Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘communications’

Millennial Tweet

Laer Pearce & Associates’ Twitter feed on water-related items, @LPAWater, just got its 1,000th follower.  (Actually, it now has 1,001 followers, but that would make headline writing more complicated.)

We’ve learned some lessons along the way.

  • Tweeting can be good for business.  We have one new water client from our tweeting – without those tweets, we would never have met each other.  And we’ve helped a number of water districts develop their social media strategies.
  • Tweeting can be good for your brand.  A state senator recently told me he loves @LPAWater’s tweets, and at this week’s ACWA conference, many folks complimented me on @LPAWater.  Our followers include many clients, potential clients and water industry opinion leaders.  What does that mean?  It means people recognize that Laer Pearce & Associates stays on top of water issues and has a fun time doing it – which is exactly what we want our brand to communicate.
  • It’s not easy being “Tweet.”  Our @LPALand and @LPAGov Twitter feeds never found an in-house champion (ahem!) like @LPAWater did , so they’ve languished, with 200 and 156 followers respectively.

@LPALand will eventually find its pace, I’m convinced, but in retrospect, we probably launched @LPAGov before we should have.  Yes, we follow government stuff as closely as we do water, and yes we want to expand our brand recognition in that portion of our practice.  But there are so many questions about our ideal position in that segment that it’s never been clear enough what should be tweeted at @LPAGov.

On the plus side, at no cost, Twitter showed us an area where we have some branding work to do.  That’s one of the wonderful things about social media – you can experiment, adjust and improve without have to throw away 1,000 brochures that no longer mesh with your identity.

As one of Orange County’s leading public affairs communications firms, our own experience with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media has helped us to realize the good, the bad and the under-realized power of the phenomenon, and that’s made us much better at designing social media strategies for our clients.

A Missed Message

The folks behind the Sacramento Delta water conveyance tunnel have a new message out that has a familiar ring:  Jobs. Heard that much lately?

Drilling large tunnels to divert water around the Delta would create more than 129,000 jobs, almost all of them during the seven-year construction period, according to a recent analysis.

The report by a University of California, Berkeley, economist does not examine how the peripheral canal or tunnel plan might create or destroy jobs in other ways, such as the proposed conversion of tens of thousands of acres of Delta farmland to wetland habitat. (Read more here)

We’ve used that UC Berkeley economist, David Sunding, ourselves and we know his work is solid and these are numbers that will stand up, come testing time.

But there was a powerful and timely message missed here, and that’s too bad.  We’ve all heard stats recently about the cost per job of jobs created by the federal stimulus – from the hundreds of thousands of dollars each to over $1 million for every shovel-ready (or crony-ready) job generated.  A little quick math here – the $12 billion estimated cost of the tunnels divided by 129,000 jobs … wow, that’s just $93,023 per job, which is pretty darn cheap when you consider the number of attorneys that will be working on the project.

Lesson:  When talking about jobs generation, whether it’s about tunnels or anything else, dig a little deeper. Put the numbers in a context that’s current and more people will remember more of what you said.

Blacked-Out Blues

Last Thursday, some poor sap in Yuma flipped a switch and the power went out for millions of Southern Californians. Water systems, which of course are heavily reliant on power, got through the crisis in pretty good shape thanks to lots of emergency drills  – although several water districts had to issue notices to their customers warning them to boil their water before drinking it. That, too, passed.

All this made us think: How do you alert people to a crisis when their TVs, radios and computers are down? On our water Twitter feed, @LPAWater, we tweeted the following answer:

Tweet #1:  How do you notify people of a boil water notice when power’s out so no TV, radio or internet? Answer: Reverse 911, tweets, blast emails,

Tweet #2:  … posted notices, sound trucks, Facebook, police/fire liaison + the usual. Crisis calls for creative solutions.

For more on Laer Pearce & Associates creative solutions to crisis situations, check this out.

Endless Studies and Bloodthirsty Sharks

Our new water Weekly 3 is out – and can be read here.  As faithful readers have come to expect, it’s full of the latest water news … but this time with a bit more bite than usual.  Check out this entry:

Sharks Found In MWD Water!

Some of the most dangerous sharks on the planet have “Esq.” after their names, and a particularly bloodthirsty species was found this week hunting for food in MWD’s water supply. The San Francisco class action law firm of Blumenthal Nordrehaug Bhomik & Greatwhite (just kidding on that last name) sued MWD “in the interest of millions of consumers” (wink, wink) claiming MWD’s use of “a hydrofluosilicic acid drug” for fluoridation may lead people to have fewer cavities without their consent. Really. The firm’s news release threatens other water districts “across the country,” so watch out for sharks in your water!

For the rest of the Weekly 3 (and links about the lawsuit and that potentially lucrative hydrofluosilicic acid drug), here’s that link again.

Who Exactly is the OC Watchdog Biting?

We’ll get to that bikini photo in a minute, but first, let’s all wish the OC Watchdog blog  in the OC Register a happy third birthday – even if it has caused many Laer Pearce & Associates clients and lots of others a fair amount of heartburn.  The blog’s mission has been to write on “your tax dollars at work” – or, more specifically, “when your tax dollars aren’t working particularly well, in our opinion,” so we all have come to know what to expect when Teri or one of the other Watchdogs calls.

Watchdog’s obsession with public employee salaries (in part because the data is now readily available via the California Controller) has created a need for clear and strong messages, but we need to remember that we live in an era of transparency, so these articles are to be expected.  This is what the media does, and as traditional media fight for profitability, it’s what they’ll do more and more.  That’s why we counsel full and frank disclosure – along with making sure the Watchdog folks get additional analysis for perspective, like the salaries of private sector counterparts.

But here’s what we really have to celebrate on Watchdog’s third birthday – and it’s what we’ve suspected all along: All those articles on public sector salaries haven’t really created huge ripples.

The proof is in Watchdog’s birthday party post, which includes a list of the top ten Watchdog articles over the last three years, based on total number of clicks the articles receive.  Not one of the top ten has anything to do with public employee salaries.  Ferrets and DA fiances rank higher, as did (not surprisingly) consultants in bikinis. (It was a tough choice between the ferret and the consultant for this post’s illustration, but we figured the bikini pic would lead to more random Google hits.)

All this is not to say public agencies should be cavalier about the sort of coverage OC Watchdog provides – but it does mean you should approach your next inquiry from them with the proper perspective, and that shouldn’t involve sweat dripping off your palms.  Calm down, gather your thoughts and supporting information, and go forth with pretty darn good assurance the resulting post won’t be the end of the world.

The blog’s birthday brings to mind one of the key public relations and public affairs messages we preach: It’s important to establish your own media, because you can’t depend on others’ media to tell your story as you’d like. You’d rather talk about the good your agency does, the money it saves, the people it helps – but the mainstream media will always be more interested in your mistakes and misspending.

Blogs, eblasts, social media, brochures, websites, newsletters, direct mail pieces,  public outreach – these are your media and they will tell your story better than anyone.  But are they?  An audit of the effectiveness of your media is the first step toward finding out, so you might want to give us a call.

A Picture Can Defeat A Thousand Arguments

Take a moment to consider this photo of fish swimming about happily in the seawater intake of an ocean desalination plant in Perth, Australia.

The photo notwithstanding, opponents of desalination plants often attack them because of the supposedly horrible things the plants’ seawater intake and brine dispersal systems do to marine life.  Since most (all?) regulators haven’t put on scuba gear to judge the reality for themselves, the opponents’ arguments often are persuasive.

They need not be.  Proponents of desalination can respond to this line of attack with  scientific studies countering the claims, and should – but as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words – even a thousand words in a scientific study.  And a video is worth much more.

Please view the video linked below.  Once you’ve viewed it, you’ll wonder how the opponents of desalination get away with their claims.

Desalination Close-up

As you saw, there is no indication marine life is being harmed by either the intake or brine dispersal systems of ocean desalination plants.  In fact, just the opposite appears to be true – the critters are thriving.  How are they going to counter that?

Here at LP&A, we spend a lot of time writing messages, but we know that sometimes it’s best to put away the keyboard and just show the message.

“Turn Off the Water When You Brush” Just Ain’t Enough

All around California, updated Urban Water Management Plans (UWMPs) are appearing, as required by state law.  Here’s the lead of a news story that ‘s typical of many we’ve seen in the last few weeks:

LAKEWOOD – The city is reminding residents to stop watering sidewalks and conserve water for outdoor irrigation in an effort to meet the state’s 2020 goal of 20percent water reduction.

Conservation was part of the message at Tuesday night’s City Council’s meeting, where the council approved the Urban Water Management Plan Update 2010.

The updated plan is required every five years by the state and includes plans for water supply, water shortage contingencies and achieving the state’s goal of 20percent reduction in water use by 2020.

Of necessity, the “20 by 2020″ water conservation goal (and its companion “15 by 2015″ goal) from 2009′s epochal water legislation is at the core of all new UWMPs, and it seems the plans’ authors have rounded up the usual suspects when discussing how they’ll achieve those goals:  Incentives, seeking funding for new conservation-oriented programs, education and outreach.

To which we say, great, nice start, and good luck with that. You’re going to need it.

It’s not that those sorts of efforts haven’t proven effective. They have. We know because we’ve helped many districts communicate programs like that.  It’s just that more will be needed. As the headline says, alluding to the most famous of the old way of promoting conservation, “Turn of the water when you brush” just ain’t enough.  Not enough people will listen, fewer still will change their habits, and even if they did, not enough water will be saved.

Let’s get more aggressive

We’ve been thinking about new ways to attain the sorts of water savings that will have to be achieved to keep water providers out of the penalty box when 2015 and 2020 roll around. They include:

  • Re-think the water bill - We’re most excited about the missed communication opportunities on water bills, especially ebills.  Bills are the one document customers read regularly, but they’re a confusing mess and a messaging nightmare. We’re developing some great new ideas – let’s set up a meeting with your billing service.
  • Coalesce and conquer - Ever heard of an advertising coop? It’s when a bunch of businesses, like the individual car dealers in an auto mall, join forces to buy more ads than they could ever buy on their own. We have developed ideas and themes that a “communication coop” of several water providers in a region could mutually hit a home run with.  Who’s going to step up to the plate?
  • Water budget based rates – Yes, this is a really big idea and you’d have to start  now to get them in place in time to get some years under your belt before the deadlines hit. So get started – and let us help you manage a successful Prop 218 campaign, as we’ve done for many water providers. In district after district, the penalty rates for excessive water use have educated customers more about what constitutes an efficient level of water use than a blizzard of statement-stuffers ever could.
  • Expanded programs - The new money that comes from those penalty rates can fund an unprecedented level of conservation outreach, including rebates, audits, consults and new communications tools … like the new bills we want to help you develop.

Unlike much of what comes out of Sacramento, California actually needs the 20 by 2020 goals the Legislature set for us.  Of course, the Legislature didn’t give you the tools or money to go along with the mandate, so it’s going to take a real commitment and really creative thinking to meet the goals. Let’s talk.

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.

Bin Laden Gives Us a Crisis Communications Lesson

Osama bin Laden took an immeasurable amount from America, so it’s paradoxical that in his death he actually gave us something valuable – besides the value of the joy we have in him being dead, that is.

The valuable lesson he gave us is this: In the ongoing story of the significant  inaccuracies in the White House account of how the raid was carried out, we see clear justification for the most basic strategy we employ when counseling clients who are in crisis – don’t say anything that hasn’t been verified as true.

In a New York Times article dissecting the communication embarrassments that have dogged the administration since the raid, a military spokesperson is quoted saying, “Everything we put out we really believed to be true at the time.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with crisis communications: What you think is real may turn out not to be real at all.  You think your plant operators followed safety procedures before the explosion, but it turns out that’s just what they said they did and the real picture is something else entirely.  You think the company’s HR policies align with the law, but it turns out the laws have changed. You think your CEO is an upstanding citizen, but it turns out he’s been hiding a securities fraud conviction.

And of course, there are no vacuums in crisis situations that allow for the leisurely gathering of information; instead there’s always a loud chorus of demands for this answer and that statement before this deadline or that broadcast.  Spokespersons are being hounded to provide answers, as the Times article makes clear:

In the view of officials from past and present presidencies, it was a classic collision of a White House desire to promote a stunning national security triumph — and feed a ravenous media — while collecting facts from a chaotic military operation on the other side of the world. (emphasis added)

We in public relations are often frustrated in our desire to respond to the ravenous media because attorneys want to go over every single detail from seven different perspectives before allowing information to be released.  We are right in our desire to get the information out, because the court of public opinion convenes long before any court of law does.  But, as the White House is learning, we’re also wrong when we push out the news too quickly.

In the case of the Abbottabad raid, it’s evident the White House would have been better served by doggedly sticking to a narrow statement, no matter who much the media howled.  The world would have gone on spinning (an action entirely unrelated to White House and Pentagon press secretaries spinning) had the only message to the press corps been, “Osama bin Laden and two or three others were killed in a raid by Navy Seals in Pakistan yesterday. There were no injuries to American forces.  We will provide more details after the brave members of the assault team have been debriefed.”

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.