Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fixing a break

Utilities are one sector of the U.S. economy that seem to constantly struggle with reputation.  Service interruptions. Rate hikes. Allegations of over-paid workers.

Is reputation maintenance a losing battle?
LATimes: The broken water main near UCLA

Because they provide much-needed services to, well, almost all of us (there are those who are "off the grid"), utilities are constantly on consumer's mind.  We scrutinize our water and power bills on a regular basis. We need trained workers to turn on our natural gas if the service is interrupted.  If we don't pay for these services, these utilities will shut them. If a supply interruption occurs somewhere else in the world, the shortage means higher fuel costs in winter.

Then utilities get hit by a catastrophe.  Storms knock down power lines. And, as was the case this week in Los Angeles, underground pipelines rupture.

Havoc ensues, and the no-win game of perception vs. reality begins.  The news media feeding frenzy begins. Leadership is questioned. 

This week, a 3-foot-diameter water main ruptured under a major thoroughfare. Before it could be turned off, an ocean of water flowed into the nearby UCLA campus and flooded buildings, a revered basketball stadium and parking lots.

Within the first hour of the rupture, the city water utility came under instant attack from local talk radio stations and from other news media for the perceived slow response of utility crews.  Reasonable explanations were not believed.  Snarky attacks came from all corners.

Why? There are two possible answers.

1.  Studies are showing a disturbing trend:  Utility reputation continues to erode, in part by rising rates and bigger profits.
2.  Expectation.  In today's speedy world - from instant access to information to online shopping - consumer patience is razor thin.  The "assumption rate" that solutions can instantly appear is rising at exponential rate.

Utilities need the trust of their customers - if only to reduce the rancor when rate hikes are proposed, or in the case of publicly held companies, to prevent stockholder revolt.

Large municipal-run utilities such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power have been on the defensive for decades. (In the case of LADWP, one can start with its rough beginning - aka "Chinatown" - and look to today with customers receiving $5,000 water bills because of glitches with its new computer program).

Authenticity Gap

They do try to make things better. 

Utilities do make some attempts at building trust and reputation - through community programs, improved customer service, etc.  But these small efforts do not build the necessary foundation to create wholesale swings in sentiment.

As Richard Mullinax at FleishmanHillard and others have pointed out, utilities must focus their reputation-building efforts at those areas in their operations and overall "presence" with the biggest authenticity gaps, and not spend any more time in areas where they have earned success.   

Understanding the gap begins with research.  In my experience in working with and for utilities, many assume they know their customers (because they deal with them every day). But those who have conducted attitude research invariably find underlying sentiments they never new existed.  What research usually shows is that a visible action or negative response from a customer may have been fostered or created from an entirely different issue - and may have been festering for some time.   

Strategic public relations is all about understanding the audience, and developing a comprehensive plan to reach these audiences in the way they want to hear you. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Carrot or Stick?

Motivating changes in public behavior is tricky.  Especially when the effort is handicapped by mixed messages.

California, it appears, is fed up with asking...and now is moving to a punitive effort to prompt its 38 million residents to be more serious about saving water.

State officials are close to allowing water districts across California to impose $500 daily fines on the worst water offenders - those who still waste water during the worst recorded drought in the state's history.

Up to now, the governor and others have asked residents to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent. It's a hefty, but not impossible task for individuals to cut back 700 gallons a day. 

But so far, the best anyone can do is 7 percent. 

As reservoirs keep dropping and with no rain in sight for months, California decided to take the next step and force change through financial hardship.

Water officials know the final trump card in the water conservation game plan is pricing (and mandatory restrictions).  

But are residents at fault for not saving more water before now? Are residents simply being lazy?

Not entirely.

The state's water agencies received a wake-up call when the last big drought hit (from 1986 to 1991). They scrambled to build dams and additional storage because they knew it would happen again and they didn't want to come up short-handed with water for their customers.

Now, the next big drought is here and....these added reservoirs (and a whole lot of water-efficient toilets and other devices in homes) are making a difference.

When the official "drought" was declared earlier this year, and the governor asked for a voluntary 20 percent reduction - residents also heard a competing message from some water districts. It essentially was: "We've got this."

The message: We have enough water to get us through this year. Worry, but not too much. 

Even with advertising campaigns, public outreach efforts, and images of cracked earth on billboards - residents did not answer the call in dramatic fashion because they were told early on to relax. No mandatory water restrictions were in place for most urban areas. 

This was serious - but not urgent enough to take serious action. Californians were not prepared to let their lawns turn brown. 

In recent weeks, researchers have been probing Californians to figure out what will motivate them to save water in more extreme amounts. (As it, let's get more serious).  The results are showing up in a $5 million advertising campaign in Southern California - which focuses on protecting the state we love. Using humor, the radio, TV and web banner campaign should get people's attention - if only to remind them to remain diligent.

Yet, as more of California experiences the worst of the worst drought conditions (dark red circles on the drought map), other public-motivation tactics will likely be required. 

Plenty of studies show that consumers will curtail purchases or reduce an activity when the price/cost goes up.  Higher gasoline prices mean a decline in consumption. A higher electric bills usually prompts homeowners to turn off more lights and reset their air conditioning thermostats.

The same holds true for water.  Conservation-based pricing is currently used by dozens of California water agencies - and most, if not all, of these agencies report "water-efficiency" improvements among customers. 

If you see you are paying a "penalty" for using too much water, you likely will take specific steps to be more efficient.  That's motivation to fix the leaking toilet, finally adjust the sprinkler timer and don't leave the faucet running when you are brushing your teeth or washing your hands.

So which is it?  Can social change occur through public relations, or do we achieve real action through punitive measures and threats? 

Yes to both, but only in extreme circumstances and when the message is clear. 

Well-designed communications efforts clearly demonstrated that you can obtain some social change.  However, a 7% voluntary reduction is only slightly better than a previous water-saving campaign conducted during a non-drought period in California.  It is entirely reasonable to conclude that a larger water-saving percentage could have been achieved if the message was more serious at the beginning.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The love of a good story

In case you haven't noticed, the story about companies, places and people is about THE STORY

Telling a good story (after making sure you HAVE a good story), is the current mantra of communications professions. 

Why? People love a good story.  People have a much easier way of connecting to someone or a business if that person or company has a good story to tell.

Over the next 45 days, we should get a lot of great stories from one of the best arenas for great stories - sports.

In my former life as a newspaper reporter, we "hard news" reporters were jealous of the sports writers.  They seemed to have more freedom with prose. Some of the best writers at newspapers are sports writers.  But, they also had great subjects (more on this later).

Over the next several weeks, it will hard to escape the great stories that will come from:
  • The Indianapolis 500 car race (with one driver attempting to also drive a stock car race that same day)
  • The potential of a Triple Crown winner in California Chrome at the Belmont.
  • The playoffs in the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League.
  • The start of soccer's World Cup.
  • The US Open Golf championship.
For public relations professionals, this should be an opportune time to study how to create a good story, and how the media flocks to a good story. 

A little "reverse engineering" will be in order. Some of it is basic journalism and story telling.All of it will be a fantastic opportunity to study the art of "connecting with" and "captivating" an audience.

Here are  look for:

Start with the character
As a journalist recently told me: most news organizations love to tell a story through "a good character." This usually means someone who stands out or represents the story. 

Today, it is hard to miss that "issues" - from health care, to taxes, to immigration - are being conveyed to us in newspapers and on TV through real live human beings. Issues (and products) impact us, so why not find that ideal candidate who represents the issue of the day? 

Sadly, in this era of immense litigation and corporate branding, companies too often fail to find someone who is not a company employee and let them be THE STORY about their business. Companies are too caught up in creating a "feeling" about their product or creating message points to defend their issue, when their case can better connect with their audiences through a "live body." 

So, the key question here is:  How can you tell THE STORY of your company without profiling people other than the CEO? 

Find the conflict or the struggle
In sports, it's about the struggle.  It's the "back story."  When the Winter Olympics occur, we are glued to our sets when NBC profiles an athlete.  "...she came from a small town where on weekends, she picked corn and at night, she practiced her skating for four hours in a dimly lit rink...." 

If life was easy, it'd be boring.  People want to know how these athletes overcame adversity, how much work they put in to get to where they are.

I can relate
Obviously, the athletes we will hear about over the next two months are exceptional.  They are not us because we are not competing at that level.

But we had dreams. 

We had parents who trucked us to endless soccer practices. We may have friends who earned sports scholarships because they excelled both in the classroom and on the field.  And these friends never forgot where they came from.  Forget the ego-driven athletes - we'll pass over those stories in a nano-second.  We need humility.

Advertising tries to do this by putting "everyday" people in their spots.

Now, how can we translate these pillars of a good sports story into a public relations-driven effort for our clients?

Some of the most ideally suited "characters" to tell a story about your company are using your product.  This effort, however, has to go beyond the lazy tactic of letting customers write their own testimonials on a review site or the company's Facebook page.

It is harder to cultivate a customer to rise up and share all the details of their live and their experience with your product or service - and in a way that doesn't look contrived.  Heck, it's hard to find that compelling story in the first place.  The truth is that it will take 99 interviews before you find THE perfect one.

A back story may not be about your company or product.  It is, after all, about the person.  Some leeway must be given to let the story have a few chapters that don't relate directly to your company or product.  This can be the most frightening part of the exercise because of the possibility of a person going "off message" or the back story becoming more interesting that how your company's service or product changed this person's life. A typical customer can't be media trained in one day. 

Even if the main focus of your connection with this customer starts taking a back seat in a news story (but you still have a positive mention of your product or service), that's OK.  At the end of the day, there is still a connection between "cool, interesting person/story" and your client. Goodness will rub off.    

Why we care
Once the "story" is told through the customer, now is the time to bring in your own personal "back story" from the company's perspective.  Let employees or managers talk about how they came up with the idea for a new product, how a "team" came together to brainstorm a new service, how an employee used his/her own family experience to make improvements. 

Employees are people, too.

So, turn on the sports channels and break down the human drama before you.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Missed opportunity

The 20th anniversary of the Northridge Earthquake has received what I would label as "modest" news coverage and attention.  Check: Make that "pathetic."

Remembering one of the biggest, most destructive earthquakes to hit California since the 1906 San Francisco killer (3,000+ died)  was a huge opportunity.

But, alas, that opportunity has come and gone.

If you ask the majority of the nearly 22+ million who live in Southern California about the Northridge quake, they may have some faint memory. Even among those who lived in the San Fernando or Santa Clarita valleys, or whose lives were disrupted because the Santa Monica Freeway was broken - they have put this quake in the lock box.   Ancient history.

What is was the missed opportunity?  A chance to compel people to be prepared. 

Some studies suggest that 40 percent of Californians are prepared for an earthquake.  First, I wonder how they define "prepared." But far worse: That means 6 our of 10 people are NOT prepared.  These are the folks who will come knocking on your door for food and water, placing an extra toll on emergency crews, jamming cell phone service (if it's available), etc.

In public relations, we know the difficult task of prompting people into action, especially when it comes to earthquake preparation.  Counties and cities do spend a scant amount of money annually to conduct campaigns.  However, "success" in these campaigns is measured with a low benchmark. I may draw some mean looks from my colleagues when I say this, but any participation mark lower than, say, 30 percent is, in my view, too low.  Set the bar higher.

Did news coverage of the Northridge quake prompt anyone to check their earthquake preparedness?  Probably not, since most of the coverage was focused on people's recollection, new earthquake standards and what governments are trying to do to create new building codes. There were a  few exceptions.
Our earthquake scientists used the opportunity to highlight the remaining problems, and, yes, the LA mayor did announce an effort to further prepare ourselves for the next one.  But, again, public attention to these "announcements" was scant. 


Timing and opportunity are everything in getting people to act.  An anniversary is a HUGE opportunity to go into over-drive on publicity, marketing and public relations. With focus on the anniversary comes a rare chance to flood multiple communications channels and launch multiple campaigns to get people to take precautions.

Why?  Behavior models will show you there are five steps to influence behavior - from the initial efforts to get attention to your issue, to getting people to recognize the issue matters to them, to prompting them to find out more about what you are talking about, to actually taking action.

The first few steps are crucial and is the equivalent to waving a hand in someone's face.  "Hey, over here.  I've got something important to tell you.  Yes, you.  Yes, it's important.  No, it will only take a second..."  Then, it's still a challenge to get them to take action. 

Consider your own reactions when you are leaving the grocery store and a signature gatherer asks you to support a ballot initiative. Your time is important, so do you really want to spend five minutes listening to this guy explain WHY this is an important issue?  And, then, if you are willing to stick around for this, do you take the next step to actually SIGN the petition?

The expected news coverage of the anniversary would have taken care of step one in this persuasion model. That is, now, an opportunity that has come and gone.  By this weekend, we'll be more concerned with a three-day weekend, the NFL playoffs, the weather or (as I write this - CA's drought declaration).  Our next opportunity will come with the annual "great shakeout" in October.

When there is silence on a topic, there is complacency. If we think we're safe, we relax. Just ask Japan.  Did more people get flu shots in recent days - only because we heard about people dieing? Why were these folks NOT motivated in the fall when the annual "flu shot" message was being given?

So, if you live in SoCal, just do yourself a few favors - Today, or at least on your day off Monday. 

Stock up on some canned food and non-perishables. Buy a few cases of water.  Know how to turn off the main gas valve. Strap a few things down or secure large cabinets to the wall. Review the family plan. Make sure you know who to notify.  Candles and flashlights. Fresh batteries.  A simple medical kit with plenty of antiseptic. Heck, go ahead and get a fire extinguisher.  Follow this guide.

We're WAAAY overdue.