Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Public Affairs’

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.

Messaging That Isn’t All Wet

The grass isn’t greener in Sacramento

The long-awaited and often-delayed California water bond is one of the primary agenda items during the brief mid-summer legislative session in Sacramento. Before August 31, two-thirds of the Legislature must agree to a new bond, or to remove the old bond from the ballot. If they don’t, the old $11.14 billion water bond will go on the ballot with Gov. Brown’s active opposition, and will almost certainly be defeated.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, purveyors of what’s second only to air for 19 million Southern Californians, definitely has a dog in this fight, and that dog has a very well-constructed bark: MWD’s messages regarding what they’d like to see in a water bond are clear, straightforward and strong.

In the interest of recognizing good messaging, here it is:

Water Bond Priorities
Restoring Delta, Reducing Reliance, Statewide Improvements

Public water agencies and business organizations from throughout California that receive supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta are united in their support for a comprehensive Water Bond that achieves the co-equal goals of restoring the Delta and providing reliable water supplies statewide. 

Delta Restoration – Critical for California’s environment and economy
•  
Must provide significant funding for public benefits associated with habitat restoration
•  Must provide significant funding for voluntary flow purchase programs to improve fish conditions

Department of Fish &  Wildlife – Best agency to oversee restoration funding 
•  Has decades of experience facilitating and managing habitat restoration
•  Already subject to direct oversight by Legislature
•  Has successful track record and institutional infrastructure in place to facilitate and manage habitat restoration.

Delta Conservancy – Not best agency to oversee restoration funding
•  Has no experience facilitating or managing habitat restoration
•  Primary focus on economic sustainability could conflict with restoration objectives
•  Five board members represent counties opposed to Bay Delta Conservation Plan, one of the most promising and comprehensive restoration plans in the nation designed to achieve co-equal goals.
•  Habitat restoration projects should be funded based on scientific merits and public benefits, not local politics
•  Was never intended to be sole agency for reviewing or implementing habitat restoration in Delta

Reducing Future Reliance on Delta through Development of Local Supplies 
•  Must provide funding for urban conservation, recycling, groundwater remediation, desalination, watershed management and stormwater development
•  Must provide funding for on-farm efficiency, system improvements and increased groundwater storage
•  Local matching funds should be required, as appropriate

Statewide System Improvements 
•  Must provide funding for public benefits associated with surface and groundwater storage
•  Projects must openly compete for bond funding
•  Local matching funds should be required, as appropriate

That’s it, and that’s about as good as it gets. Why? First, MWD  has taken one of the most controversial and complex issues in California and boiled it down to one page. Then there’s the clear statement of purpose below the headline, which focuses the discussion back at the basics, the co-equal goals. After that comes a structure makes it very easy to get to the topic of the moment, with each bullet presenting a single point as a fact, unencumbered by partisan rhetoric.

Whatever your position on this (and if  you don’t have a position, don’t worry – you’re like almost everyone outside the water wonk community), you should see this as a model of good messaging.

Masters of Development

The top 50 masterplanned communities in the United States were just announced by John Burn Real Estate Consulting, and I’m extremely proud to have had a hand in the success of numbers 2, 20, 22 and 23 – which together provided 2,539 new homes to families last year.

The Irvine Company was #2 on the list.  I’ve done a lot of work for this visionary company over the years, including helping to secure the approval of Turtle Ridge and winning some of the fundamental regulatory victories that made much of Irvine possible. (See #22 below for more on this.)

Number 20 was Valencia (“Where Awesome Lives“), developed by Newhall Land/Five Point Communities. Besides PR assignments for Valencia, I was deeply involved in securing the approvals for Newhall Ranch, which should be joining the top 50 masterplanned communities in the near future. (That link, by the way, takes you to the website I developed for the project several years ago.)

Coming in at #22 was Rancho Mission Viejo‘s new Ranch Plan communities. For over a decade, I worked with Rancho Mission Viejo, The Irvine Company and others to create the solutions to  endangered species and wetlands issues that helped make hundreds of communities across Southern California possible while preserving hundreds of square miles of valuable habitat.

Just behind at #23 was Kennecott’s Daybreak in Salt Lake County Utah. My assignment here wasn’t the usual regulatory heavy lifting – instead, I helped create the marketing vision and language for all of Kennecott’s proposed developments. It was one of the most creative and satisfying tasks of my career.

I’m also thrilled to see Shea Homes, Pardee Homes, William Lyon Homes, DMB and Brookfield on the list. They have all been great clients at one time or another (and I’m currently working on exciting projects with Shea and DMB), but I can’t claim credit for working  on the masterplans that are on this year’s Top 50 list.

Maybe their next ones ….

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!

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!

Overthrow the Master Bedrooms!

Political correctness has struck again, and homebuilders best take notice. It seems the long-used term “master bedroom” isn’t just racist, it’s sexist. So says the Baltimore Business Journal:

Not that kind of “master” suite!

The “master suite” is being phased out — not from our homes, but from our lexicon.

A survey of 10 major Washington, D.C.-area homebuilders found that six no longer use the term “master” in their floor plans to describe the largest bedroom in the house. They have replaced it with “owner’s suite” or “owner’s bedroom” or, in one case, “mastre bedroom.”

Why? In large part for exactly the reason you would think: “Master” has connotation problems, in gender (it skews toward male) and race (the slave-master).

This strikes us as OK if a little silly. Not as silly as “mastre bedroom,” but silly nonetheless.

If you, like we, don’t want all sorts of N-words, J-words, W-words and S-words (we’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks) being thrown around, you’ve got to accept that the PC Loons will determine a whole host of words are offensive. Having just watched “42″ and squirmed through the scene where the Phillies manager berated Jackie Robinson with a host of nasty racial invectives, we’re glad we rarely are exposed to such deliberate demeaning of others today. So OK, “master bedroom” it’s not.

But it’s silly because the suggested alternatives, owner’s suite and owner’s bedroom, are just as likely to be attacked by the PC crowd as master bedroom.

For starters, there’s that tricky apostrophe. “Owner’s” suite says we’re single or don’t think much of our mate, both of which, if not true, are offensive. “Owners’” assumes two owners, and that’s … what … singlist? It certainly would make this single parent uncomfortable, if we were a single parent, which we’re not. How could we be if we are “we” all the time?

And then, Mr. Homebuilder (or Ms. Homebuilder, or Mr./Ms. Gender-Questioning Homebuilder), are you implying that one mate “owns” the other, or “owns” their kids? If you use that, you’re demean whomever the owned party is, making you a sexist and a … what …  childist? And you’re a classist, too, because saying that we “own” that room obviously is just a code word for disparaging renters and hating the homeless.

Perhaps homebuilders can resolve this quandary by calling it Bedroom #1. No wait. That’s childist, isn’t it? Why should the parent’s/partners’ bedroom rate higher than the child’s? And if Grammy has moved in, then you’re ageist, too.

How about “the larger bedroom with the walk-in closets and the bigger bath?” Yeah, that should do it. If there’s not enough room on the floorplan for all that, just put TLBWTW-ICATBB. Wait. That could get you in trouble with dyslexics.

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.

New Senior VPs and a San Diego Office

Laer Pearce & Associates has opened a new office in San Diego, and has promoted Scott Starkey and Ben Boyce to Senior Vice Presidents. Both were previously vice presidents.

“We are very optimistic that under Ben’s leadership, we will become one of the premier public affairs firms in the San Diego market,” said Laer Pearce, president. “Ben is a San Diego native with strong connections in the business community there, and we see a strong desire among our potential San Diego client base to have access to a local firm with our strategic approach and tested capabilities.”

Starkey has been at the Laguna Hills public affairs firm for 12 years. He focuses on communications and outreach programs that help the agency’s homebuilder and land development clients achieve regulatory approvals.

Boyce, who has been with the agency for 11 years, recently opened the firm’s San Diego office. He works with water industry clients to help them realize their public communications goals, and also serves land development clients.

Laer Pearce & Associates specializes in outreach, coalition-building and regulatory communications, and also serves business-to-business clients in the land development and water industries. Its record on public affairs campaigns is 67-4, the best of any public affairs firm in California.