Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘key messages’

Are Water Agencies About to Drown in Positive Polling?

A recent survey conducted by the Municipal Water District of Orange County found that 93 percent of the 500 respondents feel Orange County’s water supply is somewhat reliable or very reliable.  That’s big news to us in the business of influencing public behavior, because a similar question asked in the agency’s 2008 survey found that only 27 percent felt OC had a reliable supply.

So can us communicators take credit for the nearly four-fold jump in public perception?  After all, our water supply is just as reliable today (or unreliable depending how you look at it) than it was three years ago.  We humbly say, “not so fast.”


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.

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.

The Weekly 3: Land Development

August 9, 2010

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

1. Will the Drought Contingency Plan squeeze future land uses?

The California Department of Water Resources didn’t go so far as to blame your picket-fenced bit of the ‘burbs for causing the state’s ongoing water crisis, but it is looking at limiting future land uses as part of the solution.  According to its newly released Drought Contingency Plan, “development intensity has a direct relationship to water supply,” and since the state’s thirst for water outstrips available resources, that means builders best prepare for more regulation and limits on what they can do with their property.

>> Read the Full Report


Don’t Bomb Out – Remember SCUD

In China, the Yangtze river is flooding … a lot.  It does that pretty regularly, but this is the first time serious flooding has hit the river since the completion of the massive Three Gorges Dam.  According to the Los Angeles Times, some nervous eyes are now checking out the dam, which so far is functioning as it should and providing new levels of flood control.

Why does this merit the attention of Clarity Blog?  Well, let’s take a look at the last paragraph of the LA Times story:

The Three Gorges Dam, which spans the Yangtze, is holding back some of the flood waters. When the dam was built,  officials called the giant reservoir so impenetrable it would withstand the kind of flood that comes once in 10,000 years.

Over the course of rainy seasons after the dam was completed, officials started scaling back their claims and attempting to lower expectations, using qualifiers such as “one in a thousand” and “one in a hundred” to describe the  scale of floods the dam could resist.

No, we’re not criticizing the LA Times for its use of the word “impenetrable,” although it certainly was misused, as floods over-top dams, they don’t penetrate them.  Rather, it’s over-speak that’s on our mind; specifically, the Chinese officials’ efforts to stuff already-said hyperbole back into their collective mouths.  Can’t be done.  They’ve done a lousy job of messaging, but they’ve done a great job of introducing a little acronym we use around here:  SCUD.  Here’s what we mean:

Public Affairs “SCUD Words”

The language of public affairs is subtle.  Words that seem innocuous can be loaded with meaning, and can cause problems for our clients.  As sophisticated public affairs practitioners, we must provide our clients with messages that are tested by sensitively weighing each word.   Because misuse of these categories of words can cause our communications to bomb out, remember the acronym SCUD!

  1. Superlatives
    As PR people, we gravitate towards words like “biggest” and “most.”  That’s great for consumer PR; but a potential problem for Public Affairs.  We said an endowment would “ensure maintenance of open space forever.”  Uh-uh; it just assures that if managed correctly, sufficient funds should be available.  Do mitigation measures fully mitigate all impacts?  Probably not.  Does the EIR find the mitigation is sufficient, or did it suggest it?
  2. Credit Grabs
    Many of the benefits our clients’ projects offer are structured complexly.  Often multiple developers share costs or public funds are included.  A new fire station could include land from one developer, construction funds from two others, and partial state funding.  So don’t say our developer is contributing a fire station.  Donating land for a park may be done in lieu of paying park fees; it’s subtle, but opponents will point this out, so you should point it out first.

  3. Ungiven Presents
    Beware of words like “dedicated” and “give.”  Clients will often use these words themselves because they expect that when the deal is finally done, that park site or school site may be a give-away.  However, they may want to sell it, or create the sense that it must be bought in order to drive a harder bargain.  In your information gathering, ask specific questions and use the specific words gained from the answer.
  4. Done Deals
    Until the final electeds/regulators approve a plan, it’s a proposed plan.  The parks in it are proposed, the unit count is proposed, the amenities are proposed; the numbers are not yet final!  Another way to say it is, “As planned, the project would….”  Nothing angers elected and regulatory officials more than a developer implying that they will certainly approve a project … and you don’t want to anger someone with approval (and rejection!) authority over your client’s project!

Take out your key messages and read through them with the SCUD acronym in mind.  If you’re confronted with superlatives, credit grabs, ungiven presents and done deals, you need to whip out your anti-SCUD defense system, redraft your messages, and thereby protect yourself from possible  future attacks.

Quantifying Your Economic Message – Full Version

As featured by the Orange County chapter of the Building Industry Association

Jobs, jobs, jobs – It’s a winning message for developers and builders right now. We are seeing this message resonate with all of the industry’s key target audiences more than ever, from decision-makers and city staffs to the general public and media. But how can you emphasize jobs when a full economic impact analysis isn’t part of your budget?

Enter the Center for Strategic Economic Research – or CSER.

The Center’s study on the economic “ripple effect” of homebuilding is quantitative confirmation of what we’ve always known: New homes mean more jobs.


  • Every home built creates 2.4 jobs
  • For every $1 spent building a home, $0.9 is generated 
  • Each home generates more than $360,000 in economic activity, excluding the selling price

These are terrific metrics. They are also being used by builders across the state as confirmation of their project’s economic benefit. In fact, the CSER’s Deputy Director, Helen Schaubmayer recently told us that the study could be an immensely valuable tool for builders.

“As a result of this study being updated and published for several years, we are seeing builders leverage jobs-creation messages that they were previously unable to quantify. But builders also need to realize how to package and present these findings to the right audience. If they do, it could go a long way.”

We agree. Even the best jobs message can get cluttered with industry jargon. And having clarity to your message – especially one as important as jobs – is critical to a successful project.

Take a moment to review the study. We’ve also been told by the research director that a 2010 study is in the works and may be available this summer, so we’ll be sure to keep you posted.