Saturday, November 28, 2009

Muddy waters?

Public disclosure and public relations can and do co-exist. But in recent examples and with another "big game" at stake - the matter is not resolved by any stretch.

The health care debate has cast attention on deception and "front groups" created by the health care, insurance or pharmaceutical industries. A prominent public relations executive detailed at the 2009 PRSA conference why he left a cushy insurance industry job for this reason.

The next ethical spotlight could very well be cast in California in 2010.

California water wars are notorious. As soon as a drop falls from the skies and lands in the Golden State (as well as other Western states), it is "game on" for control.

California is "water rich" in the north and "people rich" in the south. Hence, the need to build canals to send water hundreds of miles from mountains and rivers to population centers. The most notable skirmish is the city of Los Angeles' epic takeover of Owens Valley water rights (as portrayed in "Chinatown").

Numerous books have been written about how various parties - from the state's large farming concerns to urban water agencies to well-organized environmental groups - wage intense, high-priced battles over this precious resource. I once worked for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which was created to build and manage a 200+ mile pipeline to transport water from the Colorado River to one of the largest populations in the world.

This year, California's lawmakers passed a series of monumental bills designed to protect the major faucet in our our massive water system - the Delta.

This was big. This was huge. It's been more than 30 years since acts of similar magnitude were accomplished.

Passage came after major political battles. I mean, major political battles. This column can't adequately summarize the extent of these multiple negotiations except to say that anytime you mix legal rights (like property rights), the country's biggest agriculture concerns, some of the most cunning environmental groups, millionaires, lawyers, lobbyists, the governor, public affairs strategists - each with their own agenda to carry - it is, well, manic and complicated. Trades and favors are exchanged in mostly painful ways.

California's water picture involves a mix of public relations, public affairs and lobbying. And, money. Water is perhaps one of the most complex issues in California.

Given the stakes, many public relations and public affairs firms in CA have been called upon to develop and implement various campaigns.

Now comes an article from an independent news organization about "front groups" apparently created and managed by public affairs firms or similar interests. A few "Friends of the.." popped up in the latest CA water battle. This is old stuff in California. With this state's predisposition for legislation through ballot initiative, we've seen these "Friends of..." or "Citizens for...." groups suddenly emerge to support their side of the issue. Heck, voters in California will see four or five "firefighter" organizations endorsing ballot measures or candidates. Firefighters consistently earn the most trust among citizens, so their endorsements are continually sought. But it's now difficult to figure out which firefighter group to follow.

While not new, front groups can pose issues in terms of public disclosure or creating public confusion. The Public Relations Society of America has guidelines, ethical standards and periodic bulletins that practitioners should follow when conducting business on behalf of a client, company or organization.

One thing should be clear: A public affairs firm or public relations agency is best suited to develop and manage an issues campaign.

In most cases, a firm is hired by an existing organization and there is no question whose side is being promoted. But in cases where multiple entities or individuals have a "case" to make and no organization exists, a "Friends of.." group is created. Or, call them "front groups." Now comes the tricky part in terms of disclosure - and the source of the recent news examination as to who funds these groups and their true intentions.

"Pop-up" groups that don't fully disclose their financial supporters or intentions cast an unwanted negative shadow over the other organizations that do disclose. They also can "muddy the waters" in a legitimate debate of the issues.

As the media director for a CA ballot initiative in the 1990s, I made it clear who I represented and their financial support. Once I disclosed this with reporters and editorial boards (and disclosure was made upfront), I was able to have a better discussion of the issue with news organizations. I believe our honesty - combined with a well crafted campaign - earned us points at the polls.

As 2010 approaches in California, we now brace for more "pop-up"groups to form in the debate over an $11 billion bond measure to fund major water projects in the state. Yes, I said "$11 billion." On the ballot in November 2010.

This is the final piece of the massive battle over how to fix the state's water system. With this kind of money at stake, it's easy to conclude that my public affairs colleagues will be gainfully employed next year.

Already, we have seen some groups forming their opposition to the measure, or using the bond issue to redirect public debate toward their issues. Strategies are being formed. Money collecting has begun to pay for advertisements and public affairs strategists.

Confusion is ahead. Scare tactics are inevitable.

The question relevant to the public relations profession and the hundreds of public affairs professionals doing business in CA is whether all front groups and organizations provide full disclosure. It would be sad if an agency or strategist is gambling or taking a calculation: Either that mainstream news organizations no longer do this kind of investigative reporting or, even if they do publish a "money trail" article, no one cares.

The CA electorate - and the public relations profession - will be better off with full disclosure.

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