guru will tell you, it’s not nice to exploit people who have been hurt by the recession.
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.
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.
Last week’s Congressional water hearing in Fresno, if nothing else, produced thousands of acre-feet of hyperbole – if politically expedient but morally challenged statements can be measured that way. The Natural Resource Defense Council’s particularly reprehensible propaganda is discussed in the post below; this post focuses on an article covering the position of Congressional Democrats regarding the hearing, “California Lawmakers Seek Statewide Approach to Water Supply.”
The article quotes Grace Napolitano as the lead spokesperson for the Dems. We like Napolitano on water issues. Her district runs from East Los Angeles to Pomona, so she understands that her constituents are largely dependent on water delivered to Southern California from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River. As the former chair and current ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Water and Power, she has done a lot to support a Delta solution and to bring federal dollars to groundwater clean-up, recycling and desalination efforts.
Fortunately for our positive view of Napolitano (just on water issues, mind you), the statement that we’re fact-checking here was not attributed to the Congresswoman, so we must credit it to the editors and writers at Environmental Protection, where the article appeared. Here it is:
Last year, the state reported that the closure of salmon fishing cost the economy at least $250 million. Recent studies have estimated that nearly 2,000 salmon fishermen have been unable to work over the last three years, job loss figures comparable to the number of farm workers who could not work due to pumping restrictions during the drought. (emphasis added)
On its face, this statement is true. Job losses among salmon fishers are comparable to job losses among farm workers who couldn’t find work because drought and environmental restrictions shut of the spigot to many Central Valley farms. The comparison is this: Salmon industry job losses are probably one percent or so of agricultural job losses.
In the town of Mendota alone, which I visited when its unemployment rate hit 38 percent at the peak of the weather-and-regulatory drought, if we assume half of the town’s population of 10,000 is made up of workers, then 1,900 people were unemployed in that town alone. There are towns like Mendota every few miles throughout the Central Valley, so the editors of Environmental Protection are guilty of minimizing human suffering for political gain, a not uncommon but always unwise tactic.
Besides, there is no consensus whatsoever that the decline in California salmon populations can be tied to pumping water south from the Delta. In fact, the consensus seems to be shifting to blaming any number of other causes, including ammonia from sewage treatment plants, predation by non-native striped bass, oceanic conditions’ impact on salmon food supply, overpopulation of protected predatory sea mammals, and others.
Everything I’ve learned in a career in public affairs and strategic communications tells me the complex debate over California water supply and the challenging (and likely impossible) effort to find a course of action that pleases all constituents is not furthered by this sort of destructive and divisive language.
The media’s breathless coverage of the Fukushima nuclear accident continues with a stream of reports about the radiation in the wind over New York, in the spinach in Japan, in your hair, on your car, over your head and under your feet. It’s all too much. Literally.
A friend sent me this chart today. Check out the expandable, more readable version here. The block that’s smack dab in the middle of the box with blue blocks in it is the average daily dose of someone living by the Fukushima plant after the accident. The big blue block across the bottom is the radiation you’d get from one flight from New York to LA.
The second tiny green box in the green blocks is the sum total of all the blue boxes – it’s three green squares. The next largest green box is what you’d get in one year of living in a stone, brick or concrete house – four boxes. The big green block is the maximum yearly dose allowed for U.S. radiation users.
Put all the green boxes into the top orange box. The big orange block is a fatal dose. How’s that for perspective?
Most of the media is ignoring this kind of stuff since it doesn’t exactly make for bold headlines, but the LA Times is to be commended for a piece by reporter Melissa Healy it ran Sunday called, “From Japan’s damaged nuclear complex: radiation and fear.” Here’s the lead:
In the wake of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the powerful tsunami that followed, the stricken nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant released not one but two powerful and invisible forces: radiation and fear of radiation.
Both can spread quickly, and with insidious stealth. They permeate walls, make no distinction between rich and poor, and are particularly hard on children.
And elevated levels of either can have long-term health consequences.
Read the whole piece. It’s short and well worth it. Stress, like radiation, has distinct and proven detrimental effects on health. Doesn’t the media have a responsibility, therefore, to report much more accurately about the health risks – not just the radiation levels – associated with the disaster?
Grass Valley apparently does something or other for videographers. What exactly I don’t know and don’t care since it’s not my business and I never asked for their emails. So today, after receiving a few of their e-blasts, I scrolled to the bottom and looked for “unsubscribe.” I was given two options, writing to them (!), or “click here.” Would anyone ever write a company (44 cents plus stationery and time) to unsubscribe from their unsolicited emails? I don’t think so. so I clicked the link.
That took me to a page where I had to confirm that my email address was in fact my email address. If I’m clicking from an email in my in-box, why do I have to confirm this? But to unsubscribe, I had to press on, so I did.
That took me to a screen that said an email was being sent to me to verify my email address. Is my subscription so urgently needed by Grass Valley that they have to ask me to go through this step? I don’t think so. But as I became increasing sick of these guys – and curious about how bad their unsubscribe process would become – I pressed on yet again and opened the email.
It included a link to click to – gulp! – update my profile. I hate that. I want to unsubscribe, not update anything. But like Byrd pursuing the South Pole, I pressed on and clicked.
That took me to a three step process. The first asked me to verify my subscription information. I skipped it – I’m not verifying anything to these guys. I just want out!
Step two was user preference, giving me the opportunity to subscribe to four different communications from them (they’d thoughtfully already subscribed me to three of the four) plus lots of other stuff. I tried on my iPhone to unclick the three they’d subscribed me to, but no dice. So I went on to step three, finish, but they had other ideas about that.
When I tried to open the “finish” window via Safari on my iPhone it wouldn’t open it, demanding instead that I go back to step one, verification, and provide my office phone number. Fat chance! I gave up at that point, frustrated and angry. Later, at the office on my desktop, then went through the entire process again. This time it offered to let me unsubscribe, which I did, by unchecking a box next to some copy about accepting their terms and conditions and promising them my first born if I ever did anything to violate said terms and conditions.
Ten minutes of my life had just been wasted by people I never invited to communicate with me, who had nothing to say that interested me and nothing to sell that I would ever buy. If I ever do go into videography, I can unequivocally promise you that the one company I won’t buy from is Grass Valley.
So here’s the point: When someone wants to unsubscribe from your mailing list, let them do it easily, with no more than one click. If you want to open a window after they’ve unsubscribed giving them the option to tell you why in order for you to improve your service, that’s fine. But if you require anything more than a single click, you are coming off as an obnoxiously unrelenting sales person, not someone who cares about customers and prospects.
You are currently browsing the archives for the public relations category.