Clarity Blog

Clarity Blog

Posts Tagged ‘public relations’

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.

“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.”

Fukushima Fear-Mongering

If there’s one group in America that lives by Rahm Emanuel’s axiom that one should never let a crisis go to waste, it’s the media.

With the nuclear plant accident at Fukushima, the media have two choices: They can use it as an event to teach readers about radiation and risk, or they could use it to drum up readership.  They largely see the two as incompatible, so with some exceptions, they have gone with the latter, publicizing every finding of trace radiation and using terms like “hellish” when referring to the Fukushima site.

When you have the facts – something even more powerful than nuclear fuel – the behavior of the media is regrettable.  Fortunately, some outlets have provided us with good facts. We quoted an LA Times piece earlier about radiation, risk and fear, and the Washington Post ran an excellent story about how NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, has been the voice of calm through the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima incident.

Not so the Post itself, which has a lead story today, Chernobyl, a warning for Japan. In stark contrast, an excellent article in Reason, Nuclear News Meltdown, gives us reason to question the basis of most mainstream media coverage of Chernobyl or any accident at a nuclear plant.  It tells us:

In 1987, one year after the Chernobyl accident, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) compared media coverage surrounding the disaster with scientific opinion on nuclear power. News coverage at the broadcast networks, news magazines, and leading newspapers treated Chernobyl as a disaster for nuclear energy in the United States as well.

By a 3-to-1 margin, news stories concluded that a Chernobyl-style disaster was likely to occur in the U.S. Among sources identified as scientists, those who called U.S. reactors unsafe outnumbered those who called them safe by a 3-to-2 margin. (For example, a scientist on the CBS Evening News delivered this soundbite when asked about nuclear safety: “Anything that can melt down possibly will.”)

Conversely, a CMPA survey of 580 scientists randomly selected from the listings of American Men and Women of Science (the “Who’s Who” of the scientific community) found that those who rated a Chernobyl-type accident as improbable outnumbered those who rated it as probable by a 4-to-1 margin, and those who regarded U.S. reactors as safe outnumbered those who found them unsafe by the same 4 to-1 margin.

Can you conclude from this that the media were profoundly biased in their selection of sources?  Maybe.  More likely, the evidence would show that the well-oiled public relations machines run by anti-nuclear organizations were much more adept than the nuclear science community was at getting sources in front of the media, and the media was profoundly lazy and unprofessional in not aggressively seeking out alternate views. The evident bias in the media coverage may not have been so much in the news coverage itself, but in the selection of sources they used to relay the story.  There’s a lesson in there for public relations and public affairs professionals: Don’t expect the media to come to you, no matter how expert you may be … especially if you’re working for someone other than environmentalists, liberal activists, trial attorneys or Democrats.

Of course, some reporters are more obviously biased, like those who write the OC Watchdog column and blog at the Register.  They have posted a total of nine negative stories on nuclear power since Japan’s earthquake, quoting suspect sources like the Union of Concerned Scientists and legislators promoting anti-nuclear bills. But when your next performance review hinges on the number of comments your posts have received, as is the case at the Register, wouldn’t you opt for sensationalism, too?

The difference between being biased in selection of sources and just being biased is subtle and the end result is identical – a populace that can’t be counted on to make the right decisions because they’ve been shielded from relevant information and swayed by the most sensational of all journalists – the headline writers.  As America faces the critical issue of how we will generate the energy we need, the media has done yet another disservice to rational thought, and rational thought is the linchpin of a successful democracy.

Unsubscribe Fail

A company called Grass Valley appeared suddenly in my email in-box a while back, uninvited – and increasingly unwelcome over time.

Grass Valley apparently does something or other for videographers. What exactly I don’t know and don’t care since it’s not my business and I never asked for their emails.  So today, after receiving a few of their e-blasts, I scrolled to the bottom and looked for “unsubscribe.”  I was given two options, writing to them (!), or “click here.”  Would anyone ever write a company (44 cents plus stationery and time) to unsubscribe from their unsolicited emails?  I don’t think so.  so I clicked the link.

That took me to a page where I had to confirm that my email address was in fact my email address.  If I’m clicking from an email in my in-box, why do I have to confirm this?  But to unsubscribe, I had to press on, so I did.

That took me to a screen that said an email was being sent to me to verify my email address.  Is my subscription so urgently needed by Grass Valley that they have to ask me to go through this step?  I don’t think so.  But as I became increasing sick of these guys – and curious about how bad their unsubscribe process would become – I pressed on yet again and opened the email.

It included a link to click to – gulp! – update my profile.  I hate that.  I want to unsubscribe, not update anything.  But like Byrd pursuing the South Pole, I pressed on and clicked.

That took me to a three step process. The first asked me to verify my subscription information.  I skipped it – I’m not verifying anything to these guys. I just want out!

Step two was user preference, giving me the opportunity to subscribe to four different communications from them (they’d thoughtfully already subscribed me to three of the four) plus lots of other stuff.  I tried on my iPhone to unclick the three they’d subscribed me to, but no dice. So I went on to step three, finish, but they had other ideas about that.

When I tried to open the “finish” window via Safari on my iPhone it wouldn’t open it, demanding instead that I go back to step one, verification, and provide my office phone number.  Fat chance!  I gave up at that point, frustrated and angry.  Later, at the office on my desktop, then went through the entire process again. This time it offered to let me unsubscribe, which I did, by unchecking a box next to some copy about accepting their terms and conditions and promising them my first born if I ever did anything to violate said terms and conditions.

Ten minutes of my life had just been wasted by people I never invited to communicate with me, who had nothing to say that interested me and nothing to sell that I would ever buy.  If I ever do go into videography, I can unequivocally promise you that the one company I won’t buy from is Grass Valley.

So here’s the point:  When someone wants to unsubscribe from your mailing list, let them do it easily, with no more than one click.  If you want to open a window after they’ve unsubscribed giving them the option to tell you why in order for you to improve your service, that’s fine.  But if you require anything more than a single click, you are coming off as an obnoxiously unrelenting sales person, not someone who cares about customers and prospects.

An Unfortunate PR Lesson Emerges in the Desert

Amid the dark cloud of horror and sadness that engulfed our nation upon last weekend’s unspeakable tragedies in Arizona, there lies a glimmer of pride.  Chaos had erupted and a nation sat on the edge of its seat, eager for even the slightest tidbit of news.  In the blink of an eye, Tucson had become the center of the universe, and the University of Arizona became the public face of one of the most gripping news stories in recent history.

It’s not every day a university’s public relations department manages communications for a crisis of this magnitude.  Every media outlet in the nation simultaneously descended on the U of A, which was thrust into the spotlight because many of the victims of Saturday’s attack, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, were being tended to at the university’s medical center.  With the whole world watching, U of A’s PR team masterfully managed a torrent of information (and disinformation), and executed a crisis response that has impressed an entire industry of its peers.

Around-the-clock press conferences.  A dedicated news wire.  Constant twitter updates.  And a team of all-star doctors equally adept at addressing the media as they are at saving lives.

As an alumni and former employee of the U of A public relations department, I couldn’t be prouder.  (If you saw our recent bowl game, you’d know we haven’t had much to be proud of lately.)  Especially when compared to the efforts of the Pima County Sherriff’s Department and the un-corralable rantings of its top cop.

I’m also proud because, as a veteran of many crisis situations, I understand the challenges U of A’s PR team faced and know that it did things the right way.  It was able to respond so quickly and successfully (on a Saturday morning no less) because it followed rule number one of crisis PR:  Be Prepared.

In my time on the U of A PR staff, planning was a key component to everything we did.  Its current PR team had a strategy mapped out well in advance for incidents just like this and many others…and it showed.

U of A’s motto is “Bear Down.”  Kind of fitting given the performance of its leadership in recent days.  It’s also a great bit of advice for the rest of us PR pros as we lament dusting off our crisis communications plans.

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.

It’s a Wet La Nina

This chart shows rainfall as of 8 p.m. yesterday at the Costa Mesa measuring station. The dotted red line is the long-term seasonal average, and the blue line represents season-to-date rainfall for the 2010-2011 rain year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.  As you can see, we’re already just three-quarters of an inch behind the average rainfall for an entire year – and it’s only December … and it’s still raining.

It’s obvious that we’re in the midst of a “wet La Nina” year, which leads us to many ponderings.

First, why do reporters insist on thinking La Nina years will be dry and El Nino years will be wet? That’s a trend, for sure, but if there’s one thing any reporter should know, it’s to ask questions and not assume trends will repeat themselves.  A modicum of research would show plenty of precedents for years that went the other way.

Second, we always wonder about the effect of wet years on California’s heated water politics.

Since the water bond was proposed in 2009, we’ve now had two years of relief from drought.  That means very little in the larger picture, especially since we still have reservoirs to refill (including Lake Mead, which recently dropped to its lowest elevation since Hoover Dam was built), but people tend to be more willing to spend money on water supply when the well’s running dry.

Will the wet winter make it harder to pass the bond if it returns to the ballot in 2012?  We realize that the state’s fiscal condition will be more important than rainfall levels in most people’s minds, but wet winters certainly won’t make the campaign any easier.  Still, the messages in support have the advantage of being true:  A wet year is an aberration; we have to plan as if we were going to have dry years. Supporting construction of an new, sustainability-based water infrastructure for the State isn’t just necessary, it’s the environmentally right and economically right thing to do.

Third, as a public affairs firm here in Southern California that has written probably at least ten thousand words promoting water conservation, we worry that this wet December will cause people to get sloppy about their water use.  To them we say, striving for efficiency in your water use is something that should become a lifestyle commitment, something you do without thinking because it’s important for the health and well-being of our society.

Lastly, I have to admit I’ve also been thinking about the bozos who installed our landscaping at our home.  Our undersized and poorly placed drain pipes allow water to seep in around the side door of our garage whenever it rains like this – and last night, as I stood barefoot in the cold water, sweeping it down the sidewalk towards the driveway and the rain gutter, I admit the thoughts I was thinking about those landscapers weren’t exactly alive with the Christmas spirit!

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.

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!