Posts Tagged ‘Government’
A judge in San Jose has ruled in favor of a community activist seeking to close what many see as a flagrant loophole in California’s public record act – the continuing privacy of text messages sent and received by elected and appointed public officials and public employees. Private email accounts were also included in the judge’s ruling.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg ruled that “emails, texts and other messages sent to and from personal devices by Mayor Chuck Reed, council members and redevelopment officials about city business including subsidizing a development in San Pedro Square downtown on property owned by former Mayor Tom McEnery and his family” should be turned over to the activist who filed a Public Records Act request for them. Read the Contra Costa Times article here.
The decision doesn’t have statewide application yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Public officials should not be caught short by this decision – it was bound to happen. California has a strong public disclosure tradition that has morphed over the years in include other emerging technologies – faxes, emails – so any public official or public agency employee who thought their text messages would remain out of the public view was short-sighted.
Our rule of thumb when working with public agencies is that any and every communication may become public, so every communication needs to pass scrutiny of the “What if this was on the front page?” sort. We advise others to take the same approach.
After all, the best way to avoid a crisis is to not do things that could cause one.
Say “gee-whizzer,” and most old-line journalists and PR folks will know what you’re talking about. It’s a way of presenting facts, particularly numbers, in a way that gets readers’ attention – so much so they say “Gee Whiz!” – and that helps them to retain the information.
Today it would probably be called “something meme-able” or “something viral-able.” We prefer gee-whizzer.
ENS Resources, a DC lobbying firm, issued a 2012 election results update this morning with so many gee-whizzers we wonder when their staff slept. Here’s the set-up: At all levels of government, candidates and SuperPACs spent $6 billion on the November election, and for just the presidential race, they spent $2 billion. How much is $2 billion? Ah, that’s a question that invites gee-whizzers, and according to ENS, it’s enough to buy:
- Approximately 3.5 million shares of Apple stock
- 40 private islands
- Six Airbus A380 jets
- An Ohio Class submarine (Definitely what we’d buy!)
- The college debt of 153,846 students graduating from public universities
- Or, if given to UNICEF, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and equipment, nutritional supplements, mosquito nets, water and sanitation tools and educational supplies for billions of people in impoverished nations.
As for the election itself, it was anything but a gee-whizzer for California businesses. At this writing, with many absentee ballots still to be counted, it appears the Democrats will hold super-majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. That means tax increases can be passed over Republican objections, and businesses are a popular target of California tax increases.
Nationally, Democrats will have trouble finding a mandate, but in California they’ll have no such trouble. They picked up seats and they largely got their way with ballot propositions. That means no signals were sent by the electorate to cut back on anti-business policies and regulations.
For more on California’s sad state, read Crazifornia, by our founder and president, Laer Pearce. Called “the most insightful book on California’s perilous condition – ever,” it provides insights on how California got the way it is, how bad exactly it’s become, and what the prospects are for redirecting the state.
Crazifornia is an Amazon #1 best-seller (21st Century history) and is receiving mostly 5-star (highest rating) reviews on Amazon.
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.
Yesterday morning after outlining our 2012 PR plan to senior managers at The Management Trust – the largest community management company west of the Mississippi – I got a good lesson in the unintended consequences of bureaucratic meddling. It wasn’t from one of the TMT guys – it was from a food vendor in the parking lot.
He was one of those guys who calls on office buildings with a cooler full of goodies. His employer is a business that ‘s been around for at least 20 or 30 years, as I remember them from my early days in the public affairs / public relations business in Orange County.
He said there were only three of these businesses left in the county, not because they weren’t good businesses – he had hoped to start his own after learning the ropes – but because of the actions of bureaucrats. Specifically, the Health Department worried that conditions in the coolers might not meet standards set by other bureaucrats further up the government pecking order, so they stopped issuing permits to new from-the-cooler food vendors. The three existing businesses were grandfathered and continue to operate, dividing the county between them in neat little territories, but no new competitors can enter the market.
Was this move necessary? I’ve read of dozens, hundreds, of food poisoning cases stemming from food bought in restaurants and grocery stores, but never one about food poisoning from a from-the-cooler vendor. Why, then, are permits still issued to restaurants and grocery stores, but not to these vendors? It seems like unjustified bureaucratic over-kill.
Then the vendor complained that his company won’t take ATM cards, which he figures is costing him about 50 percent of his potential sales. “People just don’t carry cash any more, so they can’t buy my stuff,” he explained. I was on an American Airlines flight the other day and tried to give the stewardess cabin attendant a twenty for some pitiful food, but she turned me down, saying they only take ATMs. If American can refuse cash at 40,000 feet, how can this guy’s boss continue to refuse ATMs at ground level?
Could it be that government has created a near-monopoly by eliminating new competitors, thereby removing any motivation for the owner to invest in improvements? A new competitor taking ATM cards – and thereby taking away sales – would cause the stodgy company owner to rethink and offer services customers want, but there is no new competitor.
It seems no matter where you look, you just can’t find an example to illustrate how replacing a free market with a government-controlled or government-directed economy works out better for consumers.
The following article by Laer appears on today’s Daily Caller website:
It should come as no surprise that the leftist legislators and authoritarian bureaucrats who run California are vehemently opposed to fireworks shows. After all, the shows are always fun and usually patriotic.
And against them they are. The California Coastal Commission has led the charge with a multi-year assault on the Sea World theme park in San Diego, which blasts fireworks over Mission Bay every night. That effort shipwrecked on the rocks of Sea World’s considerable political clout and even more considerable legal budget, so the Commission looked for a more vulnerable, less wealthy target.
Airwaves over the weekend were choked with name-calling, blame and recrimination regarding Standard & Poor’s downgrading of US debt, and the clatter is only going to get louder as stock markets around the word suffer big losses today.
There is no clarity when fingers are stabbing, tongues are wagging and ears are closed. At times like this, our experience as one of Orange County’s leading public affairs firms tells us to go to the source, and get a sense from there about where the truth may lie. Is the Tea Party’s intransigence to blame? The President’s inexperience? The Congress’ polarization? Let’s look and see what we find. Here is the statement Standard and Poor’s issued Friday evening:
We have lowered our long-term sovereign credit rating on the United States of America to ‘AA+’ from ‘AAA’ and affirmed the ‘A-1+’ short-term rating.
We have also removed both the short- and long-term ratings from CreditWatch negative.
The downgrade reflects our opinion that the fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.
More broadly, the downgrade reflects our view that the effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges to a degree more than we envisioned when we assigned a negative outlook to the rating on April 18, 2011.
Since then, we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government’s debt dynamics any time soon.
The outlook on the long-term rating is negative. We could lower the long-term rating to ‘AA’ within the next two years if we see that less reduction in spending than agreed to, higher interest rates, or new fiscal pressures during the period result in a higher general government debt trajectory than we currently assume in our base case.
The statement obviously has been carefully worded to make general points, not specific ones, so all the pundits have been free to use it for their own ends – which has done little to nothing to put us on a path towards winning back our coveted triple-A.
But let’s take a closer look at what S&P wrote. Not surprisingly, the words “Tea Party,” “President,” “Democrat” and “Republican” do not appear. Nor do the words “tax increase.” However, the words “less reduction in spending” do appear, and they appear in the form of a threat: S&P may lower the US credit rating to “AA” if the agreed-to level of spending cuts agreed to fails to materialize (and/or if interest rates go up or fiscal pressures result in U.S. debt increasing). Anyone talking about spending like the U.S. used to hasn’t heard S&P clearly.
The key word in this statement isn’t “spending,” though. It’s “debt,” so that’s where we should look for clarity. The credit rating agency is concerned that the U.S. is borrowing somewhere around 50 cents of every dollar it spends and wants the U.S. to begin to change that unsustainable debt trajectory. Revenues from increased taxes could be used to pay off debt, so someone is not out of their mind if they’re talking about raising taxes. However, recent history tells us whenever DC politicians have raised taxes, they’ve used the revenue to spend more (bad in S&P’s eyes), not to pay down debt (good in S&P’s eyes).
We all know know from our personal finances that cutting spending is the best way to slow the accumulation of debt. If we haven’t always known it, the last few years of recession has taught it to us, and most of us have tightened our belts. Will the “S&P Shock” help Congress and the President to learn it?
Governor Brown almost sounded like a frustrated land developer earlier today when he talked about the impact litigation by environmental activists has on projects that are essential to meeting California’s demographic growth and protecting its frail economy. Unfortunately, he wasn’t talking about the ecos’ endless legal challenges to new housing developments.
From the Sacramento Bee:
“In Oakland, I learned that some kind of opposition you have to crush,” Brown, the city’s former mayor, said at a renewable energy conference in Los Angeles. “Talk a little bit, but at the end of the day you have to move forward, and California needs to move forward with our renewable energy.”
Brown said his office will “act to overcome the opposition,” helping projects overcome permitting and environmental challenges. The Democratic governor announced Friday that he had filed a legal brief urging a federal judge to deny litigation seeking to block a solar energy project in the Mojave Desert.
Yes, the governor is willing to “crush” the very environmentalists who were his strong supporters in the 2010 election – but only as long as it’s over government-subsidized alternative energy schemes. Providing housing for Californians? Rebooting the failed economy? Putting thousands back to work? That’s apparently not worth fighting for.
We’re not sure what we feel about government “crushing” environmental litigators. Having seen them slow so many very well-planned new home communities, driving up costs for consumers and driving down profits for businesses in the process, we confess we’re a bit tickled by the idea.
But two things bother us: First, we can’t deny we’re sticklers for due process and are more than a little concerned when government gets heavy-handed and agenda-driven. And second, we’d like to see an acknowledgment that useless litigation is just as bad when it’s used as a tool against home builders and, ultimately, home buyers.
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.
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.
They should drop Bob Hope’s name from Burbank’s airport terminal and put up Jack Benny’s. Benny, as younger readers may not recall, made a career out of humor based on his obsessive frugality – well, cheapness, to be more exact. I was reminded of him this week when Gov. Jerry Brown emerged from the terminal solo on Thursday morning, after flying without entourage or security on Southwest flight 896, even refusing to pay the $18 seat upgrade.
A sputnik moment it wasn’t – but a Plymouth moment it most certainly was.
Brown is a master of political symbolism and nothing could have rekindled the image of the beat-up Plymouth he drove the last time he was governor than his choice of transportation last Thursday. Never mind that members of the State Senate and Assembly fly solo to and from Sacramento just about every week – after Schwarzenegger’s over-sized Hollywood presence, the gesture was a perfect one for communicating the governor’s stated commitment to a new era of frugality in Sacramento.
Brown’s symbolism isn’t remotely like President Obama’s. There are no cool logos or spiffed up soundbites. Heck, he even calls what he’s seeking “a path to fiscal rectitude.” No pollsters or political messaging consultants got their hands on that phrase. Still, there’s a lot of finesse behind Brown’s symbolism. Check out the photo. How did all those reporters and photographers know to be outside the airport terminal if they weren’t given a heads-up by Brown’s hard-working communications staff?
Certainly, there are security risks if he keeps up this form of transportation, but t here are also political ones. What happens the first time he travels with staff and security? Will the press call it the end of his path to fiscal rectitude? What if his seat-mate is hostile, instead of a complacent state employee, as happened this time? And more importantly, how will he cope with the inevitable realization that California’s problems are too big to be solved by mere symbolism, no matter how spot on it may be?
Thirty years in public affairs has taught me there are no magic words and no magic symbols. Fixing things takes hard work and is most often done incrementally, with several “Plan B’s” employed along the way. But given the choice between flying solo or talking austerity from a limo, Brown gets an “A” for symbolism, even if it ultimately accomplishes little.