Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘messaging’

OMG! Texts R Public!

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.

 

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.”

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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.

For Clarity, Look to the Source

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?

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.

Murdoch and the Nuclear Option

Tylenol’s epic crisis response has finally been trumped.

The decision by Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson to pull the product from every store in the U.S. after a rash of fatal poisonings in 1982 has stood for decades as the most dramatic response to a PR crisis in history.  On Thursday, Rupert Murdoch leapfrogged past that milestone with a hyper-epic response to the crisis plaguing one of his media properties, London’s News of the World – he closed the paper down.  Forever. One commentator aptly called it “the nuclear option.”

It was hardly like shutting down the Shrewsbury ChronicleNews of the World is England’s largest-circulation Sunday newspaper. It’s been publishing since John Tyler was president (1843, in case you’re a bit hazy on the term of the president mocked as “His Accidency“).  And for 200 employees, it’s pink slips all around.

The cause of all this, in case you missed it, is the tabloid-titled “phone hacking scandal,” which has lead to the arrest of three News of the World senior staffers on charges of tapping voicemails to get stories – not just the voicemails of wayward politicos and celebrities, but of murder victims and their families as well. Charges also have been made that the paper paid the police for inside information.  Torrid and horrid stuff.

Murdoch defended his action, saying “it was the right thing to do,” and calling the alleged behavior of his employees “inhuman.”  We like that choice of word a lot – there’s no mousing around going on here, as tough words follow grand actions.  But are Murdoch’s actions the right actions?

We think so, for a lot of reasons.

  • The News of the World brand has suffered long-term, possibly permanent damage. You can’t repackage a newspaper in ethics-meltdown-proof packaging, so it’s likely most of the publication’s readers and advertisers will go elsewhere.
  • The closure allowed Murdoch to claim some high ground as bad stuff was swirling all around him, an artful feat in a crisis. Whether he’ll hold on to the high ground or not will become more clear as details on the extent of the scandal emerge.
  • It also took some of the wind out of the hacking story. Yes the story is still there and will continue for some time, but with less ferocity than would have been the case were News of the World still publishing.
  • It gives Murdoch an opportunity to build his other London tab, the Sun, into a much larger vehicle.
  • And it shows Murdoch to be a man who is truly horrified by what took place under his watch, and one who is willing to take dramatic action to ensure that such behavior will not happen again.

That last point is the one that made the closure decision a go, in our estimation.  After all, Murdoch is in the final stretches of a $12.5 billion take-over of the parts of Britain’s BSkyB satellite network he doesn’t already own, and the character of the acquirer is one aspect regulators consider before giving such transactions the government’s approval.

Sky is a more valuable asset than just another London tabloid, so Murdoch’s move, while dramatic and controversial, was well-reasoned and sound.

We’re just waiting for some news regarding how the 200 dismissed workers will be treated. Little loose ends like that have the potential to do great damage if not handled well.

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.

Jerry’s Jack Benny Moment

Jerry Brown after his solo flight

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.

A Crystal Clear Message

In the world of political tea leaf reading, no brew is stronger than the appointments a recently inaugurated politician makes, so California’s political pundits – myself included – have been watching Jerry Brown very carefully.  And today there’s an extremely clear message in the bottom of my teacup.

One of the biggest questions asked of Brown is whether he’ll have the stomach for a fight with the public employee labor unions that paid for his campaign.  (Brown is independently quite wealthy, but unlike Meg Whitman, he didn’t spend a dime of his own money on his gubernatorial run.)  His appointment to the top job at the Department of Personnel Administration would be clear signal of whether there will be continued kowtowing to the powerful unions, or whether Brown would bite the hand that fed him and take the steps necessary to rein in out-of-control spending on public employee salaries, benefits and retirement programs.

Today, Brown as much as told us he sees continued groveling in his future as he appointed a big-time pro-labor lawyer, Ronald Yank, to the position.  Yank practiced law at the Carroll, Burdick & McDonough  law firm that has represented California’s prison and Highway Patrol officers and several powerful public employee unions.

Messages can be words or they can be actions – and we all know actions speak louder than words.  While Brown has talked about tough times and tough decisions ahead, his appointment of Yank tells us that he’s not planning on being too tough on the unions.  And that’s too bad for California.