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What Makes Water Agency Communications Work

LP&A has nearly two decades of experience working with many of Southern California’s most prominent water providers to create programs that educate stakeholders, change public behavior and accomplish strategic objectives.  Over that period, we’ve developed a time-tested approach to successful water agency outreach that is grounded in key principles that we like to call “the Four Pillars of Water Agency Communications.” 

Trust

LP&A believes water district communications require building and maintaining trust.   Trust makes it easier to convince customers to conserve. Trust can protect an agency’s reputation if an accident occurs or if infrastructure repairs are needed.  Trust makes rate increases or changes in rate structure more easily accepted.  And trust makes it more likely legislators and regulators will support an agency’s objectives.  Trust is built through a mix of regular, consistent and truthful communications that explain complex matters in a customer-friendly way, and by providing opportunities for two-way dialogue that allow ratepayers and stakeholders to play an active role in their water agency.  LP&A has helped water districts build trust for nearly two decades.  Our approach protects and builds upon the reservoir of trust an agency has previously amassed, and directs it toward the District’s current objectives.          

Clarity

Water agencies regularly deal with complex issues and regulations, like Proposition 218, the BDCP, SDWA, CEQA, NEPA, ESA, and the Clean Water Act.  The trick is making these topics understandable and relevant to your target audiences.  For most agencies, it can be as simple as clearly communicating the need to conserve while rates climb higher.  Alternatively, it could be as complex as conveying a district’s position on a key issue in a manner that motivates action by regulators or other elected officials.  LP&A’s Clutter In/Clarity Out approach sees that our clients’ strategic objectives are regularly met.  

Perspective

LP&A approaches every communications task by placing ourselves in the shoes of the target audience and asking, “What’s in it for me?”  It’s only human nature for audiences to consider the greater good only after considering how an issue may affect them personally.  It’s also an unfortunate reality that most members of the public and many stakeholders are not heavily engaged in water issues.  As such, we must tailor our messages and strategies in terms of their impact on the target audience.  What are the benefits to them?  What are the impacts?  How will their lives change?  These personal-level issues must be addressed before audiences will be open to considering the bigger picture.  We’re experts in making sure water agencies have the proper perspective in their strategic communications.  

Focus

Water agencies operate using public funds, so they have an obligation to be as efficient as possible.  Without clearly defined goals, public agencies can slip into “communicating for communication’s sake,” squandering staff time and financial resources without achieving sufficient benefit. Communications efforts that are designed to accomplish specific, measurable goals ensure ratepayer-funded communication activities are supportable.  All LP&A communications strategies are focused on seeing that goals and budgets are set and met.             

Body Blows

The Susan G. Komen group sustained a bit of a body blow over the last week when it canceled funding to Planned Parenthood, then reinstated it, then fired an executive over all the embarrassments that ensued.  There’s talk of permanent damage, but if they hunker down, get a lot smarter and stay on their breast cancer mission, they’ll be OK.

Maybe the same can’t be said for global warming advocates, because a sustained barrage of body blows does a cause much more harm than a single blow, or even a triple blow, like Komen just felt.

The latest salvo against global doom prophets came today in Germany’s Bild newspaper (circulation, oh, about 16 million!), and in the new #1 best-seller in Germany, upon which the Bild story is based.  Since we don’t read German, we will borrow from a post on the No Tricks Zone blog, which specializes in reporting climate news from Germany, in English.

“THE CO2 LIES … pure fear-mongering … should we blindly trust the experts?”

That’s what Germany’s leading daily Bild (see photo) wrote in its print and online editions today, on the very day that renowned publisher Hoffmann & Campe officially released a skeptic book – one written by a prominent socialist and environmental figure.

This is huge. More than I ever could have possibly imagined. And more is coming in the days ahead! The Bild piece was just the first of a series.

Mark this as the date that Germany’s global warming movement took a massive body blow.

Today, not one, but two of Germany’s most widely read news media [The other was Der Spiegel.]  published comprehensive skeptical climate science articles in their print and online editions, coinciding with the release of a major climate skeptical book, Die kalte Sonne (The Cold Sun).

Germany has now plunged into raucus discord on the heated topic of climate change.

Die kalte Sonne is written by a Social Democrat/green activist who is credited as one of the fathers of Germany’s powerful green movement, teamed with a geologist/paleontologist.   That’s akin to a general defecting to the other side in the heat of battle.

Some numbers from the book:  800 sources cited, 80 charts and figures, 20,000 copies in the first print run … and most important, #1 on Amazon.de.

Expect the German environmental movement to throw everything they’ve got at this over the next few weeks, and then some.  Everything from alternative findings to character assassination will be used to tromp down the furor and assure the public that they still need to follow the rules and accept the high cost of fighting global warming.

The global warming activists will hold on for now, but the movement has to realize that when major news media turn against them, it’s akin to a major ally – not just a general – changing sides during a war.  They shouldn’t minimize the harm Bild, Der Spiegel and Die kalte Sonne’s sales will do to their cause.

Public Agencies and Public Relations

Should public agencies use public relations firms?

Recent publicity about a PR firm’s plans to promote the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies’ yellow call boxes (which aren’t used much anymore) would indicate the answer is no. The newly launched San Diego Watchdog column in the Union Tribune writes of the PR firm’s plan:

The marketing plan features a cookbook with on-the-go recipes. “Drivers are always concerned when traveling to parties about making dishes that will travel well in the car,” says the plan from [the PR firm].

It suggests Tupperware and Igloo ice chests with the call-box agency’s logo and a giveaway of a road trip, hotel stay and theme park visit.

For April Fool’s Day? “Have you pranked someone’s car before and have a photo of it? Show us! Only legal pranks please.”

The $130,000 marketing program is on the agenda Thursday for the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies board, which has come under scrutiny in recent months for storing millions of dollars of reserves even as the number of calls into the system plummets.

Update:  Just after we posted this item, the PR agency, which had been working for the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies since 2007, was canned.  Here’s the news item.

We confess at the outset we have little empathy for PR plans that require expensive give-aways like logo-adorned ice chests.  If you’re popping $20 or more for each decent ice chest you want to give away for free, how do you hope to get a positive return on investment?  Conversely, if you’re only proposing to spend $5 each for a cheap Styrofoam cooler that will fall apart the first time it’s used, how do you expect to communicate quality for your client’s brand?

But that’s not what bothers us the most about this proposal. It’s this: The client is dealing with criticism for charging too high a fee for a service that’s of too little use, and for holding too much in reserves.  How does this public relations proposal address the issues the client faces?  Simple: It throws gasoline on the flame with an expensive, out of touch program.

Consumer public relations firms, which often are overly driven by the need to be creative, are more likely to make a mistake like this than a public affairs firm like ours, because we are more attuned to public perception and more aware of downside risks.

Doing it Right

Please don’t get us wrong, though.  We believe public agencies are justified in using professional communicators.  In fact, because agencies typically deal with important civic functions (yellow call boxes notwithstanding) we think they frequently have an obligation to.

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.

More importantly, agencies need to listen.  As a strategic communications firm to several public agencies, we place the importance of incorporating “feedback mechanisms” into outgoing communications right below the need to make outreach programs goal-focused and measurable.  When incoming communications are a part of a campaign, they yield information that can be shared with the agency’s leadership, so they better understand the public’s perceptions, concerns and expectations.

A good communications consultant also will work hard to promote and ensure transparency.  A few years ago, we argued for our public agency clients to post board agendas and minutes, staff reports and budgets online for public viewing.  The practice is now the norm, and staff and board compensation information now also is available.

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 coolers with logos.  Is that where you want your tax dollars to go?

We didn’t think so.

The One Where the Man Bites the Dog, and the Dog Isn’t Very Happy About It

Dogs bite men all the time.  That’s why headlines like “Man Bites Dog” tend to grab readers’ attention.  In today’s anti-everything society, that rabid dog often takes the form of fringe environmentalists, and Californians have grown numb to their vicious gnawing (er, brainwashing) of unsuspecting students.  So we yawned when we heard a high school teacher in uber-green Malibu had his ninth-grade class write letters to the California Coastal Commission regarding a controversial proposal to light the school’s football field, which opponents say will scare away critters.

But then our ears perked up.  The teacher advised the students to research the topic, come to their own conclusions, and write a letter opposing the lights or…sit ubu sit…a letter supporting the proposal.  Imagine that.  Here’s the assignment.

From the LA Times:

“The teacher saw the lighting issue as one directly relevant to students and thus appropriate for students to learn how their voice can be heard,” the school’s principal said. “The fact that this issue is relevant to students only enhances motivation. It is reasonable that our students, who are affected by decisions regarding lights, be afforded the opportunity to lend their voice to the discussion.”

…The assignment, he said, was for students to write a business letter, but students can write a letter objecting to the lighting plan if they don’t support it.

We couldn’t agree more.  Today’s youth need to be taught there’s more to public participation than playing online video games against strangers in far away towns.  And it’s refreshing that students in Malibu are learning this lesson the right way – with objectivity, not by being spoon-fed green Kool-Aid.

But don’t let the fair-minded efforts of one teacher get you too warm and fuzzy.  The greeny Malibu parents are none too thrilled that both sides of the issue are being taught.  Heaven forbid their children learn how to form their own opinions.  And they won’t even need a tetanus shot.

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.

Live Better Magazine Quotes Laer on Water

When Live Better Magazine’s contributing editor Randy Goble was looking for an expert to quote on water issues in California, he turned to Laer, and here’s what he got:

Civilizations have historically developed near ample fresh water supplies. However, modern economic affluence has enabled cities to grow where there’s plenty of sunshine but little water – requiring costly long-distance water diversion. Even diversions from ample supplies are constrained by infrastructure capacity or drought in the supplying watershed, which leaves no choice but to reduce per capita consumption.

“Total water consumption in Los Angeles has not changed in the past 10 to 20 years despite continued population growth,” explains Laer Pearce of Laer Pearce & Associates, consultant to public and private sector organizations. This is due largely to effective conservation programs that include creative public awareness campaigns and rebates that cover some or all of the cost of plumbing fixture upgrades.

With an average annual rainfall of about 15 inches in Los Angeles (L.A.), compared to 50 inches in Atlanta, it’s clear that the U.S.’ most heavily populated area has a serious water constraint. Oddly, L.A. water and sewer rates are half the amount charged in Atlanta, even though Los Angeles has experienced a persistent drought for many years. Pearce explains that pricing difference could be due to the efficiency of L.A. water treatment facilities or opposing schools of thought on pricing, or both. According to Pearce, “Historically, people have felt that water should be free, and that the only charge should be for its treatment and conveyance, but emerging pricing strategies are based on market value or forced conservation through rate penalties for over-use.”

Live Better Magazine is published by the Center for a Better Life, whose mission is to “build consumer and business advocacy for, and public and private involvement with, all aspects of sustainability by enhancing and shaping public understanding of its importance.”  We were all for sustainability back when it was called stewardship, so more power to the Center.

Randy, who practices sustainability by being VP, Marketing & Canadian Regional Manager at Falcon Waterfree Technologies, met up with Laer through LP&A’s “Water Conservation Professionals” group on LinkedIn.

Water Weekly 3: Totally cool, totally hot and totally illogical

What were the three biggest California land development stories of the past seven days?  Well, the news-heads and policy wonks here at Laer Pearce & Associates have compiled them for you here.  You’ll find the Big Three here, or you can follow LPAWater on Twitter for up-to-the-minute news and analysis. You can also sign up to receive the Weekly 3 via email here. This week:

Totally Cool About Climate Change

UCLA economist Matthew Kahn thinks global warming is the real deal, and he’s really cool with it. “There is a lot of evidence that we can cope with change, that we are not mice, and we have big brains,” he told the LA Times, stating what we’ve always thought was obvious.  As for California’s water woes in a hotter world, he’s once again positive … in a way:  ”Climate change may force us to get rid of our crazy outdated [water] laws,” he said.  Looks like good times ahead for water lawyers!

Read the L.A. Times interview here

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Our Famous, Life-Saving CFO

We’re all very proud of Beth Pearce, our CFO, today.  Her life-saving work alerting parents and kids to the dangers of designer drugs was just profiled via a lengthy interview at one of the most popular “mommy blogs,” MomLogic.

Beth took it upon herself to make two “Voice of the Victims” films a few years back when she was touched by a story in the OC Register about Erin Rose, a beautiful young girl who suffered terrible, permanent brain damage after taking the designer drug Ketamine.  She went on to learn a lot – not just about Ketamine, ecstasy and GHB, but also how to shoot, edit and produce a film.  She listened as the parents and friends of four children, Erin Rose and three beautiful young people who died after taking Ecstasy, told their stories of shock, grief, pain … and a strong resolve to spare others from what they went through.

It’s an amazing work, and it’s saved a lot of lives – but don’t take it from us.  Read it in Beth’s own words at MomLogic.

By the way, Beth isn’t just our CFO.  She’s Laer’s wife and Lauren’s mom.  We may be the firm that does important work for important clients … but we’re just a mom and pop shop at heart.

Weekly 3 Land Development: half full glasses and water retention basins

What are the three biggest stories each week in the world of California land development?  You’ll find them right here, or follow LP&A all week long on Twitter at @LPALand for up-to-the-minute news and analysis.  You can also sign up to receive the Weekly 3 via email here. This week:

Someone’s glass is half full.  Of what, we’re not sure.

If you’re like us, you’ve seen so many conflicting homebuilding forecasts in recent months that your head is spinning.  We know there are still many bears out there, but we wanted to share a recent report from CalPoly Pomona’s Real Estate Research Council, which gives us at least a glimmer of hope. The report anticipates that because of current dreary numbers, California homebuilding could rise as much as 246 percent in the next 18 months.  In an accompanying reader poll, 80 percent responded “What are they smoking?”

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Weekly 3 Land: Spited noses, golden gambles and more

What are the three biggest stories each week in the world of California land development?  You’ll find them right here, or follow LP&A all week long on Twitter at @LPALand for up-to-the-minute news and analysis.  You can also sign up to receive the Weekly 3 via email here. This week:

1. What’s That About Noses and Faces and Spite?

There’s AB32, SB375 and a whole host of other regulations designed to coerce developers onto the green bandwagon. Some moves in that direction are wholly embraced by the building community, primarily because they’re market-driven solutions that provide tangible benefits.  Like smart energy and water meters that help homeowners better manage their consumption and reduce utility bills.  So why is the evergreen County of Santa Cruz moving to ban the technology? It’s afraid the wireless signal the boxes transmit – similar to cell phones – poses health risks.  Builders beware.

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