Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘messaging’

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.

Negative Messages Create Skeptics

Doom-and-gloom emotional messages that paint pictures of the sky falling or the earth burning don’t work well when you are trying to change public opinion.  That’s what a new study by two Berkeley professors found when they studied the impacts of fact-based vs. emotion-based global warming messages.

The professors had one group of subjects read stories that began with facts, but ended with apocalyptic warnings, while the other half read positive stories that focused on solving problems.  Those who read the positive stories were less skeptical than the group exposed to doom-and-gloom messaging.

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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

The Orange County BIA Advocate – the chapter’s bi-weekly e-newsletter – will distribute our article on honing in your economic benefits message. The crux of our point is a fantastic study from the California Center for Strategic Economic Research (CSER) that quantifies the “ripple effect” of homebuilding. It’s a great tool that allows builders to put numbers to the positive economic impact their projects will have.

Some of the key findings:

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

We encourage you to read the Advocate article as well as the study. Then take a moment to visit our new new Web site.