Archive for the ‘public relations’ Category
That’s not a guess. Kate Galbraith, a San Francisco-based journalist, recently wrote in America’s premier journalism publication, the Columbia Journalism Review,
When I Googled “water reporter” over and over again, [only] one guy showed up. His name is Chris Woodka, and he works in Colorado at the Pueblo Chieftain, a daily based about 100 miles south of Denver.
No one showed up for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orange County Register, the Phoenix American, the Las Vegas Review Journal or any of hundreds of other papers covering America’s drought belt. Galbrath explains why she thinks this is:
I couldn’t prove it, but I suspected that even as the [Texas] Tribune [which she reported for] pounded away at water stories, and invited the public to panel after panel of discussions about water, the audience was often people who were already engaged. The challenge was reaching ordinary citizens—many of whom might not even know there is a water crisis.
Two polls show the magnitude of this challenge. Last year, a survey by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune found that water lay near the bottom of Texans’ policy priorities, despite the ongoing drought. In California, which is now enduring its most intense drought on record, a 2012 poll showed that 78 percent of respondents had never heard of the river delta at the heart of the state’s water-supply system.
To an editor, water news is neither “dog bites man” or “man bites dog.” It’s no one cares whether the dog or the man bit anything.
This lack of coverage hurts a water community that is trying to increase public awareness of the value of water, the need to conserve and the need to invest in improved supply reliability and infrastructure. But before we lament our inability to call the local paper’s in-the-know, experienced water reporter, let’s consider two things.
First, he or she is not likely to be in-the-know and experienced. The sorry state of the newspaper business has led to high turn-over, especially among the (relatively) well-paid more senior reporters. Chances are, if you were working with a dedicated water beat reporter, you’d be working with a recent hire who didn’t know much more about water than the 78 percent who never heard of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
And forget broadcast outlets. Their on-camera “personalities” may have a bit more experience, but unless the water kills someone or is really, really cute, they’re probably not going to cover it.
And second, given the pressure on reporters to write stories that generate comments, what do you suppose they’d be writing about? Would it be the need to invest in boring old concrete infrastructure, or a justification of a district’s proposed rate increase?
We don’t think so. In the times a water beat reporter would find exciting, like the current drought, you’d get sensationalism in overkill mode. Galbrath recognizes this, listing “Drought and cattle! Drought and rice farmers! Drought and climate change! Drought and power plants! Drought and hunting! Drought and the military!” – with a link to each one!
Such coverage might drive temporary conservation, but the goal of any experienced water communicator should be to change long-time water use patterns, not support come-and-go drought-related conservation.
In less “exciting” times, would you see articles that support a more enlightened citizen view of water? Articles that explain the value of water or the need to conserve it? Sure. Some.
But you would see much more of sensationalism in non-drought clothing. “Water district expenses out of control! Water quality deteriorates! Widow can’t pay water bill! Water employees get lush retirement packages! District director takes golf junket!”
So, maybe it isn’t such a bad thing after all that water communicators must constantly struggle to get the media interested in the only thing on the entire planet that’s almost as essential as the very air we breathe.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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