Posts Tagged ‘Mike Reicher’
By Laer Pearce
Orange County Register reporter Mike Reicher is doing what appears to be a solid job reporting hard and breaking news on the Costa Mesa/Newport Beach beat. His recent investigative work, however, isn’t as solid and necessitates this post.
Reicher chose to report on a theme nearly all of our public agency clients have to wrestle with: public scrutiny of agency expenses. His focus was Mesa Water District’s communications program, a program we worked on from 2008 through last December, when our current contract ran out. We hope to keep up our good work once the public relations agency review that will be starting soon concludes.
Criticizing a High-Integrity Process
Before we get to Reicher’s criticisms of the cost of Mesa Water’s communications program, let’s look at the district’s process, because good process breeds good programs, and vice versa. Mesa Water did everything right:
- We secured our contract by participating in a competitive review in which we faced a number of other capable firms. We were selected because we offered the right mix of expertise, flexibility and cost.
- Each element of the district’s communications program had to tie back to the district’s strategic plan. If it didn’t help achieve a strategic goal, staff didn’t bother offering it to the board of directors for consideration because they wouldn’t have bothered passing it.
- After an appropriate period of time, five years in this case, our contract was allowed run out so a new agency review could be conducted. We appreciate this because we realize we are paid with public dollars, and we want those dollars to be spent wisely.
This is a model of good governance and an example for public agencies to follow when selecting a contractor or consultant for a major project, or launching a new initiative. It led to a very successful working relationship and a public outreach effort that received prestigious awards from the California Association of Public Information Officials, the California Special Districts Association and the Orange County chapter of the Public Relations Society of America.
A Justifiable Budget
The article, “Mesa Water’s $500,000 rebranding,” is seriously flawed in its execution, even if the topic is fundamentally legitimate. Newspapers should be skeptical of government expenses and should report on excesses they find. But reporters must be careful not to write a story to support a pre-conceived storyline. If the facts make the story less sensational, they need to write the story that’s there, not the one they wanted to be there.
There is no $500,000 rebranding program underway at Mesa Water, but we will leave it to the district to address most of the story’s inaccuracies, as most are better addressed by them. We are obligated, however, to correct inaccuracies regarding our billings.
In the story, despite information provided to him to the contrary, Reicher reports we billed Mesa Water “nearly $270,000 in total consulting fees,” which overstates our billings by 18 percent. We billed the district $228,573 for our fees.
Over the five years we worked for the district, our billings averaged out to a bit under $46,000 a year and a bit over $3,800 a month. Mesa Water has been a good account, absolutely. But you’d have a hard time making the case that they’re the sort that spends crazily on communications – especially if you compare our $3,800 a month to the $110,000 a month the Great Park’s PR firm billed the city of Irvine.
Also, the rebranding included much, much more than simply redesigning a logo. Mesa Water’s Public & Government Affairs Manager, Stacy Taylor, has the right view of branding: It’s not a logo; it’s what your stakeholders think of you. As such, many wouldn’t consider some of our activities for Mesa Water to be “branding,” but they were: They were the necessary laying of a communications foundation upon which a positive brand could be realized.
An Obligation to Communicate
So all of this raises the larger question: How much of their ratepayers’ money should public agencies spend on communications? Many would answer zero, but they would be just as wrong as someone who answered, “The sky’s the limit.”
Here’s what I wrote in an earlier blog post on this sensitive subject:
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.
Mesa Water agrees. The cost of a strategic, two-way, professionally executed program will be greater than the cost of having an administrative assistant put together a newsletter every other month – but it’s worth it because there’s a high price to pay if government entities don’t communicate.
Let’s say for example, a water district with an inadequate communications program proposes a rate increase and is met, as can be expected, with a firestorm of protest. The intensity of the protest leads the district’s board of directors, who all want to be re-elected, to delay the rate increase. This doesn’t do anything to address the higher prices they are paying for water and power, however, and before too long, the district isn’t making enough on water sales to cover its obligations.
Lost revenues and the deferred maintenance that results will cost this water district much more than a good communications program would have. That’s why we believe public agencies don’t just have a right to communicate with their stakeholders, they have an obligation to. Agencies have a companion responsibility to communicate appropriately. Again, from the earlier post:
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 [expensive give-aways and programs that are strategically unsound]. Is that where you want your tax dollars to go?
We didn’t think so.
Laer Pearce & Associates has never pursued the sort of high-cost, low-yield, no-bid public agency contracts doled out by the Great Park, and we never will because they are unjustifiable uses of public funds. Just read my book Crazifornia: How California Is Destroying Itself and Why It Matters to America to get an idea of how I feel about excessive government spending.
Dealing with Journalistic Sensationalism
Should Mesa Water even have bothered working with a reporter who by all signs was intent on writing a negative story? One water district communicator told us no, and she has a valid point. If you’re being criticized for your communications budget, why pile up more expenses trying to stop the inevitable, especially if newspapers’ reach and influence are diminishing?
Mesa Water’s long-standing philosophy, however, directed them to talk to the reporter as a matter of openness. That’s defensible if you start, as Taylor did, with an understanding that the end result will likely be unsatisfactory. Given that assumption, here are some pointers for dealing with journalistic sensationalism:
First, you have to know before the story comes out how you will respond.
- Make sure your efforts to secure a fair story are thorough and documented.
- Provide internal audiences that will be asked about the story with what they need to answer inquiries.
- Prepare your website in advance with an FAQ on the subject, then update it as necessary when the story is in hand or as comments raise new questions or inaccuracies.
Once the story is out:
- Respond to customers personally, because newspapers are impersonal. Taylor is inviting customers to call her, which will give her the opportunity to build a relationship – the end goal of all good communications.
- Only request the most important and easy to justify corrections because you’ll have a much better chance of securing them than if you try to get a laundry list of corrections through.
- Prepare yourself for follow-up stories.
- Finally, be measured in public responses because they will keep the story in the news. Concentrate instead on internal audiences, key stakeholders and customers. And remember, even the American Society of Newspaper Editors acknowledges that only used car salesmen and advertising executives (not PR executives, thank goodness!) are trusted less than journalists.