Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Orange county’

One City’s Drought Communications “Fail”

I just watched a city council adopt a communication campaign that will do a lousy job of informing residents of the new water restrictions and fines it had just adopted in response to state mandates. For Californians to respond effectively to the drought, we’re all going to have to do better than this city did.

“Thanks” to city council input, residents of the San Gabriel Valley city will receive a cover letter and three separate inserts – four pieces in all, competing for attention, over-communicating and creating confusion – all in a bland envelope that will be lost in the day’s mailbox-full of unsolicited mail.

That’s going to be as expensive as it is ineffective.

The city did one thing right. It didn’t use a water bill insert, recognizing it wouldn’t get enough readership in a timely manner. But if you’re going to use an envelope (I wouldn’t!), you’d better print a high-impact headline on it or it’s likely to go out with next week’s trash, unopened.

Here’s a better alternative: Mail two postcards on the same day, one over-sized and one minimum USPS size. Why postcards? Because they get the message out without having an envelope in the way. Why two?

  • The large one would spell out the details, and by limiting the space to a large postcard, there’s much less chance of your message becoming gobbledygook.
  • The small postcard would be the “keeper,” designed with the refrigerator door in mind. All the good stuff would be on one side: Which days they can irrigate on, prohibitions and fines, tips, an easy URL for more information.

Combined with good policy and customer-oriented enactment, this will work.

How Much Does A Reputation Melt-Down Cost?

Let’s say the principal your company was named after said something some time ago some folks determined was racist.  The media happily jumped on the story, the blogosphere lit up and tweets twittered for days.

What’s that going to cost you?

How about $100 million?

“Oops!”

That’s what Najafi Companies, a private-equity company led by the owner of the Book-of-the-Month Club, Jahm Najafi, is investing in the tarnished brand of Paula Deen, the butter queen. Says the Wall Street Journal:

By its own description, Najafi Cos. often invests in business that are “out of popular favor.” Mr. Najafi said he doesn’t see investing in Ms. Deen to be an extraordinary risk. Despite the controversy, he said, her brand has strong, broad support from core fans across the U.S.

Still, if it takes $100 million to reinstate a brand, we’d say, first,  there’s a fair chunk of risk involved, and second, better to not tarnish the brand in the first place. Have good messages, learn them, and stick to them.

That’s why none of our clients has been deep-fried.

Home Is Where The Good Quotes Are

I heard two great lines at the recent No Place Like Home conference at the Disney Grand Californian.

The first was from British philosopher Samuel Johnson: “The end of all striving is to be happy at home.” Amen. Laer Pearce & Associates has been involved in the regulatory approvals of 400,000 homes, and we hope they are bring much happiness to their owners.

Lakewood as it came to market

The second came from the dinner keynote speaker, Kevin Starr, former California State Historian and author of a fantastic multi-volume  history of our state. He asked, “Will there be there new Lakewoods in California’s future, or only new Carmels?” Lakewood, of course, is the massive suburban housing tract that meant a new beginning for thousands of post-World War II Angelenos.

Starr’s question is sad, indeed. California is supposed to be the place you go to realize your dreams, but the ever-increasing price of admission is turning too many away.  One study of the added costs regulations impose on housing found that out of 250 cities studied, the 20 with the highest regulatory burden are all in California.

That’s ridiculous, and it’s what we at Laer Pearce & Associates have dedicated our careers to fighting. California has a chronic supply/demand disparity caused only in part by a large population and an appealing climate and mystique.  More, it’s regulations. litigation and and legislative and judicial foolishness that make California a place that has priced out the up-and-comers. Home costs in California have risen so much, and regulations have become so snobbish and excluding that it is hard indeed to imagine a new Lakewood.

That’s too bad and it doesn’t bode well for our state’s future. Neither does the fact that thanks to the Coastal Commission, it’s just as hard to imagine a new Carmel.

The Wizard of WISG?

 

I had the honor recently of becoming a two-time guest moderator at a  Water Interest Study Group (WISG) put on by Mesa Water District for its customers.  I don’t know if two sessions as moderator qualifies me as a “wizard” quite yet, but what are you going to do with those headline writers? They’re always after the sensational!

This session covered new ways of using groundwater and stormwater to meet local water supply needs, and the WISG class was, as always, engaged, bright and interested. Learn more about Mesa Water’s use of color-tainted groundwater here and Costa Mesa’s new water quality wetland here.

The photo shows me, Laer, with Stacy Taylor, Mesa Water’s community and government relations manager, as the session wrapped up.  Let me call your attention to two things.

First, check out Mesa Water’s new logo on the podium (and on the right). All of us at Laer Pearce & Associates are proud of the work we did helping to usher in the district’s new name, new logo and new branding strategy. I’m particularly proud of the logo – doesn’t it look fantastic? It’s bright, it beautifully symbolizes the flow of pure, clean water, and it embodies the district’s brand as a forward-looking, fiscally responsible water provider.

Some anti-desalination activists, who routinely target Mesa Water because of its leadership in efforts to improve the regulatory process for new desal plants, have attacked the district and this firm for this rebranding work.  Such criticism comes with the territory, but in reality Mesa Water is very fiscally conservative, with the lowest expenses per capita of any district in the county, and we are very careful to keep spending down when taxpayers or ratepayers are footing the bill. Under Stacy’s direction, we succeeded in moving a new name and new logo through a divided board of directors for a price that’s just a fraction of what such an effort would cost a corporation.

Second, note that Stacy is holding my book Crazifornia, and is saying wonderful things about it to the audience. I think she probably sold a few copies that night – so thanks, Stacy!

Mesa Water’s Excellent Rebranding Program

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.

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.”

(more…)

Millennial Tweet

Laer Pearce & Associates’ Twitter feed on water-related items, @LPAWater, just got its 1,000th follower.  (Actually, it now has 1,001 followers, but that would make headline writing more complicated.)

We’ve learned some lessons along the way.

  • Tweeting can be good for business.  We have one new water client from our tweeting – without those tweets, we would never have met each other.  And we’ve helped a number of water districts develop their social media strategies.
  • Tweeting can be good for your brand.  A state senator recently told me he loves @LPAWater’s tweets, and at this week’s ACWA conference, many folks complimented me on @LPAWater.  Our followers include many clients, potential clients and water industry opinion leaders.  What does that mean?  It means people recognize that Laer Pearce & Associates stays on top of water issues and has a fun time doing it – which is exactly what we want our brand to communicate.
  • It’s not easy being “Tweet.”  Our @LPALand and @LPAGov Twitter feeds never found an in-house champion (ahem!) like @LPAWater did , so they’ve languished, with 200 and 156 followers respectively.

@LPALand will eventually find its pace, I’m convinced, but in retrospect, we probably launched @LPAGov before we should have.  Yes, we follow government stuff as closely as we do water, and yes we want to expand our brand recognition in that portion of our practice.  But there are so many questions about our ideal position in that segment that it’s never been clear enough what should be tweeted at @LPAGov.

On the plus side, at no cost, Twitter showed us an area where we have some branding work to do.  That’s one of the wonderful things about social media – you can experiment, adjust and improve without have to throw away 1,000 brochures that no longer mesh with your identity.

As one of Orange County’s leading public affairs communications firms, our own experience with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media has helped us to realize the good, the bad and the under-realized power of the phenomenon, and that’s made us much better at designing social media strategies for our clients.

Watered-Down Truth

It’s interesting that the Natural Resource Defense Council’s blog is called “Switchboard,” since switchboards use electricity, and electricity is, you know, destroying the planet.  Be that as it may, the blog is often a source for remarkably thoughtful dissertations from an environmental perspective, so I read it regularly.

Today, however, Switchboard switched me back to the Cold War, when the Soviet propaganda machine was churning out half-truths nonstop.  How can one forget the Pravda headline about a baseball game that said “Soviets come in second, US next to last,” without mentioning only two teams were playing?

NRDC staffer Doug Obegi is at the same game with his post today,Important Facts for Today’s Congressional Hearing on California Water Supply.” His use of the word “facts” might as well have a big red star on it, for it’s a very loose interpretation of the whole concept of truth.  (For a more balanced report on the hearing, read this Fresno Bee article.)

Here’s his first “fact:”  “ESA protections have had no impact on water allocations this year.”  That’s like saying it rained a little after Noah built his ark.  The 2010-2011 rain year was one of the wettest in history, with nearly 80 feet of snow falling in the Sierras, so more than enough water is flowing through the Sacrament0-San Joaquin Delta to allow the pumps to run, despite Endangered Species Act protections on Delta smelt and salmon.  It wasn’t that way last year and it’s not likely to be that way next year.

Besides, it’s only April of “this year.” Who knows where we’ll be in August or December?

Obegi also points to the “fact” that “Recently, lack of demand completely shut down the Delta pumps.”  Are we to believe that everyone in every Southern California metropolis suddenly packed up and moved to Pago Pago, Tahiti? That every farmer in the Central Valley decided that fallowing fields was the new way to sudden wealth?  Of course not – it’s the Noah’s ark thing again, showing the author is not afraid to make a dishonest point twice.

Then there’s Obegi’s argument that protecting the endangered species of the Delta protects jobs. That’s true – but just barely.  If one focuses only on the Delta, and only on the fisheries jobs in the Delta – a $250 million industry in the best of years – we can nod our heads and give Obegi a kudo.  But, pardon the pun, the Delta fisheries industry is small fry by California standards.  Pumping curtailments in 2009 and early 2010 caused billions of dollars in losses to Central Valley agriculture alone, and forced water users throughout much of the state to pay billions more for water due to rate increases.

There are many more similar corruptions of the public dialog in the piece, but I can’t end without bringing up Obegi’s characterization of the 2009 legislative water package.  Laer Pearce & Associates used our public affairs contacts and skills to shore up support for the package among the Orange County delegation, so we can take some credit in its passage – which is why Obegi’s characterization is so offensive.  Here it is:

California Law Requires Reducing Reliance on the Delta and Strengthening Environmental Protections

In 2009, California adopted a landmark package of water legislation, and established a state policy of reducing reliance on water exports from the Delta and investing in regional tools like water efficiency, wastewater recycling, groundwater cleanup, and stormwater capture. Instead of waiving environmental laws, this legislation strengthened environmental protections in the Bay-Delta. These policies are the cornerstone of a 21st Century water policy for California, and are the most cost-effective way for California to prepare for the next drought.

What the legislation actually required was recognition of the “co-equal goals” of, first, protecting and enhancing the Delta’s ecosystem and, first (since that what co-equal means), ensuring a reliable water supply.   He’s right that the legislation heightened protections on the Delta (so why is he so freaked out?), but he’s wrong in saying the environmental protections are the cornerstone of 21st Century water policy for the state. The cornerstone is the co-equal goals, and trying to pretend it’s otherwise is just like pretending the Soviet team came in ahead of the U.S. one in that baseball game Pravda covered.

Obegi should apologize to his readers for assuming they’re a bunch of rubes instead of well-informed citizens. And maybe the NRDC should commit to telling the truth instead of propagating propaganda.

California’s Universities are the Best

Finally, a survey has shown that through diligence, hard work and unending commitment, California’s universities – Berkeley in particular – are the best in the whole wide world.  Unfortunately, it’s for all the wrong reasons.  Here’s why:

The University of California, Berkeley, has been crowned top … of the world’s most environmentally friendly higher education institutions.

The “UI Green Metric Ranking of World Universities” is based on several factors, including green space, electricity consumption, waste and water management and eco-sustainability policies.

Based on research and surveys conducted by the Green Metric team at the University of Indonesia on thousands of other universities around the world, University of California, Berkeley, United States scored best with a points total of 8,213 and is the greenest campus in terms of its environment policy.

Berkeley got the title, but the award really goes to the entire UC system, the UC Board of Regents and the UC faculty as a whole, because the green policies established at Berkeley are not unlike those at all the UC campuses.  So it’s fair to say that California has the greenest public institutions of higher education in the world.

Now don’t get us wrong.  We’re all about green space, conservation and eco-sustainable policies.  Whether there’s a looming eco-catastrophe or not (we think it’s “not”), it makes sense to be good stewards of our shared resources.  No, the problem we have with Berkeley’s new glory is that it’s really just the outgrowth of the deeper commitment to environmentalist brainwashing education that goes on at UC campuses.  If it weren’t for Regents who have bought into environmental doctrine, a faculty that’s bought into environmental extremism, and a curriculum that ensures wave after wave of freshly minted environmentalist soldiers will be graduating every spring and going into battle for Gaea, Berkeley would not be at the top of the green university rankings.

It’s what I – Laer – refer to as California’s PEER Axis, standing for progressives, environmentalists, educators and reporters.  I wrote about it a few months ago in a well-read op/ed that ran just after the mid-term election on the national news website The Daily Caller:

While the established political parties and their consultants will ignore California and pore over campaigns in other states for clues on how to capitalize on — or crush — the Tea Party’s influence, the Left will be studying what happened in California, so they can replicate it the next time around. What they will find is not so much a magic formula but a vast progressive infrastructure they will then work to replicate elsewhere.

I call this infrastructure the PEER Axis, for the progressives, environmentalists, educators and reporters who collectively run California and influence the underpinnings of America. The PEER Axis remains powerful because politicians and political movements may come and go, but government bureaucrats and regulators, environmentalists and social justice activists, and their supporters in education and the media are pretty much forever. The structure of California ensures that appropriately indoctrinated college graduates will continue to fill the personnel pipelines that run from Berkeley, UCLA and other liberal universities straight into the progressive movement.

Many end up in government offices in Sacramento, where they write policies that are parroted in other states around the nation, as evidenced by the fact that the federal government is following California’s lead in setting the next round of vehicle fuel economy standards. Others will go to work at California’s giant environmentalist organizations, social justice NGOs and activist law firms, or the powerful public employee unions. Some will stay on the campuses, turning out future generations of progressives and writing studies to reinforce and justify progressive government policies, and those who graduate into the media will publicize these efforts and belittle any contrarian thinking. Many will find jobs in California’s foremost culture-bending venture, Hollywood, where they will pummel all the world with green messages (The China Syndrome, Avatar), anti-corporate tirades (Metropolis, Wall Street), anti-war propaganda (Apocalypse Now, In the Valley of Elah) and movies challenging conventional values (Milk, Juno).

Wherever they end up, they will be greeted by like-minded alumnae ready to show them the ropes so they, too, can form and implement policy, bring lawsuits, and mold the next generation.

In my 30 years as an Orange County and California public affairs specialist (maybe even a guru, now that my hair is gray), I’ve watched the PEER Axis in action.  It has transformed California from a state that spawned great private enterprises and embraced needed public infrastructure into a state that could easily win the same award Berkeley just one, if such an award were given.

Defeating the PEER Axis isn’t an option I see playing out in my lifetime, so I’ve made it my work, and my agency’s work, to win skirmishes, shine a spotlight on their activities and in so doing, dull the edge of their blade. Care to join us in the good fight?

Woe, the Hapless Journalist

There was a day when they made movies about heroic newspaper journalists and got heart-throb actors like Robert Redford to star in them.  Heck, there was even a day when a certain Krypton-wary superhero chose the journalistic profession as his preferred alter-ego.  Superman could have been anything as an alter-ego – who would have stopped him? – but he chose a fedora, a notebook and Perry White for a boss.

How the mighty have fallen.  A recent Wall Street Journal and CareerCast survey just ranked the 200 best and worst jobs based on based on income, working environment, stress, physical demands and job outlook.  Guess where newspaper journalists came in?  The top 50? No. The top 100? No. The top 150? No.

The bottom 12? Yes.  They came in 188th, between sheet metal workers and seamen, and within spitting distance of the worst job of  ‘em all, roustabout.

As a former journalist myself (albeit, one who was smart enough to flee the gig after a year), I can attest to the low pay of the job, and certainly the stress.  It’s not just the deadlines; it’s also having so many people becoming uncomfortable in your presence.  Stress does rank high in CareerCast’s assessment, but the negative job outlook for journalists has played a huge part in doing in the profession.

I for one am not happy about the fall of newspapers because, let’s not kid ourselves, newspapers always have been the best news source around, even if they tend to be sensationalistic, error-prone and bias-riddled.  Where are you going to go for news without ‘em?  Blogs? They don’t report; they get their news from newspapers. TV? Perish the thought! The Internet? Vast but iffy.

The sad reality is that newspapers failed more grandly in responding to the internet than Motor City failed in responding to Toyota, and for that, they’ve earned their current tenuous position.  I hope they figure it out and come back, but I’ve been hoping that for years.  The list didn’t include on-line journalist, unfortunately.  It would have been very interesting to compare the two.

How did public relations and public affairs fare in the survey, you ask? They don’t; they’re not included.  But let’s just note for the record that the extremely closely related job of philosopher came in 16th.