Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Public Affairs’

OMG! Texts R Public!

A judge in San Jose has ruled in favor of a community activist seeking to close what many see as a flagrant loophole in California’s public record act – the continuing privacy of text messages sent and received by elected and appointed public officials and public employees. Private email accounts were also included in the judge’s ruling.

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg ruled that “emails, texts and other messages sent to and from personal devices by Mayor Chuck Reed, council members and redevelopment officials about city business including subsidizing a development in San Pedro Square downtown on property owned by former Mayor Tom McEnery and his family” should be turned over to the activist who filed a Public Records Act request for them. Read the Contra Costa Times article here.

The decision doesn’t have statewide application yet, but it’s only a matter of time.  Public officials should not be caught short by this decision – it was bound to happen. California has a strong public disclosure tradition that has morphed over the years in include other emerging technologies – faxes, emails – so any public official or public agency employee who thought their text messages would remain out of the public view was short-sighted.

Our rule of thumb when working with public agencies is that any and every communication may become public, so every communication needs to pass scrutiny of the “What if this was on the front page?” sort. We advise others to take the same approach.

After all, the best way to avoid a crisis is to not do things that could cause one.

 

Is There Such a Thing as Spam? Not with Obama

Now that the election is over, the super-secret inner workings of the highly successful Obama campaign are becoming known, including the email campaign responsible for most of Obama’s $690 million in online campaign contributions. Public relations and public affairs folks – and anyone who uses email to reach target markets – should take a lesson.

Here’s your textbook: Joshua Green’s The Science Behind those Obama Campaign E-Mails at Bloomberg Businessweek. And here are the lessons:

1. Don’t fly blind

The appeals were the product of rigorous experimentation by a large team of analysts. “We did extensive A-B testing not just on the subject lines and the amount of money we would ask people for,” says Amelia Showalter, director of digital analytics, “but on the messages themselves and even the formatting.” The campaign would test multiple drafts and subject lines—often as many as 18 variations—before picking a winner to blast out to tens of millions of subscribers.

2. Take off your tie

It quickly became clear that a casual tone was usually most effective. “The subject lines that worked best were things you might see in your in-box from other people,” Fallsgraff says. “ ‘Hey’ was probably the best one we had over the duration.” Another blockbuster in June simply read, “I will be outspent.” According to testing data shared with Bloomberg Businessweek, that outperformed 17 other variants and raised more than $2.6 million.

3. Under-think the design

Writers, analysts, and managers routinely bet on which lines would perform best and worst. “We were so bad at predicting what would win that it only reinforced the need to constantly keep testing,” says Showalter. “Every time something really ugly won, it would shock me: giant-size fonts for links, plain-text links vs. pretty ‘Donate’ buttons. Eventually we got to thinking, ‘How could we make things even less attractive?’ That’s how we arrived at the ugly yellow highlighting on the sections we wanted to draw people’s eye to.”

4. Fear not

Fortunately for Obama and all political campaigns that will follow, the tests did yield one major counterintuitive insight: Most people have a nearly limitless capacity for e-mail and won’t unsubscribe no matter how many they’re sent. “At the end, we had 18 or 20 writers going at this stuff for as many hours a day as they could stay awake,” says Fallsgraff. “The data didn’t show any negative consequences to sending more.”

A caveat on that last one. President Obama has a wee tad more draw – both positive and negative – than the subject of most blast emails. You might want to dial back this advice from “nearly limitless capacity for email” to “a much greater capacity for email than you might think.”

 

Our Crumbling Water Infrastructure

The American Society of  Civil Engineers didn’t have much good to say about California’s water infrastructure in its recent report card on all the state’s civil infrastructure.  Here it is, from an ASCE news release:

Water (2012 grade: C)

“With regard to water supply, California is literally living off of the past and the tremendous legacy of the first Governor Brown. However, that is no longer sufficient,” said Meyer. While taking care to protect the environment, California needs more and upgraded water storage and water transport facilities. Public-private partnerships are particularly useful tool for delivering new water supply projects. “Not only is most of our water infrastructure old, it is no longer adequate to meet the needs of our current and projected population. If we are going to provide job opportunities for our young people, if our farmers are going to maintain the productivity of their land, and if our families are going to have enough water to meet their needs, we simply need more water supply.”

Levees/Flood Control (2012 grade: D)

Today’s engineers and construction contractors have much better tools and much more knowledge about levees, than we had when most of our levees were originally designed and constructed. Rather than wait for another life threatening disaster to happen, California needs to act now to dedicate an adequate revenue stream to get the job done. Not only is this essential for human safety, it will also be far, far cheaper to fix our levees in advance, than it will be to do major clean up and repair work after a disaster. “Most of California’s levees are old and have lost much of their original strength ability to hold back flood waters. The danger to California homes and businesses and human life is very real,” commented Meyer. “There is no excuse for failing to upgrade and strengthen our levees.”

At the local level, we think the “C” grade for water is too low.  Our many water district clients all are excellent at managing and maintaining their systems, as are most other independent water districts.  Some cities do have pronounced problems with aging water infrastructure, however, probably because city councils have used water revenues for sexier stuff that’s more likely to garner votes than a new pump or pipe.

Statewide, however, it’s another story.  We agree that we’ve been riding on Pat Brown’s back for far too long and it’s past time to address the need to upgrade California’s backbone water infrastructure.

Body Blows

The Susan G. Komen group sustained a bit of a body blow over the last week when it canceled funding to Planned Parenthood, then reinstated it, then fired an executive over all the embarrassments that ensued.  There’s talk of permanent damage, but if they hunker down, get a lot smarter and stay on their breast cancer mission, they’ll be OK.

Maybe the same can’t be said for global warming advocates, because a sustained barrage of body blows does a cause much more harm than a single blow, or even a triple blow, like Komen just felt.

The latest salvo against global doom prophets came today in Germany’s Bild newspaper (circulation, oh, about 16 million!), and in the new #1 best-seller in Germany, upon which the Bild story is based.  Since we don’t read German, we will borrow from a post on the No Tricks Zone blog, which specializes in reporting climate news from Germany, in English.

“THE CO2 LIES … pure fear-mongering … should we blindly trust the experts?”

That’s what Germany’s leading daily Bild (see photo) wrote in its print and online editions today, on the very day that renowned publisher Hoffmann & Campe officially released a skeptic book – one written by a prominent socialist and environmental figure.

This is huge. More than I ever could have possibly imagined. And more is coming in the days ahead! The Bild piece was just the first of a series.

Mark this as the date that Germany’s global warming movement took a massive body blow.

Today, not one, but two of Germany’s most widely read news media [The other was Der Spiegel.]  published comprehensive skeptical climate science articles in their print and online editions, coinciding with the release of a major climate skeptical book, Die kalte Sonne (The Cold Sun).

Germany has now plunged into raucus discord on the heated topic of climate change.

Die kalte Sonne is written by a Social Democrat/green activist who is credited as one of the fathers of Germany’s powerful green movement, teamed with a geologist/paleontologist.   That’s akin to a general defecting to the other side in the heat of battle.

Some numbers from the book:  800 sources cited, 80 charts and figures, 20,000 copies in the first print run … and most important, #1 on Amazon.de.

Expect the German environmental movement to throw everything they’ve got at this over the next few weeks, and then some.  Everything from alternative findings to character assassination will be used to tromp down the furor and assure the public that they still need to follow the rules and accept the high cost of fighting global warming.

The global warming activists will hold on for now, but the movement has to realize that when major news media turn against them, it’s akin to a major ally – not just a general – changing sides during a war.  They shouldn’t minimize the harm Bild, Der Spiegel and Die kalte Sonne’s sales will do to their cause.

Public Agencies and Public Relations

Should public agencies use public relations firms?

Recent publicity about a PR firm’s plans to promote the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies’ yellow call boxes (which aren’t used much anymore) would indicate the answer is no. The newly launched San Diego Watchdog column in the Union Tribune writes of the PR firm’s plan:

The marketing plan features a cookbook with on-the-go recipes. “Drivers are always concerned when traveling to parties about making dishes that will travel well in the car,” says the plan from [the PR firm].

It suggests Tupperware and Igloo ice chests with the call-box agency’s logo and a giveaway of a road trip, hotel stay and theme park visit.

For April Fool’s Day? “Have you pranked someone’s car before and have a photo of it? Show us! Only legal pranks please.”

The $130,000 marketing program is on the agenda Thursday for the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies board, which has come under scrutiny in recent months for storing millions of dollars of reserves even as the number of calls into the system plummets.

Update:  Just after we posted this item, the PR agency, which had been working for the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies since 2007, was canned.  Here’s the news item.

We confess at the outset we have little empathy for PR plans that require expensive give-aways like logo-adorned ice chests.  If you’re popping $20 or more for each decent ice chest you want to give away for free, how do you hope to get a positive return on investment?  Conversely, if you’re only proposing to spend $5 each for a cheap Styrofoam cooler that will fall apart the first time it’s used, how do you expect to communicate quality for your client’s brand?

But that’s not what bothers us the most about this proposal. It’s this: The client is dealing with criticism for charging too high a fee for a service that’s of too little use, and for holding too much in reserves.  How does this public relations proposal address the issues the client faces?  Simple: It throws gasoline on the flame with an expensive, out of touch program.

Consumer public relations firms, which often are overly driven by the need to be creative, are more likely to make a mistake like this than a public affairs firm like ours, because we are more attuned to public perception and more aware of downside risks.

Doing it Right

Please don’t get us wrong, though.  We believe public agencies are justified in using professional communicators.  In fact, because agencies typically deal with important civic functions (yellow call boxes notwithstanding) we think they frequently have an obligation to.

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.

More importantly, agencies need to listen.  As a strategic communications firm to several public agencies, we place the importance of incorporating “feedback mechanisms” into outgoing communications right below the need to make outreach programs goal-focused and measurable.  When incoming communications are a part of a campaign, they yield information that can be shared with the agency’s leadership, so they better understand the public’s perceptions, concerns and expectations.

A good communications consultant also will work hard to promote and ensure transparency.  A few years ago, we argued for our public agency clients to post board agendas and minutes, staff reports and budgets online for public viewing.  The practice is now the norm, and staff and board compensation information now also is available.

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 coolers with logos.  Is that where you want your tax dollars to go?

We didn’t think so.

Communications Lessons from Kim Jong Il

Our sympathies go to the North Koreans we’ve seen on YouTube bawling inconsolably at the passing of Kim Jong Il, their “Dear Leader.”  We truly hope some day they will have a chance to understand how duped they were by the man who drank $700,000 worth of cognac a year while they slaved and starved.

That said, we found out we do owe a debt to ol’ K Jong – he bequeathed the world with ten management secrets, detailed very humorously by Constantine Von Hoffman in Inc.  We were particularly amused by the dictator’s second secret:

Communication is overrated. He only made one broadcast to his nation. In 1992, during a military parade in Pyongyang, he said into a microphone at the grandstand: “Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People’s Army!” Even so, North Koreans wept on the streets like Elvis fans when they heard of his death.

As with all things K Jong, this management principle is just a tad extreme.  We recommend it only for leaders who own all the media outlets in their entire country and have legions of creative publicists inundating the entire populace with propaganda, like the claim he played a 36-under-par round the first and only time he played golf.

Most of us face a different reality, so it’s not likely our communications will have quite the effect Dear Leader’s had.  But still, there is something to be said about holding back the chief, so when he speaks he’s listened to.

We learned the power of this approach while ushering a very controversial project in Moreno Valley through seven Planning Commission and six City Council hearings .  The project manager, Steve Eimer, sat throughout nearly all of the 13 hearings without saying a word, always deferring to his consultants – until the last minutes of the last hearing.

Just before voting, the City Council added a new very expensive and utterly unreasonable condition to the project.   Eimer stood up, walked up the podium, waited to be recognized, and quietly said, “If you require that, we will not build the project.”

He returned to his seat without saying another word, and the City Council members started thinking about their re-election prospects if all the jobs and money the project would bring the city disappeared.  Then they quickly withdrew the provision and voted to approve the project.

So, yes, a few carefully chosen words delivered at just the right time can be very powerful communication tools.  K Jong got one thing right. But only one thing.

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.

A Missed Message

The folks behind the Sacramento Delta water conveyance tunnel have a new message out that has a familiar ring:  Jobs. Heard that much lately?

Drilling large tunnels to divert water around the Delta would create more than 129,000 jobs, almost all of them during the seven-year construction period, according to a recent analysis.

The report by a University of California, Berkeley, economist does not examine how the peripheral canal or tunnel plan might create or destroy jobs in other ways, such as the proposed conversion of tens of thousands of acres of Delta farmland to wetland habitat. (Read more here)

We’ve used that UC Berkeley economist, David Sunding, ourselves and we know his work is solid and these are numbers that will stand up, come testing time.

But there was a powerful and timely message missed here, and that’s too bad.  We’ve all heard stats recently about the cost per job of jobs created by the federal stimulus – from the hundreds of thousands of dollars each to over $1 million for every shovel-ready (or crony-ready) job generated.  A little quick math here – the $12 billion estimated cost of the tunnels divided by 129,000 jobs … wow, that’s just $93,023 per job, which is pretty darn cheap when you consider the number of attorneys that will be working on the project.

Lesson:  When talking about jobs generation, whether it’s about tunnels or anything else, dig a little deeper. Put the numbers in a context that’s current and more people will remember more of what you said.

Wholesale Species Listings Wholly Rotten

We never thought we’d write one of those sophomoric “What do X and Y have in common” leads, but never say never. Here we go:

Nevares Spring naucorid bug

What do the Amargosa tryonia, American wolverine, ashy storm petrel, Big Bar hesperian, black-footed albatross, Brand’s phacelia, California golden trout, canary duskysnail, Casey’s June beetle, cinnamon juga, disjunct pebblesnail, flat-top pebblesnail, globular pebblesnail, goose creek milk-vetch, knobby rams-horn, Lost Creek pebblesnail, Mardon skipper butterfly, Mohave ground squirrel, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, Mono Basin sage grouse, Nevares Spring naucorid bug, nugget pebblesnail, Orcutt’s hazardia, Oregon spotted frog, Pacific fisher, potem pebblesnail, Ramshaw Meadow sand-verbena, Red Mountain buckwheat, Red Mountain stonecrop, San Bernardino flying squirrel, San Fernando Valley spineflower, Shasta chaparral, Shasta hesperian, Shasta sideband, Shasta Springs pebblesnail, Sierra Nevada mountain yellow-legged frog, Siskiyou mariposa lily, Siskiyou sideband, Soldier Meadows cinquefoil, Sprague’s pipit, Tahoe yellow cress, Tehachapi slender salamander, Tehamana chaparral, umbilicate pebblesnail, Vandenberg monkeyflower, Webber’s ivesia, western fanshell, western gull-billed tern, western yellow-billed cuckoo, Wintu sideband, Xantus’s murrelet and Yosemite toad have in common?

Answer: They’re all from California – and they were all just pushed forward towards endangered species listings following smoke-filled-room negotiations between America’s premier environmental litigation mill, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. (We’ll leave you to imagine what kind of smoke filled that room … maybe it was Vandenberg monkeyflower smoke … maybe not.)

We are familiar with the Red Mountain buckwheat, San Fernando Valley spineflower and the Tehachapi slender salamander through our regulatory communications work. We are also familiar with the Endangered Species Act and how it’s supposed to work. This isn’t it.

The species are among 757 species pushed forward towards listings as a result of an “historic” settlement of one of the Center’s nearly countless lawsuits.  (Why do the big environmental organizations always say everything they do is historic? Are they seeking eternal purpose?) They call it historic; we call it mind-numbing and a travesty.

The Endangered Species Act has a process to be followed for petitioning for a species to be listed, and for the review of those petitions. The members of Congress who approved the Act never imagined such wholesale actions as this, brought about by legal strong-arming instead of scientific analysis.

The Service is supposed to make the decision whether or not to move a species forward towards the listing process based on scientific findings presented in the listing petition, not litigation. Affected parties are supposed to weigh in on the petitions as interested parties – but were they in the smoke-filled rooms? No.

The CBD has become very adept at forcing these sorts of actions, which remind us of the mass weddings the Rev. Moon puts on – sure the numbers are impressive, but how deep is the knowledge all those brides and grooms really have of each other? How deep was the knowledge the Service’s negotiators had of the 757 listing petitions before them? How could they be at all familiar with the immediacy of the threat to 26 birds, 31 mammals, 67 fish, 22 reptiles, 33 amphibians, 197 plants and 381 of those cute and cuddly invertebrates spread across all 50 states?

Clearly, the listing petitions didn’t get the attention they deserved, and the public didn’t get the process it is entitled to under our Constitution.

Do we think the Endangered Species Act to ever be implemented through a rational, science-based, fair process? No. We’ve been called upon because of our regulatory communications and public affairs expertise to promote several ESA reform efforts over the years and we know what it’s like to bang our heads repeatedly into a Sacred Cow.  Still, it would be nice if the most egregious excesses in its implementation, like today’s example, would go extinct.

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.