Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘PR’

Happily Leaving the Agency Model Behind

In 1982, I went into business as a solo consultant with a big mission statement: To do important work for important clients.

Guided by that mission, I set about building one of the largest public relations firms in Orange County. When that was done, my wife/CFO Beth and I transformed Laer Pearce & Associates into the most successful public affairs firms in California, achieving the best win/lose record you’ll see anywhere: 71-4.

Then, in 2011, we set a new goal: To successfully transition back to my roots in solo consulting. Because we did it with client service and our employees in mind, it took us several years to accomplish, but we did, and we discovered something interesting:

As exciting and fulfilling as this transition is for us, it’s even better for our clients.

That’s because the agency model is no longer tenable due to the spiraling and uncontrollable costs employees add, like health, unemployment and Workers Comp insurance premiums, the employer’s share of Social Security and so much more.  The only way to completely protect clients from these ever-increasing costs is to stop having employees. Fortunately, technological advances open ways to continue to deliver strong client service on projects large and small.

That means the focus of all my working hours (and there are a lot of them!) is on my clients, and assures you, my clients, that you’ve got me working on your account. With all those binding agency structures gone, now  you can use me precisely how and when you need to in order to achieve your strategic objectives.

Sure, I’ve liked the “Associates” part of  Laer Pearce & Associates – they’ve been an outstanding bunch! – but not nearly as much as I’ve valued the deep and positive relationships I’ve built with my clients by consistently exceeding their expectations.

So, here I am, three decades later, still doing important work for important clients – and having more fun than ever doing it!

The Election – Gee-Whizzer Edition

Say “gee-whizzer,” and most old-line journalists and PR folks will know what you’re talking about. It’s a way of presenting facts, particularly numbers, in a way that gets readers’ attention – so much so they say “Gee Whiz!” – and that helps them to retain the information.

Today it would probably be called  “something meme-able” or “something viral-able.” We prefer gee-whizzer.

ENS Resources, a DC lobbying firm, issued a 2012 election results update this morning with so many gee-whizzers we wonder when their staff slept. Here’s the set-up:  At all levels of government, candidates and SuperPACs spent $6 billion on the November election, and for just the presidential race, they spent $2 billion.  How much is $2 billion? Ah, that’s a question that invites gee-whizzers, and according to ENS, it’s enough to buy:

  • Approximately 3.5 million shares of Apple stock
  • 40 private islands
  • Six Airbus A380 jets
  • An Ohio Class submarine (Definitely what we’d buy!)
  • The college debt of 153,846 students graduating from public universities
  • Or, if given to UNICEF, vaccines, pharmaceuticals, medical supplies and equipment, nutritional supplements, mosquito nets, water and sanitation tools and educational supplies for billions of people in impoverished nations.

As for the election itself, it was anything but a gee-whizzer for California businesses. At this writing, with many absentee ballots still to be counted, it appears the Democrats will hold super-majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. That means tax increases can be passed over Republican objections, and businesses are a popular target of California tax increases.

Nationally, Democrats will have trouble finding a mandate, but in California they’ll have no such trouble. They picked up seats and they largely got their way with ballot propositions. That means no signals were sent by the electorate to cut back on anti-business policies and regulations.

For more on California’s sad state, read Crazifornia, by our founder and president, Laer Pearce. Called “the most insightful book on California’s perilous condition – ever,” it provides insights on how California got the way it is, how bad exactly it’s become, and what the prospects are for redirecting the state.

Crazifornia is an Amazon #1 best-seller (21st Century history) and is receiving mostly 5-star (highest rating) reviews on Amazon.

You can purchase a copy on Amazon or read about more about the book at


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.

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.

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.

“Turn Off the Water When You Brush” Just Ain’t Enough

All around California, updated Urban Water Management Plans (UWMPs) are appearing, as required by state law.  Here’s the lead of a news story that ‘s typical of many we’ve seen in the last few weeks:

LAKEWOOD – The city is reminding residents to stop watering sidewalks and conserve water for outdoor irrigation in an effort to meet the state’s 2020 goal of 20percent water reduction.

Conservation was part of the message at Tuesday night’s City Council’s meeting, where the council approved the Urban Water Management Plan Update 2010.

The updated plan is required every five years by the state and includes plans for water supply, water shortage contingencies and achieving the state’s goal of 20percent reduction in water use by 2020.

Of necessity, the “20 by 2020″ water conservation goal (and its companion “15 by 2015″ goal) from 2009′s epochal water legislation is at the core of all new UWMPs, and it seems the plans’ authors have rounded up the usual suspects when discussing how they’ll achieve those goals:  Incentives, seeking funding for new conservation-oriented programs, education and outreach.

To which we say, great, nice start, and good luck with that. You’re going to need it.

It’s not that those sorts of efforts haven’t proven effective. They have. We know because we’ve helped many districts communicate programs like that.  It’s just that more will be needed. As the headline says, alluding to the most famous of the old way of promoting conservation, “Turn of the water when you brush” just ain’t enough.  Not enough people will listen, fewer still will change their habits, and even if they did, not enough water will be saved.

Let’s get more aggressive

We’ve been thinking about new ways to attain the sorts of water savings that will have to be achieved to keep water providers out of the penalty box when 2015 and 2020 roll around. They include:

  • Re-think the water bill - We’re most excited about the missed communication opportunities on water bills, especially ebills.  Bills are the one document customers read regularly, but they’re a confusing mess and a messaging nightmare. We’re developing some great new ideas – let’s set up a meeting with your billing service.
  • Coalesce and conquer - Ever heard of an advertising coop? It’s when a bunch of businesses, like the individual car dealers in an auto mall, join forces to buy more ads than they could ever buy on their own. We have developed ideas and themes that a “communication coop” of several water providers in a region could mutually hit a home run with.  Who’s going to step up to the plate?
  • Water budget based rates – Yes, this is a really big idea and you’d have to start  now to get them in place in time to get some years under your belt before the deadlines hit. So get started – and let us help you manage a successful Prop 218 campaign, as we’ve done for many water providers. In district after district, the penalty rates for excessive water use have educated customers more about what constitutes an efficient level of water use than a blizzard of statement-stuffers ever could.
  • Expanded programs - The new money that comes from those penalty rates can fund an unprecedented level of conservation outreach, including rebates, audits, consults and new communications tools … like the new bills we want to help you develop.

Unlike much of what comes out of Sacramento, California actually needs the 20 by 2020 goals the Legislature set for us.  Of course, the Legislature didn’t give you the tools or money to go along with the mandate, so it’s going to take a real commitment and really creative thinking to meet the goals. Let’s talk.

Bin Laden Gives Us a Crisis Communications Lesson

Osama bin Laden took an immeasurable amount from America, so it’s paradoxical that in his death he actually gave us something valuable – besides the value of the joy we have in him being dead, that is.

The valuable lesson he gave us is this: In the ongoing story of the significant  inaccuracies in the White House account of how the raid was carried out, we see clear justification for the most basic strategy we employ when counseling clients who are in crisis – don’t say anything that hasn’t been verified as true.

In a New York Times article dissecting the communication embarrassments that have dogged the administration since the raid, a military spokesperson is quoted saying, “Everything we put out we really believed to be true at the time.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with crisis communications: What you think is real may turn out not to be real at all.  You think your plant operators followed safety procedures before the explosion, but it turns out that’s just what they said they did and the real picture is something else entirely.  You think the company’s HR policies align with the law, but it turns out the laws have changed. You think your CEO is an upstanding citizen, but it turns out he’s been hiding a securities fraud conviction.

And of course, there are no vacuums in crisis situations that allow for the leisurely gathering of information; instead there’s always a loud chorus of demands for this answer and that statement before this deadline or that broadcast.  Spokespersons are being hounded to provide answers, as the Times article makes clear:

In the view of officials from past and present presidencies, it was a classic collision of a White House desire to promote a stunning national security triumph — and feed a ravenous media — while collecting facts from a chaotic military operation on the other side of the world. (emphasis added)

We in public relations are often frustrated in our desire to respond to the ravenous media because attorneys want to go over every single detail from seven different perspectives before allowing information to be released.  We are right in our desire to get the information out, because the court of public opinion convenes long before any court of law does.  But, as the White House is learning, we’re also wrong when we push out the news too quickly.

In the case of the Abbottabad raid, it’s evident the White House would have been better served by doggedly sticking to a narrow statement, no matter who much the media howled.  The world would have gone on spinning (an action entirely unrelated to White House and Pentagon press secretaries spinning) had the only message to the press corps been, “Osama bin Laden and two or three others were killed in a raid by Navy Seals in Pakistan yesterday. There were no injuries to American forces.  We will provide more details after the brave members of the assault team have been debriefed.”

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.

BP and PR

As PR pros, of course we’ve been thinking a lot about the demise of the Deepwater Horizon and the ensuing performances by BP, the administration and everyone else who’s trying to make a point out of the mess.

We like the fact that BP is letting us watch the crude gush out 24/7 (today we’re watching the Remotely Operated Vehicle) and we think its dedicated website is an example of state-of-the-art transparency, but we certainly don’t think much of a CEO who says he wants to “get his life back” after an environmental disaster of this magnitude.  His subsequent apology, like all apologies following gaffes of this magnitude, was inadequate.

We think the president should have visited the Gulf Coast over the Memorial Day weekend, so he could have spent a lot of time talking to people who are trying to stop the gush, and the people whose livelihoods are threatened by it.

And, of course, we’re appalled that knee-jerk environmentalist nay-saying is holding up needed efforts to protect the environment, like Gov. Bobby Jindall’s proposal to build off-shore berms.  Cynics among us might even think for a moment that they’re trying to make the disaster get worse so they can use it to leverage future regulatory campaigns.  But of course, that’s just from the cynics among us …

What we find most interesting is the media’s failure to put the disaster – bad as it is – in perspective.  Our friends at Briscoe Ivester & Bazel recently did just that:

The blowout at Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico has now surpassed, in volume of oil spilled into the marine environment, the grounding and rupturing 21 years ago of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska. So reported the Wall Street Journal and other news services May 28. The nation’s press has run to its morgues to exhume accounts of the Valdez grounding and spill. Forgotten, though, is a much larger spill … Mexico’s Ixtoc I. Ixtoc I was, like Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig moored in the Gulf of Mexico, in that case about 600 miles south of the Texas coastline. It exploded June 3, 1979 for reasons similar to the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Ixtoc spilled 10 to 30 thousand barrels of oil a day into the Gulf until relief wells permitted the capping of the broken well almost 10 months later. More than five million barrels of oil spewed from the Ixtoc’s broken wellhead into the Gulf during those months. That amount was 20 times the oil spilled in the Valdez incident.

We hope Deepwater Horizon is capped long before it reaches anything even close to the magnitude of the Ixtoc I spill.  That said, when was the last time you read something about the lasting environmental impacts of Ixtoc I?  Have you ever read anything on the subject?  Well, we have. Here’s the final report prepared by the Feds after thoroughly studying the impact of the 11,000 metric tons of Ixtoc I (and Burmah Agate, another spill) oil that hit the Texas coast. The conclusion:

Petroleum residues attributable to the IXTOC and BURMAH AGATE spills were not identified in the surficial sediments of the study area. Analyses of several water column samples did indicate the presence of IXTOC oil in suspended sedimentary material. Shrimp tissue analysis results identified the presence of petroleum in chronic low levels, but only one sample was linked to IXTOC residues.

No direct links, based on fluctuations in benthic community parameters (abundance and diversity) identified in a comparison of 1976-1977 data with 1980 (post-spill) data, could be made with the IXTOC and/or BURMAH AGATE, spills.

In other words, despite all the hue and cry, all the hand-wringing, and all the condemnation of fossil fuel dependency, the long-term effects of a spill 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill led to nothing more than life as usual with marine creatures and those of us who like to eat them from time to time.  (It took us about 23 seconds to find the federal study, by the way.)

Facts do have a funny way of overpowering perceptions, don’t they?  Unfortunately, facts can get as lost as a clump of crude in a sea of emotions.

Laer Weighs in on the Future of Public Relations

OC/PRSA future of PR panel

Panel poses with Laer's (center) scientific model to project the future of the industry... a smiley face

Today we take a break from the goings on with issues that matter to you – water, over-regulation, land use policy – and address the state of our industry, public relations.

A study was recently conducted by the Orange County chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (with a helping hand from Laer Pearce & Associates) that looked at the state of the PR industry in Orange County. Like all industries, PR has been hit by The Great Recession, and the survey’s findings confirmed it:

  • Decision-makers are relying more heavily on PR, which often happens during downturns as more expensive communications tools like advertising get cut
  • Still, budgets and staff for PR are being cut
  • Hiring is still a concern. Most are not planning on hiring new staff
  • Social media has had the highest increase in use, followed by Web site and email communications
  • Community relations and direct engagement is also on the rise
  • Advertising and printed collateral saw the greatest decline in use
  • PR Professionals are cautiously optimistic, with at least half forecasting moderate growth in 2010.

Laer is recognized as a thought-leader in the local PR community, so he was invited to speak on a panel to discuss these results and the future of PR. A few of his key points were:

“Don’t try to make the case that PR is necessary. That’s a losing proposition.  Instead, create a scope that fits the client’s specific needs and make a case for why it meets the client’s strategic objectives at a price that brings value.”

“Everything is getting faster and more complicated, so there will always be a need for good public relations professionals who can help sort through the clutter and help your message be heard and understood.”

The conclusion of the study and panel discussion was clear: PR pros need to do more with less. We actually find this very comforting, because that’s the way we’ve always done it. We pride ourselves on being good stewards of our clients’ resources, adding value through our knowledge of the industries we serve, our relationships within these sectors, and a history of completing campaigns on time and under budget. Recession or not, it’s been our model for nearly 28 years and we have no plans on changing!