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Stinky Messaging Out of Chicago

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.

As If We Hadn’t Waited Long Enough

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

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

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

And waiting.

And waiting.

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

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

Fact-Checking Democrats’ Water Statement

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.

Perspective, Please!

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?

Unsubscribe Fail

A company called Grass Valley appeared suddenly in my email in-box a while back, uninvited – and increasingly unwelcome over time.

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.

PR Meltdown Update: Progress, but More Evidence of Doom

“I still have no idea what the numbers they are giving about radiation levels mean. It’s all so confusing. And I wonder if they aren’t playing down the dangers to keep us from panicking. I don’t know who to trust,” said [Tsugumi] Hasegawa, crammed with 1,400 people into a gymnasium on the outskirts of the city of Fukushima, 80 miles (50 miles) away from the plant.

Click on image to see Futuba to the northeast of the Fukushima plant, which is marked with an "A."

AP reported that quote this morning, evidencing just how horrible the PR crisis meltdown in the Japan nuclear crisis is. Before the quake, tsunami and radiation evacuation, Hasegawa lived in the town of Futuba, described by AP as “in the shadow of the nuclear plant,” yet the 29-year-0ld mother has not been provided – or does not remember – the information she needs to process the news she is receiving.

Three entities are at fault for this. Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) appears to have not undertaken the community outreach and education it should have, given its responsibility as a corporate citizen to the people near its many nuclear plants.  The second is the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which either didn’t require community education or didn’t enforce the regulations. The third is the media, which apparently is not putting sufficient perspective and explanation into their reports.

In many cases, Hasegawa herself may have been the cause of the communication breakdown.  She may have been the target of meaningful communications, but like so many do, failed to tune in.  This is highly unlikely because Japanese schools, community structures and emergency drill techniques are all top-notch, and further, the quote indicates this has been an institutional failure, not an individual one. It is from Kazuma Yokota, a government nuclear safety official, who was commenting on the failure to quickly respond to the emergency by distributing potassium iodine, which protects from radioactive iodine, to the surrounding communities:

“We should have made this decision and announced it sooner. It is true that we had not foreseen a disaster of these proportions. We had not practiced or trained for something this bad. We must admit that we were not fully prepared.”

And why not? The standard excuse is that no one conceived of a situation this awful, but after Chernobyl, nuclear plant operators should have planned for a serious meltdown and radiation release scenario, whether they thought it would happen at their plant or not.  Has your  neighborhood nuclear reactor operator performed any better?

The AP article also has two other quotes worth noting as we evaluate the crisis communications program the Japanese are struggling, largely unsuccessfully, to implement.  The first is from Deputy Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama:

“We consider that now we have come to a situation where we are very close to getting the situation under control.”

The second is from another government official, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano:

“Even if certain things go smoothly, there would be twists and turns.  At the moment, we are not so optimistic that there will be a breakthrough.”

At this point in the crisis, systems should be in place to ensure that a deputy secretary and a chief secretary of the same government are on the same page, but they’re not.  Edano, who said the second quote, may not be as reassuring, but at this point, being believable is much more important than being reassuring, so his message will be more effective than Fukuyama’s.

PR Meltdown: Bad Reputations Hamper Nuke Response

My experience in Japan – 12 years of it – colors my reaction to the triple tragedy that is unfolding in the country I love and called home for so long.  The earthquake itself was much stronger than any I felt while there, and I went through ones strong enough to empty theaters and drop plaster from ceilings.  I know the area most impacted and have met its industrious and warm people.  It’s disconcerting to think that I once stayed in a pretty family inn in a seaside fishing village that probably now has been washed out to sea.

But it is the third crisis, the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactor, that has the most potential for tragedy – and also represents by far the largest public relations melt down of all Japan has gone through.  (Note: I use “Dai-Ichi” instead of “daiichi” throughout because it means “No. 1,” and is two words.)

The Japan I knew when growing up was one where the government and the people were in close harmony, and business was mostly trusted.  Certainly, there were opposition parties and big-time political battles and scandals, but the 38-year successful run of the Liberal Democratic Party (which is conservative, despite its name), from 1955 through 1993, indicates a basic trust between the people and government. As for business, there were scandals including particularly damaging environmental ones, but all in all, the Japanese liked the economic miracle brought on by a business community that was in sync and supported by government.

How badly that’s broken down is evident in the wake of Fukushima.

Neither Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which owns the plant, or the Japanese Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), which regulates it, has been able to win the trust of the people or the media following the accident.  There are lessons in what they’re going through that public relations professionals and government agencies can learn from.

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win

Most obviously, Fukushima Dai-Ichi reminds us there are some crises that simply are not going to be handled well.  These are the cases where spokespeople are powerless to provide timely and accurate updates because no one has it.  In this case, no one really knows what’s going on in the plant because of the complex chemistry of nuclear reactions gone awry, just as no one knows what’s going to happen next because there are so many variables in play, from the success or failure of current initiatives to the way the wind will blow.

Tepco execs perform the mandatory apology bow

The cardinal rule of crisis communications is to not say anything until  you’re sure you have accurate information in-hand.  How can any public information officer hope to do this with any level of frequency and consistency in a situation like a nuclear plant meltdown as challenging as this one?  So, as far as the spokespeople go, we should all cut them some slack and hope their professional lives get better soon.

Radioactive Reputations

But even if they could get accurate information in a timely manner, it’s likely the spokespeople for this disaster would still be having a terrible time gaining credibility because both Tepco and NISA went into the crisis with their reputations seriously compromised. The performance of other Japanese nuclear plant operators also added to their problems.  Here’s a run-down of recent scandals:

  • In 2007, an earthquake caused heavy damage to Tepco’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant.  The company said there had been no release of radiation, but later admitted there was a release, including radioactive water spilling into the Sea of Japan.
  • Tepco has ordered in 2006 to review all its safety records after it was revealed that the company  had been falsifying records of the temperature of plant coolants since at least 1985.
  • In 2002, a number of senior Tepco executive resigned in disgrace after NISA disclosed (far too late in many people’s estimation) that the company had covered up at least 29 cases of cracks and other damage to reactors.  Two Fukushima reactors were included in the scandal.  In 2003, the implications of this case impacted everyone on Japan’s power grid as Tepco was forced to shut down all of its reactors for safety inspections.
  • In 1999, Japan Atomic Power was criticized when it took 14 hours to shut down the Tsurugura plant in northern Japan after a cooling water leak.  Later it was learned the level of radiation in this accident was several times higher than originally announced.
  • In 1995, there were allegations of cover-up, falsification of reports, and editing of videotapes following a fire at the Monju reactor in central Japan. [Source for bullets here and here.]

Incidents like these weaken not only the credibility of Japan’s nuclear plant operators, but also the regulators at NISA who are supposed to be keeping a watchful eye over the industry.  Because of them, Japan’s nuclear industry and its regulators are going to suffer a long-term, highly damaging meltdown of the public’s trust in them.  The result is likely to be very painful and perhaps even fatal for nuclear power in Japan.  If there’s a way to buy stock in Chinese coal mining, you might want to consider doing so now because Japan may be looking for an alternative to nuclear power soon.

Tired But True

It’s a lesson that’s been around for as long as the spoken word:  There is a heavy cost associated with trying to cover things up.  It has never been more true than now – after all, it took me less than a minute to find the documentation cited above, so how does anyone think they can successfully pull the wool over the public’s eyes?  Even American presidents, the most powerful and protected people on the planet, have learned this hard lesson over and over again, from Grant with the Teapot Dome scandal to Clinton with the blue dress.

For any controversial industry (and really, what industry isn’t controversial at some level?), the decision to cover up is particularly foolish. The Japanese nuclear plant operators should have realized they would not succeed, and should have understood that one day – today – the consequences of their deceit would be very bad indeed. The regulators, if not complicit in the cover-up, should have realized that their oversight systems weren’t working and should have improved them.

Their only option now is the truth, nothing but the truth, and the whole truth, 24/7, even if it means career suicide.  They need to do something comparable to what British Petroleum did when it live-streamed the video images of crude gushing from the broken pipe at Deep Horizon.  The public demands and deserves real-time radiation readings and status reports.  Longer term, the companies need to open all the other plants to similar levels of scrutiny and act quickly, decisively and publicly if there’s any doubt that something might be amiss.

An industry with a good reputation could have weathered this crisis because the people and the press would have a great deal of forgiveness, given the unprecedented severity of the earthquake and tsunami.  Tepco won’t get any forgiveness, however, because it hasn’t t earned it – and your company or organization won’t either if you’re playing Tepco’s game.

Public Agencies and Public Benefits

We can’t tell you how many times we’ve read through the comments posted on a news article about the compensation and benefits paid to the employees of public agencies only to find a slew of comments about how the agencies “operate in secret” and “work behind closed doors.”

That always strikes us as funny, because the articles these readers are commenting on almost always came about because of some sort of public disclosure the agency is required to make. Lately, it’s been documentation compiled by the State Controller. Often, it’s based on Public Records Act request the agencies have received from reporters and have little choice but to comply with.  Or an agenda item at a public board meeting.  So, what secrets? What closed doors?

Still, the spotlight is on public agencies, and it’s going to stay there for a while before it moves on to make someone else uncomfortable. The effects of a tsunami of articles on public employee pensions, mid-six-figure compensation packages for agency heads and the growing unfunded pension obligations have made this a hot issue.  A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (theoretically a non-partisan group), revealed the not-surprising finding that the public’s discontent with government employee pensions and benefits is rising, and that the most popular suggestion for how to cut government budget deficits is to cut spending on “pension plans of government employees.”

The issue is hitting home.  We saw this week that Helix Water District in suburban east San Diego County is the target of a citizen group, East County Tax Hawks.  The Hawks like the District’s water service just fine, but think the employee benefit package is way out of whack – at least 24 days of paid time off a year (above recognized holidays), 100% of health insurance costs paid by the District and “over the top” retirement benefits.

The District responded to these charges as well as they can, by comparing their benefits to other water agencies’ benefits, and showing how they’ve cut operating expenses.  At a recent public meeting, Helix’s board president, DeAna Verbeke, acknowledged the public’s concerns, stated the agency also is concerned … then added, “employees have rights too.”

Of course they do, but that message probably will do nothing to reduce the ire felt by the Hawks, who probably see public sector employee contracts more as gifts of public funds than as legitimate payment for work done.  That doesn’t mean they have to keep that opinion, or that their opinion should be parroted by others in the District. Avoiding that will take communication and clarity.  Districts are going to have to face this issue head-on or risk the election of new directors set on slashing expenses by unreasonable amounts.

Based on my 30 years in public affairs and crisis management, here are some suggestions for your consideration:

  • With all contracts, work with other public agencies to obtain apples-to-apples data and take board action to commit to being “average” in compensation and benefits.
  • Push employees to re-open contract negotiations that aren’t set to be re-opened soon.  They may refuse, but the public will appreciate the effort.
  • With employee compensation packages, focus on the trimmings, not the meat.  People expect rank-and-file employees to be fairly compensated, but don’t like overly generous frills in public employee contracts.  Paid off-days, health insurance costs and the like will be scrutinized.
  • Check your $100,000-plus pensions, which are the subject of particular scrutiny.  How many do you currently have; how many do you expect to have? How many years did those people work?  How much did the agency pay in?
  • Compare your GM and Board salaries, payments and perks to other agencies’ and be prepared to answer questions on anything that stands out from the crowd.
  • Expect scrutiny and be as prepared for it as you would be for an operational mishap.  Keep your compensation data on hand and up to date, and have messages prepared that anticipate the difficult questions you’re likely to receive.

If you’d like to discuss this further, give me – Laer – a call at 949/599-1212.

Ring the bell – here’s a tip on the Taco Bell story

The tip – don’t listen to the armchair PR quarterbacks critiquing Taco Bell’s response to a recently filed lawsuit. If you’ve been stuck inside the bun and have not heard, the company is being sued because its “beef” is allegedly only 35% “beef.” Taco Bell strongly denies the charge.

One PR commentator suggested Taco Bell needs to “admit its beef is subpar and tell customers it will make a better product in the future.” Really? Admit fault when you believe you are not at fault? Besides, it would hard to get legal to approve the “we’re wrong message” in the midst of a lawsuit.

It’s not that we don’t mind pointing out to the lawyers that the court of public opinion convenes first and also awards damages, but we reserve that point for fights we can win.
Another PR pro in a USA Today story suggested Taco Bell just needs to do a better job of having a “two-way” dialog on various social media outlets.

Sure, social media are necessary tools to get your message out, and Taco Bell is using it appropriately at this stage in the crisis.

Here’s what I think they are doing right:

Clarity of message: Creating a clear message is a core strength of Laer Pearce & Associations, and it’s as if we created Taco Bell’s response. Their primary messages: Taco Bell beef is 100% USDA inspected (third party credibility); and the beef recipe contains 88% quality USDA-inspected beef, no “fillers” (which are the focus of the litigation), and 12% seasoning, water and other products that “provide taste, texture and moisture … just like when you cook at home.” It’s a direct response and believable message that attacks the litigants’ claim that Taco Bell beef is 65% something other than beef.

Message repetition: Karl Rove would call it the “jackhammer approach,” where you repeat, repeat and repeat again your primary messages. Taco Bell has done this through advertising, website, social media, video and through the media, where consistent messages are being repeated.

Counter punch: Taco Bell promised a counter-lawsuit attacking the attorneys who brought forward the “frivolous and misleading claims.” This ID’s the opponents as unsympathetic attorneys and demonstrates Taco Bell won’t back down from its primary messages.

Could they be doing more? Probably. But if you’ve ever been on a crisis management team you know that the absolutely perfect response strategy always has to be modified and trimmed because of the demands of those nasty little things we call “facts.” We don’t know all the details of this situation, but given what Taco Bell’s said (and not said) we’d give them a good grade.

It reminds me of the Tiger Woods response. Many crisis communications folks were quoted in the days after Tiger’s automobile accident, saying Tiger was doing everything wrong in the days after his famous car accident (even though he had a savvy group of pros helping him). The local PR guy from Des Moines, Iowa had this response:

“This is a textbook case of what not to do in a crisis,” said Des Moines public relations expert Ryan Hanser.
“Tell all the facts, tell the truth — nothing else will stand the test of time — and get it done quickly,” Hanser said. “To tell it quickly means there are no holes for other people to fill.”

This is great advice – way better than telling lies – but as we found out, Tiger’s public relations and legal team was working behind the scenes trying to minimize the damage. And obviously, Tiger was dealing with larger issues at home and the whole story could not be shared publicly just a couple days after the crisis hit.

Now Dominos Pizza’s initial response to its 2009 You Tube crisis is a completely different story and a case study of what not to do. It took that company a year to get re-grounded, with a major new campaign that is seeking to completely remake the public’s opinion of the brand.

The Rise of the Referendum

City councils in Azusa, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente each approved major land use projects over the past few months.  All three of these projects are now in a battle for survival as voters attempt to overturn project approvals through the referendum process.

These three incidents should serve as a cautionary tale for property owners:  You don’t just need the support of decision-makers; you need the support of more than 50 percent of the voters.  This support should be secured prior to a vote of a city council or board of supervisors because referendum signature gathering begins immediately after project approval.

As Orange County’s leading public affairs firm, we’ve helped clients defeat referendum drives. In one instance, our efforts helped give Yorba Linda its own high school, as our YLHS YES! campaign for Shapell Homes turned back opponents.

Here’s a review of the basic process under state law (municipalities may alter this process by ordinance, so be sure to check):

  • Proponents have 30 days from approval of the ordinance to circulate a petition calling for repeal.
  • There is no title and summary or publication requirement.  Proponents may commence circulating the petition as soon as the ordinance is adopted.
  • The referendum must contain the full text of the ordinance or legislative act the proponents are challenging.
  • Proponents must gather signatures from not less than 10 percent of the registered voters in the city according to the last report of registration.
  • Any voter who has signed a petition may withdraw his or her signature by filing a written request with the elections officer at least one day before the petition is filed.
  • The ordinance that is subject of a referendum is automatically suspended once the referendum petition qualifies [NOTE – this stops any activity on your property related to the approvals you just received].
  • Once the city election official certifies the referendum has the requisite number of signatures, Council must either repeal the ordinance, or place the measure on the next regular municipal election, or call a special election to consider the ordinance.
  • If a special election is called, it must be held no later than 88 days from the date the election is called.
  • The City attorney prepares an impartial summary and the proponents and opponents prepare arguments for and against the referendum (and rebuttals) for the ballot statement.

A good reference:  California elections code section 9235-9242.  If you’re facing a referendum, or feel your project may face one upon Council approval, give us a call so we can talk strategy.

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